Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Youngsters Key As Benitez Plans Prosperous Liverpool Future

Rafa Benitez is planning for the Reds’ future, despite doubts over his Anfield future and says that youth development will be key to success.

Benitez has secured the future of important players such as Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard and hopes to tie up deals with Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano next month.

Liverpool boss Benitez said, "It was the idea last year to extend contracts,

"It is the same this year to guarantee the spine of the team is there and, afterwards, try to bring in some good players to hopefully improve.

"With some players we are looking two or three years ahead, you have to be ready and prepare more or less the squad.

"In terms of the first team, to guarantee the extension of some players is enough to bring in the right players.

"We are always planning for the future. You can make mistakes but at least you have a plan.

"So if we don't make mistakes in the transfer window or if the [new] players settle down with this group of players we have at the moment we will improve."

As part of the contract that Benitez signed last summer to keep him at Anfield, he will also oversee the entire youth development of the club. It is a critical part of Liverpool’s future success in the eyes of the Spaniard.

Benitez continued, "This is the first year I am in charge of the academy and we are trying to improve and bring players from the academy," he added.

"We need some time. The reserve team are doing well so these players will be the future of the club."

Return Of Injured Stars Gives Benitez Confidence Of European Success

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez was upbeat about the Reds’ chances going into Thursday’s Europa League clash with Benfica having seen the successful return from injury of Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson.

The Europa League represents Liverpool’s only remaining chance of silverware this season. They go into the quarter-final clash with Portuguese giants Benfica having beaten Sunderland 3-0 with goals from Torres and Johnson who have only recently returned from a spell on the sidelines.

With captain Steven Gerrard also coming back to form after a spell out, Benitez is happy with his options.

The Spanish boss said, "If they can stay fit I think it will be very important because you have more options,

"When you have two games a week it is important to have different players available so you can change the system and you can keep the tempo.

"It is really important to have Fernando, Gerrard and Maxi available.”

Focusing in particular on Liverpool's scorers against Sunderland, Benitez continued, "I can see Fernando is focused and he wants to do well. We are surprised sometimes by what he can do but my idea is that he can improve.

"He knows how to get better. Two goals and a great performance again against Sunderland is what the team needed.

"Johnson is an attacking defender and sometimes when you have the team playing well at home and everyone is going forward he can be a real threat.

"He had one or two chances against Sunderland and he was very dangerous down the right side."

Liverpool Line Up Summer Bid For Spanish Star

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has stepped up the chase for Athletic Bilbao midfielder Javi Martinez.

Martinez, 21, has been on Liverpool's radar for the past two seasons but Benitez is putting together his hit-list for next season.

Liverpool sent a scout to watch Martinez at Atletico Madrid last Thursday and Bilbao are well aware of Benitez's interest.

Bilbao coach Joaquin Caparros said: "Javier is a monster of a player and can go very far."

Alberto Aquilani: I Love Everything About Liverpool & England Except The Weather

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani is settling quickly on Merseyside and is very happy playing his football in England, but has one major gripe: the weather.

But that hasn't put him off his new life in England, after switching from the sunny Italian capital last summer.

"I like everything in England, I just don't like the weather," he told LFC Magazine.

"I like the people, the supporters, the city and playing here. And I want to play well here."

The Italian is also hoping that he continues to make progress with his improving English.

"But I don't speak English very well. Now I understand more than I did before but I have to improve," he explained.

"At first I had regular English lessons but it has been difficult more recently and my English teacher is angry about this!

"It has been difficult because at one time my family were here so I couldn't do the lesson, another time we had too many games."

Benitez Ser To Utilize All His Weapons

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is looking forward to utilizing all his attacking options for their crucial Barclays Premier League run-in.

The team rightly received plaudits for their performance, particularly in the first half, against Sunderland at the weekend when they played a brand of football which had been missing for most of the season.

Deploying Steven Gerrard in a more orthodox central midfield position but with license to roam forward allowed Benitez to field Maxi Rodriguez, Dirk Kuyt, Ryan Babel and Fernando Torres in front of the Reds captain.

