Monday, December 28, 2009

The Team That Got Away From Benitez

As Liverpool's season descends terrifyingly closer to oblivion, the Anfield blame game promises to be as fearsome as anything seen on the pitch this season.

In the red corner there's Rafa Benitez's loyal followers, who argue lack of funds and years of incompetence in the transfer market have caused the backward steps since last May.

Hidden in their own corner of Texas and Montrael are Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., who insist their manager has been backed to the hilt financially during their three year tenure.

And somewhere caught in the middle are the vast majority of Liverpool supporters, screaming in frustration and demanding collective responsibility for the demise of their club.

Emile Heskey is the latest high profile name it's claimed Benitez won't be able to add to the ranks due to lack of funds.

He'll join an ever expanding list since Benitez arrived.

Sport of the World looks at the team that got away - the players Benitez tried - and failed - to recruit, and those he's let slip through his grasp.

NIKOLAY MIHAYLOV: The Bulgarian Under-21 keeper signed in 2007 only to discover he was ineligible.

LUCAS NEILL: Benitez failed with a £2.5m bid to Blackburn in 2006.

NEMANJA VIDIC: Vidic chose Man United in January 2006 and Liverpool bought Daniel Agger for £7m instead.

MATTHEW UPSON: Benitez hoped to lure £10m-rated Upson from Upton Park last summer only to discover the kitty was empty.

GABRIEL HEINZE: Liverpool failed in a court attempt to force United to sell them Heinze in 2007.

DANIEL ALVES: Alves was a target while at Seville, but his high valuation meant they had to settle for Jermaine Pennant.

GARETH BARRY: It was the saga of the summer in 2008. Aston Villa's refusal to budge on an £18m asking price scuppered the deal.

AARON RAMSEY: Liverpool wanted the youngster but Arsenal pounced for the £7m Cardiff star.

SIMAO SABROSA: Benfica called off the £9m deal in 2005 when their fans threatened a riot.

THEO WALCOTT: Benitez tried to sign Walcott with Peter Crouch in 2005. Southampton demanded a £12m package and Walcott headed to The Emirates.

EMILE HESKEY: Now at Villa, there's no chance he'll return to Anfield during this transfer window.

SUBS: Florent Malouda, Kakha Kaladze, Nolberto Solano, Stelios, Michael Owen and David Silva.

Alberto Aquilani Aiming For Italy Place In South Africa

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani has revealed that he is still planning on being on the plane for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and hopes Italy coach Marcello Lippi has not forgotten about him.

"I never stopped thinking about the World Cup. I did so even when under the knife," the player who spent months on the sidelines, told Sky Sport 24.

"I have an excellent relationship with the Nazionale coach, but I know I've lost a lot of time. I'll try [to regain my place], because it would be really important for me."

The 25-year-old made his first Premier League start since joining the Reds from Roma this past summer, in a 2-0 victory over Wolverhampton.

"The team does not deserve it's current low standing. We've had difficulties, but we will come out of this," he continued.

"On my part, I am happy because I had been out so long. It's important to play, so I can get back to my best condition. I have a good relationship with [Rafa] Benitez and even my team-mates, champions like [Fernando] Torres and [Steven] Gerrard, who welcomed me and helped me merge into this group."

Aquilani has 11 caps and two goals for the Azzurri during his career.

Torres To Quit If Reds Don't Make Top Four

Fernando Torres’ long- term loyalty for Liverpool is being stretched to its limit with the club battling to keep him beyond this season.

Rafa Benitez has already turned down a £70million bid from Manchester City for his star striker.

Chelsea also had an approach for Torres rebuffed last summer, with the player uninterested in leaving Anfield at the time.

But both City and the Blues are preparing renewed offers.

Torres has consistently committed himself to the Liverpool cause but that is conditional on the club proving they can fulfil his ambitions.

The Spaniard has become troubled by the shambolic events on and off the pitch in recent months and is seeking assurances the club will sort themselves out before the start of next season.