And with full-backs Glen Johnson and Emiliano Insua providing more width down the flanks the Black Cats were torn apart with a high-tempo passing game which could have produced half a dozen goals.

It is unlikely Benitez will be so bold in all six of their remaining league matches - particularly at Birmingham on Sunday and at home to Chelsea on the penultimate weekend of the season - but the Reds boss feels having plenty of choices could be key to them securing fourth place.

"If they can stay fit I think it will be very important because you have more options," said Benitez, whose side travel to Lisbon on Wednesday for the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final against Benfica on Thursday.

"When you have two games a week it is important to have different players available so you can change the system and you can keep the tempo.

"It is really important to have Fernando, Gerrard and Maxi available.

"I can see Fernando is focused and he wants to do well. We are surprised sometimes by what he can do but my idea is that he can improve.

"He knows how to get better. Two goals and a great performance again against Sunderland is what the team needed.

"Johnson is an attacking defender and sometimes when you have the team playing well at home and everyone is going forward he can be a real threat.

"He had one or two chances against Sunderland and he was very dangerous down the right side."

Liverpool have the easiest-looking run-in of all the Champions League-chasing sides but they are still four points behind fourth-placed Tottenham having played more matches than their rivals.

Benitez knows Liverpool's fate is currently out of their hands but he expects that to change, especially with Spurs having to play Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United in a 10-day spell and City still to face the Gunners, United, Spurs and Aston Villa.

"At this moment we have to concentrate on what we can change now - to play well on the pitch and try to be as close as possible to the top four and progress in the Europa League and the other things will come," said the Spaniard.

"I think it depends on us. If we keep winning our games - there are difficult games - we will be closer and every week will be different.

"Sunday at Birmingham will be tough but if we can win our games I think they (Tottenham, City and Villa) will lose some points and I think we can be there."

The Liverpool manager has complete belief in the players which struggled earlier this season on the way to 10 Barclays Premier League defeats - eight more than in the previous campaign.

"Always you can have a bad season but you can see from the reaction of the players they are fighting and trying," he said.

"The players are focused and training well and the preparation was similar so it is just trying to get the confidence higher.

"The players knew before the Sunderland victory (that their remaining games would be crucial) but when you are trying to play well and trying to win and cannot then the confidence is a little bit low.

"But we didn't change too many things [against Sunderland]. It was because everyone was doing well and at the end that was positive because it was contagious.

"It is very important the players are playing well together and a clean sheet meant everything was positive.

"We have had some good games in the past but maybe this one, when you put together the first half and part of the second half, it was maybe one of the best performances this season."

Glen Johnson: I'm Getting Back To My Best

Liverpool defender Glen Johnson believes he is getting back to his best after his goal-scoring display in Sunday’s 3-0 triumph over Sunderland.

The England right-back missed two-and-a-half months of the season with a knee injury and has taken time to rediscover his form since returning to action in the defeat at Wigan earlier this month.

However, Johnson starred against the Black Cats as he scored for the first time in front of the Kop and created the Reds’ third for Fernando Torres.

“It was a fantastic feeling to score my first goal in front of the Kop,” he said, according to the Liverpool Echo.

“I cut inside and wanted to get a clean strike at goal and it was nice to see it go in with my left foot.

“I’m feeling good again. It’s not easy to come back when you’ve been out for so long but with every game my fitness is getting better.”

Victory kept Liverpool’s hopes of Champions League qualification alive and with six games to play they are four points adrift of fourth placed Tottenham, who have a game in hand.

Dirk: Fitness Key To Success

Dirk Kuyt believes a fit and firing squad can propel Liverpool to a successful conclusion to 2009-10.

Sunday's 3-0 dismantling of Sunderland was arguably one of Reds' most fluent performances of the season so far.

And Kuyt feels the return of key players from injury has been instrumental in helping Rafa Benitez's side produce the kind of attacking verve that has seen 10 goals scored in their last three Anfield matches.

"It's hard to explain why we can't play like we did against Sunderland every week, but now more or less everyone is fit," said the Holland forward.

"There are no injuries. Fernando is back, Stevie is over his injuries and that makes a lot of difference. For any top side it would be very difficult without these top players in your side.

"They are coming back and scoring very important goals and that helps the team as well."

Liverpool are currently sixth in the Barclays Premier League table, four points behind fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur having played a game more.

The Reds have just six league fixtures remaining in the race for Champions League football, and Kuyt reckons their current form gives them a good chance of securing a top four finish.

"We have to try and push to finish fourth. We are behind and we know it will be hard but what we have to do is win our own games and keep going from there," he said.

"The most important thing is last season around this time the team was playing very well, the results were good and this season everyone knows what has happened.

"Every player in this team has had bad moments and we are all trying to leave these moments behind us and keep going. We struggled a bit during the season, but we don't have time to look back on these things - we have to look forward."

Kuyt added: "These are six very important games now. Hopefully we can win those and at the end of the day it will be enough.

"I think the whole team has shown character. You cannot blame the team for not showing that. We have shown it many, many times."

For the moment, attentions will now turn to the Europa League and Thursday's quarter-final, first leg clash with Benfica in Portugal.

"All the games between now and the end of the season will be very important. We want to win something but we also want to play Champions League football next season," said Kuyt.

"Benfica are a very good team, they are top of league in Portugal. They have good forwards. Hopefully we can finish fourth and win a trophy this season."

Boss Hails Stopper

John McMahon hailed the performance of goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi after the Hungarian made a number of crucial saves during the Reserves' 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers on Monday night.

Both the goals came in the second half through substitute David Ngog and an OG from Bolton skipper Rhys Bennett, but Gulacsi made several important stops when the scoreline was still 0-0.

"Peter is fantastic to have in the team," McMahon told

"He is very reliable and he made some great saves for us. I felt for him at the end when we conceded a late goal because he prides himself on clean sheets and to be honest he deserved one.

"We had to work very hard for the three points. We kept going and showed a good attitude. We tried to do the right things but Bolton made it tough for us. Full credit to them, they were competitive and worked really hard.

"Dani Pacheco was man marked throughout the game and it was a good learning curve for him how to cope in different situations."

The Reds extended their unbeaten run to 16 games and moved to within three points of leaders Manchester United at the top of the Barclays Premier Reserve League North with the win.

"We had a better mentality and desire than we showed against Wigan so that was pleasing, but some of our play still needs to improve," added McMahon.

"We are on a really good run so full credit to the lads but we need to keep it going."

McMahon also had words of encouragement for Academy starlet Alex Cooper who made a great impact when he came off the bench to set up the opening goal for Ngog.

"Alex came on and was strong," he said. "He used the ball intelligently and full credit to him because he did really well for the goal."

Ngog Downs Trotters

Liverpool Reserves moved to within three points of leaders Manchester United at the top of the Barclays Premier Reserve League North after a 2-1 victory over Bolton Wanderers at the County Ground on Monday evening.

First-team striker David Ngog, on as a half-time substitute, netted with 18 minutes remaining to break the deadlock in a tense contest in Lancashire.

And the Reds' advantage was doubled soon after as Bolton captain Rhys Bennett deflected Gerardo Bruna's free-kick beyond his own goalkeeper.

Zoltan Harsanyi reduced the arrears in stoppage time, but John McMahon's men held out to cut the gap on pacesetters United at the top of the table - and the Reds still have two games in hand.

Liverpool kicked off in Leyland looking to extend their incredible 15-game unbeaten run and complete a hat-trick of victories over the Trotters this season, having already beaten them in the league and the Lancashire Senior Cup.

And the team selection reflected this as Nabil El Zhar was included in the starting XI alongside the likes of Dani Pacheco, Daniel Ayala and fit-again David Amoo, with a place on the bench for Ngog.

But Bolton made a lively start and had an early penalty appeal waved away after Michael O'Halloran went down under the challenge of Chris Mavinga inside the area.

The pacey winger brought a stop out of Liverpool goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi soon after, driving towards goal from a tight angle.