Torres left his boyhood team Atletico Madrid because they could not match his Champions League and trophy- winning dreams.

Liverpool's alarming slump is leading him to a similar situation where his heart is at his current club but he may be forced to move on.

Failure to finish in the top four and the continued presence of the current hierarchy would mean only blind faith could keep Torres at Anfield.

He recently signed a lucrative new deal but money is not his motivation.

Both Torres and skipper Steven Gerrard want to know if the club are likely to find the resources to undergo another major overhaul of the squad before next season.

Although Gerrard will also have no shortage of admirers this summer - especially if he enjoys a sparkling World Cup - the England midfielder is loathe to go through the same experience as he did during his on-off moves to Chelsea.

But that will not stop a mega-bid from Real Madrid, Barcelona or Inter Milan - even though all three have been rejected by Gerrard during the last two years.

If the Liverpool captain feels his club will continue to be in the same catastrophic mess when he returns from South Africa, he might decide he has had enough.

With guarantees of a brighter future in woefully short supply, the grimmest of campaigns is on the threshold of getting even worse without leadership from the top.

Benitez faces two pivotal fixtures over the next fortnight which will determine if his guarantee of a top-four finish is realistic and will ultimately decide his fate.

His side travel to Aston Villa on Tuesday and welcome Spurs on January 10.

If the deficit between Liverpool and their top four competitors has increased after that, Benitez's hopes of surviving beyond May will deteriorate.

The Kop boss accepts expectations have increased since last season's title challenge and he can only envy the levels of patience and understanding on offer to rival boss Martin O'Neill.

"When you are coming from a lower position, the motivation is high and it's easier," said Benitez.

"The expectations at this club are such that everyone thinks we should be in the top four. We know we have the quality to do it.

"When I joined the club, they were finding it very difficult to finish in the top four. Then we qualified for the Champions League five years in a row which was a really good achievement and it meant we were at a different level to other clubs.

"Now people expect we should stay there. But it's always difficult to make that last move to close the gap at the top. It depends on the structure of the club, money and everything.

"To control all these things is difficult and you can't make mistakes. This year, we have made mistakes. Now we have to do things properly to prepare for the next challenge. I'm not sure if Villa are the biggest threat as City and Spurs are also dangerous. But the main thing is to improve ourselves.

"By winning games in a row, we will be more confident."

Among those in the Villa ranks is full-back Stephen Warnock, who was released by Liverpool for £1.5m in 2007 but cost O'Neill £7m last summer.

Benitez is not surprised by the Scouse left-back's impressive form which earned him a recent England call-up.

But he defended his decision to sell the defender.

"He could have been a good player for us but he wanted to play every single game," said Benitez.

"We had Fabio Aurelio and, at the time, John Arne Riise who was a fantastic player for Liverpool. So we couldn't play him every game.

"When you have a player on the bench who has an opportunity to go, you can't stop this. He was always a good worker and very competitive and that's why he's at the level he is."

For all the frustration at Anfield, Benitez is increasingly helpless in trying to carry out the surgery which his squad need.

The Spaniard believes he will not get any extra funds in January and cannot anticipate any cash injection on the horizon beyond May - even if he survives the current crisis.

He will use the transfer window to try to generate his own resources.

That means Anfield flops Andriy Voronin, Ryan Babel and Andrea Dossena will be offered to interested clubs.

"I won't talk about individual names but it's clear I need to manage my squad and some players will be thinking they need to move because they're thinking about the World Cup," said Benitez. "There has been some interest in players."

Babel has made it clear he wants out and favours a return to Ajax. He is also interesting Spurs boss Harry Redknapp, who first enquired about the erratic Dutch winger last summer.

Hitman Voronin is likely to head back to the Bundesliga where Hertha Berlin have been long-time admirers.

Greek side Panathinaikos have also shown interest in the out-of-favour striker, who has been cast aside since appearing in the crunch Champions League clash with Lyon.

Left-back Dossena is desperate to return to Serie A with Napoli.