However, the visitors fired a warning shot on 10 minutes when a crisp move involving Pacheco, Amoo and Lauri Dalla Valle resulted in El Zhar drilling a low effort narrowly wide of the far post.

The Reds went closer still as Amoo powered a header goalwards from Pacheco's corner, with McMahon's charges beginning to assert themselves after a bright opening from the home side.

But Gulacsi was called into action once more on 21 minutes, the Hungarian having to dive at full stretch to thwart Aaron Mooy's long-range free-kick before Bennett blazed over the rebound.

Play quickly swung to the other end of the pitch, and Dalla Valle clipped over on the spin after good approach play by Amoo down the right.

As the half hour mark approached, Sam Sheridan's low cross picked out Mooy in space inside the box, but his side-footed effort from 15 yards was collected by Gulacsi to further frustrate the Bolton midfielder.

There was a real open feel to proceedings as the rain pelted down in Lancashire, though a congested midfield battle ensured neither side had much time to dictate play.

Amoo's powerful raids down the right wing appeared to be Liverpool's best chance of breaking down the Trotters' rearguard and the 18-year-old warmed the palms of Bolton stopper Adam Bogdan with a run and shot.

McMahon opted to introduce Ngog into the action at the start of the second half at the expense of El Zhar and the Frenchman looped a header well over soon after the restart.

But the Reds' attacking options suffered a blow nine minutes into the second period when Dalla Valle was forced from the field after failing to recover from a challenge. Dutchman Jordy Brouwer was his replacement.

And the visitors could have fallen behind moments later as Sheridan's stinging effort was palmed away by Gulacsi. Three Bolton attackers lurked ready to pounce on the loose ball, but Steven Irwin was thankfully on hand to avert the danger.

Just after the hour mark, Ngog collected Amoo's flick and powered a strike into the hoardings from the edge of the area with 'keeper Bogdan never worried, before Damien Plessis flashed over from distance.

Liverpool had enjoyed the lions' share of possession in the second period and they finally made the breakthrough on 72 minutes.

Substitute Alex Cooper claimed an impressive assist, with the Academy youngster's inviting low ball across the face of goal from the left leaving Ngog with the simple task of tapping over the line from point blank range.

And the Reds doubled their advantage moments later as Bennett inadvertently diverted Bruna's wicked free-kick from the right wing into his own net on 78 minutes.

The quick-fire brace left Bolton stunned, and Liverpool pressed in search of a third in the dying moments with Ngog, Amoo and Bruna all trying their luck.

Slovakian youngster Harsanyi netted a stoppage-time consolation for Bolton, but the home side were unable to muster an equaliser as the Reds stretched their unbeaten run to 16 matches with a hard-fought win.

Ian Rush: We Should Attack Teams More Often

Liverpool's legendary goal-scorer Ian Rush knows a thing or two about attacking, so was pleased to see his beloved Reds offensive mindset in the 3-0 victory against Sunderland on Sunday.

The Kop idol also believes Liverpool should take the game to their opposition more, especially when playing at Anfield.

"It was a fantastic to watch Liverpool make such light work of Sunderland. We did everything right from start to finish," he told the Liverpool Echo.

"I was pleased to see us playing 20 yards further up the pitch.

"It made a difference to the way we played, helping the players close the opposition down quicker and get the ball moving well.

"That was all a consequence of deploying just one holding midfielder and bringing Steven Gerrard further back but with a license to roam.

"Previously, when we’ve been winning games, we’ve had a tendency to drop off and invite teams on to us. But on Sunday we just kept attacking.

"The 3-0 scoreline actually flattered Sunderland. It could have been much more with Daniel Agger, Gerrard and Fernando Torres all going close.

"I’d like to see us play like this more often."

Playing in such an offensive way against the strongest sides in the league is difficult, but against the weaker sides at home it is an approach that pays off, Rush reckons.

"Of course, you won’t get away with it against some of the stronger sides like Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal," he added.

"But I see no reason why we shouldn’t be playing like this against the teams we’re expected to beat, especially at Anfield where we should be taking the game to the opposition.

"It’s entertaining and we know it’s certainly effective." he concluded.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Glen Johnson Says Liverpool Will Keep Chipping Away

Glen Johnson insists Liverpool are only concerned with themselves as the race for fourth place hot ups.

Sunday's 3-0 win over Sunderland saw the Reds leapfrog Manchester City into fifth place to move within four points of fourth placed Tottenham who have a game in hand on Liverpool.

However, City can go two points ahead of Liverpool if they beat Wigan on Monday in what is one of their two games in hand on Rafa Benitez's side.

Liverpool have the kindest run-in of the clubs challenging for fourth, but Johnson says nobody at Anfield is concerning themselves with the fixure list.

"It's not something we've been thinking about," said the England international. "We're trying to take each game as it comes and trying to pick up three points in every one.

"We also know goal difference could be vital for us at the end of the season, so we're looking to keep as many clean sheets as we can and keep chipping in with goals."

Aston Villa's 7-1 defeat at Chelsea has hit their goal difference hard. Liverpool are on plus 21, seven goals behind Spurs and five ahead of City.

Johnson's third goal of the season gave the Reds a two-goal cushion at half-time against Sunderland. His left-footed shot from outside the area took a deflection off defender Michael Turner to beat Black Cats keeper Craig Gordon.

"It's something I've always been comfortable doing, coming inside and shooting on my left," he said. "I'm happy with the way it came off here."

With six league games remaining Johnson is confident everyone is pulling in the right direction to try and claim fourth place. "The belief is there," he said. "If it wasn't it'd be pointless playing.

"The lads are sticking close together with the staff, everyone's pulling together. I think we can do it."

Kuyt Delight At Torres Return

Liverpool forward Dirk Kuyt admits that the return to goalscoring form of Fernando Torres has given all at Anfield a huge lift in the battle for a top-four place.

The Reds have experienced a terrible season and qualification for the UEFA Champions League via a fourth-placed finish in the Premier League would now be viewed as a significant achievement.

Liverpool, who are also hopeful of winning the Europa League, have been boosted in their quest by the return of superstar striker Fernando Torres after a knee operation.

A top-four spot is still far from certain, but the Spain international scored twice in his club's 3-0 win over Sunderland on Sunday to record his seventh goal in his last four matches and raise morale among his team-mates.

"Not only against Sunderland but since he has been back from his injury he has done a great job for the team," said Kuyt.

"He has scored some great goals and has played really well. It makes things a lot easier for the team.

"Every player in this team has bad moments but we are all trying to leave this behind us.

"We need to keep going. We have struggled a bit during the season but we don't have time to worry about these things as we have to look forward.

"With Fernando in this form, and also with the team playing a lot better, hopefully we have a chance."

Kuyt also played down suggestions unhappiness within the squad had contributed to some poor results.

"Always during a season during games you have arguments with players but I've never had this feeling towards me or other players," he added.

Lee Chung-Yong Is Not Leaving Bolton Wanderers For Liverpool - Agent

Bolton Wanderers winger Lee Chung-Yong will not be swapping the Trotters for Liverpool in the summer, according to his agent.

The South Korean has been linked with the Reds in reports in his homeland, with the Merseysiders said to be keen to exploit the commercial potential of signing such a well-known Asian player.

Dong-A Ilbo claimed that the player was being linked with Liverpool in the wake of the Merseysiders having concluded a sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered Bank, as they look to boost revenue streams in the Far East.

However, a spokesperson from TI Sports, Lee's representatives, quelled talk of a possible switch.

"I never received the offer from Liverpool, there was absolutely no contact. Speculation about the future is not helpful," he told reporters.

"[The link is] in a word, absurd. Liverpool did not have any discussion.

"Next season will be a lot easier [for Lee], but there is still much to learn in terms of player development.

"Lee wants to be a regular at Bolton next season, this is important [for him]. It is important that Bolton stay in the Premier League, that is the biggest objective."

TI Sports also confirmed that talks are in the pipeline at Bolton about a new contract for the winger following a steady season at the Reebok for him.

Lee joined Bolton from FC Seoul for a reported £2.2 million in summer 2009 and has hit five goals so far this season.