But these departures are unlikely to generate more than £7m for the cash-strapped Merseysiders.

The moves certainly will not appease the unsettled elements of the Liverpool squad who fear the club faces the prospect of falling further behind their top four rivals, never mind catching Chelsea.

A target man is Benitez's main priority in January. But although many at Anfield believe ex-Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistlerooy could provide a short-term solution, Benitez still needs to be convinced because of the 33-year-old's injury record.

The problem he faces is a growing belief his entire squad will need restructuring before the start of next season. At the moment, he has no option but to try and apply quick fixes.

Carragher: Let's See Who Are The Liverpool Flops

Jamie Carragher has warned that only the strongest Liverpool players will survive their disastrous season.

The defender, 31, has watched Anfield wannabes come and go during his 15 years playing in front of the Kop.

And Carragher believes that it is only in the dark days that true Liverpool players show their real colours.

Manager Rafa Benitez has seen the club hit the lowest point of his tenure with Liverpool dropping down the table and already out of the Champions League.

Carragher (below) said: “Good players who have done well at lesser clubs have come here and not been able to deal with the pressure.

“When the dust has settled after a rough patch, the ones still here are the strongest players.

“You’ve got to be able to take the knocks if you’re going to play for Liverpool.”

Team boss Benitez admits he will have to clear some players out to fund his January transfer window targets.

The Spaniard is hoping to offload Ryan Babel, 23, Andrea Dossena, 28, and Andriy Voronin, 30, as he looks to generate cash.

Benitez said: “We know that we will have to manage the squad if we want to make some changes in January.”

Alberto Aquilani Is Still Improving - Benitez

Liverpool tactician Rafael Benitez has insisted there is still room for improvement from summer acquisition Alberto Aquilani.

The Italian midfielder showed glimpses of the passing and visionary qualities that prompted Liverpool to splash out £20 million for his services, after being handed his maiden Premier League start in yesterday's clash with Wolverhampton.

But 'Pool gaffer Rafa Benitez insists there's still more to come from the ex-Roma schemer, who he believes will flourish upon his adaptation to the Premier League's high-tempo surrounds.

"I think he was trying to find the right pass, he was trying to be involved," Benitez told BBC Sport.

"Still, he will need to improve his match fitness," he continued. "And also, the tempo of the Premier League is not basic.

"But he was trying and that's the main thing for us."

The Spaniard also urged the Liverpool faithful to remain patient with their new signing, reminding fans time is still the key antidote, especially after a injury lay-off as lengthy as Aquilani's.

"He will need time, it is a question always for everyone, [when] becoming fit, they need time.

"For someone that was injured [like he was], they will need time," the Reds boss concluded.

Benitez Hails 'Tough' Win

Rafa Benitez felt Liverpool were worthy winners despite scrapping to a 2-0 success over Wolves on Boxing Day.

The Reds boss shared a different view to opposing boss Mick McCarthy of the red-card incident which saw Stephen Ward sent-off for a second bookable offence with the score goalless.

The hosts went on to claim maximum points via goals from Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun but Benitez felt his side deserved the three points for their performance throughout Saturday evening's contest.

"We knew they would be tough," said Benitez of Wolves, who came into the Anfield clash off the back of recent wins against Burnley and Tottenham.

"They were working very hard. The sending-off I think was clear.

"We were more in control. We were in control at the beginning of the second half especially, but you have to score goals and finish the game.

"It was important to win and the first goal was really, really important for us. The second one was killing the game."

Saturday's win saw Benitez able to hand summer signing Alberto Aquilani his first Liverpool start in the Premier League and the Italian produced an assured performance, including a stunning ball to Benayoun in the second half.

But the £20million acquisition was hauled off towards the latter stages of the game and walked straight down the tunnel with fears that the midfielder could have picked up yet another injury.

But Benitez was quick to allay such fears adding: "We could see he was tired and we wanted to keep the tempo.

"After a long time of not playing 90 minutes it's important to give the player a rest."