Milan Want Liverpool Hitman Fernando Torres - Report

Milan are ready to make an audacious move for Liverpool striker Fernando Torres, reports Il Giorno.

Torres, who has been a Milan objective for some time, is being monitored by club chiefs who are looking at making a serious move for him in the summer.

The report suggests Torres has become less than satisfied with the lack of silverware at Anfield, and he has already expressed his desire to play for Milan.

Furthermore, he is allegedly ready to take a pay-cut so he can complete a future switch to Italy.

Il Giorno's claims have not been verified by Milan, Liverpool or Torres.

Wolfsburg's Edin Dzeko continues to be linked with a move to the Rossoneri, but his €40 million price tag is standing in the way of progress.

Rafa Benitez Hits Back At Redknapp Criticism

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has hit back at the continued criticism aimed at him mostly by ex-players who are now pundits.

Plenty of former Reds stars have secured work in the media and Benitez has had to listen to them giving their opinion on what has been a disappointing season.

However, he felt the need to respond to the comments of former Liverpool captain Jamie Redknapp after the 2-1 defeat at Manchester United.

Redknapp, a close friend of Steven Gerrard, criticised Benitez for moving the England midfielder to different positions as they chased an equaliser late on.

To back up his assertion that Liverpool were a weaker team than the previous season he referenced the influence of Xabi Alonso, sold to Real Madrid in the summer, in the 4-1 win at Old Trafford last March. That finally prompted Benitez into a response.

"I was surprised to see some comments by some experts talking about how they could see Alonso playing in the 4-1 win against United - he didn't play,'' Benitez said, referring to the fact the Spain midfielder was injured.

"This expert said he (Gerrard) cannot play on the left but he is playing with the national team on the left. He was playing here on the right and scoring 23 goals so Gerrard can play everywhere. It depends on the team.

"I told him before the Sunderland game he was playing in the middle and he was happy. He can help the team and that is the main thing.''

Despite the praise for their first-half performance in the 3-0 win over Sunderland Benitez said his tactics had not changed much. Playing Gerrard in a more orthodox central midfield position is something he has done before this season but Sunday was just one of those days when all the players hit top form.

"With the same tactics we scored more goals than anyone in the Premier League last year and more goals than anyone in England two years ago,'' Benitez said. "It is a question sometimes of accuracy, pass completion or just a little bit of luck.''

Fernando Torres: Liverpool Must Improve Away Form

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has claimed that there is a new spirit in the Reds' dressing room after Sunday's convincing 3-0 win over Sunderland at Anfield.

Rafael Benitez's men have stumbled through a disappointing campaign so far which has seen them exit the Champions League early and drop well out of the race for the Premier League title.

But Torres, who notched a further two goals against the Black Cats, claims that the enjoyment is back in the Reds' football now.

"The main thing is I got my goals because the team is playing really well, giving me good assists," he told his club's official website.

"The second goal by Glen [Johnson] was amazing. We'll keep enjoying and keep scoring - that's my job.

"We have been much better in this last part of the season and now we have six games to play. We have to keep playing like this and make sure we're as strong away as we are at home.

"From the first minute you could see the team was different from the first part of the season."

Liverpool Announce Appointment Of Leading Australian Sports Physician Peter Brukner

Liverpool have announced the appointment of leading Australian sports physician Peter Brukner as head of sports medicine and sports science.

Dr Brukner, who is the current Australian football team doctor, will take up the full-time position after this summer’s World Cup in South Africa.

Managing director Christian Purslow said: "Dr Brukner is recognised across the globe as one of the leading figures in this field.

"He will play a vital, strategic, role in adding a new dimension to our sports medicine and sports science services."

Dr Brukner is the founding partner of Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre in Melbourne, the largest sports medicine clinic in Australia.

He was instrumental in the development and recognition of sports medicine as a specialty in Australia, which culminated in the recent announcement of specialty status by the Minister for Health.

Formerly an Australian Football League (AFL) club doctor with Melbourne and Collingwood, Dr Brukner looked after various Australian national teams including swimming, athletics and hockey.