It remains to be seen whether Aquilani will start Liverpool's next game in three days against high-flying Aston Villa in what proves to be a crunch clash in the battle for a top-four finish.

And the Reds boss is hoping his side can take confidence from their latest win in to Tuesday's clash at Villa Park.

"We know Aston Villa will be a difficult team so we will try to do our best again," the Spaniard concluded.

Morgan Blames Moores For Anfield Chaos

David Moores has been accused of triggering the Anfield chaos by 'putting his own interests before the club'.

Wolves owner Steve Morgan, whose side faced the Merseysiders yesterday, laid the blame for the current turmoil on Liverpool's Life President for selling to the American owners.

Morgan's efforts to buy Liverpool for £100million were rebuffed in 2004 before then-chairman Moores sold to Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr.

And the resentment between the former rivals is still simmering.

Morgan blasted: "I've no wish to get involved in a slanging match with David Moores, but the fact is he wanted the best for David Moores and not for the club.

"He was entitled to do that but it's his decision which has led to the situation Liverpool are in now.

"What I find unfortunate is I saw what could happen and predicted it. That's all on record at the time. You can't have that level of debt and move a football club forward.

"My fear is if they miss out on the Champions League they'll be even more short of money.

"The best players like Fernando Torres will want to leave. And even Steven Gerrard, who has given everything for the club for the last 10 years, will be considering his future.

"It was an emotional day for me to go to Anfield yesterday, especially with my son as a mascot, but I'm 100 per cent committed to Wolves now."

One of Morgan's backers when he made his bid five years ago was Anfield's new managing director Christian Purslow.

The Scouse-born Molineux chief reckons Purslow offers the best hope of resolving the on-going ownership crisis. He said: "Christian and I have been friends for the last six years. I remember he spoke very well at an AGM and we met up afterwards.

"From a business point of view, they couldn't have found anyone better to try and sort out their problems. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for them, except when they're playing Wolves, of course."

Moyes Plots Raid On Liverpool For Teenager

Everton are trying to snatch young star Adam Pepper from bitter rivals Liverpool.

The 18-year-old central midfielder was the most highly-sought schoolboy on Merseyside when he opted to join the Anfield Academy. But his opportunities have been limited since the restructuring of the club's youth system over last summer.

Now Goodison staff are hoping to lure the teenager across Stanley Park, with the promise of making a breakthrough under manager David Moyes.

The Toffees boss will be able to offer the teenager the prospect of a quicker route into the first-team and exact revenge on the red half of Merseyside after he was initially lured from Everton as a schoolboy.

Stoke City Eyeing Liverpool's Ryan Babel

British tabloid News Of The World has reported that Stoke City boss Tony Pulis has set his sights on an ambitious raid for Liverpool striker Ryan Babel.

The Dutchman has found first team chances increasingly hard to come by despite assurances from manager Rafael Benitez, and Pulis is claimed to be wanting to capitalize on the former Ajax ace's situation at Anfield.

Pulis is willing to throw in want-away striker James Beattie in any deal with the Reds, although it's said that Benitez would prefer straight cash as he looks to trim the squad, and in turn, accrue funds to ease the club's ailing financial situation.

Liverpool Planning To Offload Trio To Fund Moves For Carlton Cole And Victor Moses

Liverpool hope to offload Ryan Babel, Andrei Voronin and Andrea Dossena in the transfer window to free up cash for new signings.

Boss Rafael Benitez is hoping to move the trio on after fielding calls for the stars in recent weeks.

Babel is wanted by Bayern Munich, Dossena by Napoli and Voronin is interesting Panathinaikos, although Liverpool will have to take a hit on the £18million they splashed out to land the internationals.

Benitez wants the money to fund moves for West Ham frontman Carlton Cole and Palace winger Victor Moses.

He said: “We know at this time that we have to manage the squad and try and do some changes in the transfer window.

“Normally, players that are not playing will be looking at other options, especially with a World Cup coming up.

“There has been interest in some of our players.”