He has been Australian team doctor at Olympic and Commonwealth Games as well as numerous World Championships.

He is the co-author of the best selling sports medicine text book, Clinical Sports Medicine.

"The appointment is an indication of the high regard in which Australian sports medicine is held throughout the world", said Dr Brukner, who will spend the next month at Liverpool observing the set up before returning to Melbourne in May to help prepare the Socceroos for the World Cup.

"The prospect of working at one of the world’s great sporting clubs is very exciting and once the World Cup is over I will be devoting all my energies to improving the performance of the team."

Cascarino: Torres Wasted In Mediocre Liverpool Side

Former Chelsea FC and Aston Villa star Tony Cascarino believes Fernando Torres is wasted in the current Liverpool FC side and suggests the Spaniard could well leave Anfield in the summer.

The prolific Spaniard scored his 40th goal in 41 Anfield appearances for Liverpool FC during their 3-0 win over Sunderland on Sunday, and the ex-Aston Villa and Chelsea FC forward believes Rafa Benitez must sign a host of big-name players in the summer or Torres should leave the club.

Liverpool FC are currently embroiled in a four-way fight for a position in the top four this season alongside Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa, and Cascarino claims Torres is too good to spend another season at Anfield without new recruits.

In his Times column, this week titled ‘Torres wasted in mediocre Liverpool side’ the former Aston Villa and Chelsea striker writes: “Fernando Torres says he’s staying at Liverpool next season? I’m sceptical.”

“Anyway, I don’t think he should unless the club signs a number of big players in the summer.”

“He’s too good to spend another season wasted in an average Liverpool team.”

“At least playing Dirk Kuyt up front with Torres and sacrificing Lucas Leiva was a step in the right direction on Sunday.”

Monday, March 29, 2010

Match Report: LiverpooL 3 - 0 Sunderland

A scintillating first-half performance set the tone for a one-sided Liverpool victory over Sunderland at Anfield which kept the Reds in the race for Champions League qualification.

Fernando Torres struck a brilliant opener in the third minute and Glen Johnson's deflected strike made it 2-0 at the end of a first half in which the hosts could easily have scored six.

Torres scored his seventh goal in four matches, and his 18th in 21 Premier League appearances this season, midway through the second half before Liverpool coasted in the latter stages.

For Liverpool this was an eighth successive home league win, their best run at Anfield since winning eight in a row towards the end of the 2007/08 season.

More importantly it kept Rafael Benitez's side within four points of Tottenham, whose win over Portsmouth on Saturday cranked up the pressure in the race for fourth.

Liverpool responded accordingly and within 55 seconds defender Daniel Agger smashed a left-footed volley straight at goalkeeper Craig Gordon after Dirk Kuyt had flicked on Steven Gerrard's free-kick.

That the Denmark centre-back had a further two good goalscoring opportunities before half-time gave an indication of how dominant Liverpool were.

However, when it comes to goalscoring there are few to equal Torres and his third-minute strike was a piece of individual brilliance.

Goalkeeper Jose Reina picked him out wide on the left touchline and he dribbled inside Michael Turner to curl a shot over Gordon and perfectly into the far top corner.

In what was the best 45 minutes of football in Liverpool's season, Javier Mascherano had two long-range shots, one headed clear by Kieran Richardson and the other skewed wide, while Torres was just off target with a near-post effort following intricate passing between Maxi Rodriguez and Gerrard.

Ball retention, the pace of the passes, and the general attacking intent made for an exhilarating half.

More chances came and went as Gerrard's run and shot in the penalty area ended in a deflection behind and Rodriguez's near-post header from his captain's corner was superbly tipped over by Gordon.

Had Liverpool been 5-0 up after 30 minutes it would not have flattered them, but they had to settle for just the two goals at the interval.

The second came from Johnson in the 32nd minute when Gerrard's inswinging corner was only cleared to the edge of the penalty area and the defender touched the ball inside on to his left foot and unleashed a shot which took a slight deflection off Turner to beat Gordon.

Torres hit a post and then bundled the rebound wide before the break as Sunderland almost imploded under the pressure.

Liverpool's biggest problem in the second half was the expectation on them to reproduce the football they had displayed before the break.

While it did not reach those heights, they were hardly troubled.

Ryan Babel fired well over after Gerrard's driving run from halfway while Torres had an eight-yard shot blocked by Paulo da Silva, on at half-time for Lee Cattermole.

But the Spain international was not to be denied much longer and on the hour he scored his second goal, which was as simple as his first was brilliant.

Babel's far-post cross to Rodriguez dropped to Johnson who slipped a pass inside where Torres spun on the penalty spot to turn the ball past Gordon.

Alberto Aquilani replaced Kuyt with 20 minutes to go, with Torres making way for David Ngog to another standing ovation 12 minutes from time.

Richardson probably went closest to scoring for Sunderland when he flashed a left-footed shot just wide of Reina's right-hand post.

Gerrard's removal for winger Nabil El Zhar late on signalled that Benitez was more interested in saving his players for Thursday's Europa League quarter-final against Benfica in Lisbon.

What the Liverpool players must now prove in their remaining six league matches is that this performance was not a one-off.

If they can, then Benitez's guarantee of fourth place may yet hold good.

Steven Gerrard Looks To Win World Cup And Premier League In Next Five Years

Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard hopes to accomplish the two principal goals of his career in the next five years by winning a World Cup with England and a Premier League title with the Reds.

Gerrard will turn 30 years old when England face Japan in a friendly on May 30, just a few days before the Three Lions travel to South Africa for the World Cup.

With a career that has included 78 international appearances for England and a starring role with Liverpool over the last 12 season, Gerrard knows that he only has a couple of years left to achieve some of footballs top honours.

“It’s a big time for me – I am aware of my age and what I want out of the remainder of my career,” Gerrard told The Mirror.

“I look after myself, and I’m in good shape physically so I believe I’ve still got five years to fight for all the big prizes in football. I’ll do everything I can to keep going.”

The last year has been one of international success mixed with club disappointment, but Gerrard knows that in football things change quickly.

“It’s fair to say it’s been a mixed season for me.

“It’s been positive for England, because we’ve qualified for the World Cup and we’ve been winning football matches. But at Liverpool there have been times when it has been tough. But that’s football, you have to deal with that.

“There’s a chance to finish the season on a high with Liverpool now, by finishing fourth and going to a cup final. It would be fantastic if we could achieve both of those things. Then you focus on the World Cup.

“That will give me a big lift going to the World Cup, and then I’ll be going feeling ­positive that I can achieve something really important with England.”

Jamie Redknapp Lifts Lid On Benitez And Gerrard Feud

Jamie Redknapp has lifted the lid on the increasing friction between Kop boss Rafa Benitez and Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard, hinting the England star could quit the club after the World Cup finals.

Redknapp says the pair are heading for a bitter bust-up over tactics.

And he said last Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester United is a prime example of where it’s all going wrong between Benitez and Gerro, 29.

Sky TV pundit Redknapp, who played with friend Gerrard at Anfield during his 11 years at the club, said: “Gerrard is at his best in central midfield.

“But with 12 minutes to go and Liverpool chasing the game at Old Trafford, Benitez brings Alberto Aquilani on and pushes Steven wide left.

“That will have infuriated Steven. He doesn’t want to be out there. He’s less effective there. Then Benitez switches him again when he brings Yossi Benayoun on and he moves him over to the right.

“Why? Liverpool were losing 2-1 and needed Steven to be in his best position and at his most effective.

“I have played with Steven and that will have infuriated him.

“That’s where Benitez gets it wrong.”

Redknapp said Benitez’s tactics also had a similar effect on striker Fernando Torres.

The world-class hitman signalled his frustration at Old Trafford last week by destroying the penalty spot before Wayne Rooney put United level with the spot-kick. Redknapp claimed: “Gerrard and Torres make Liverpool tick – but Benitez just doesn’t use them properly.

And in a bitter parting shot, he added: “You don’t see Sir Alex Ferguson doing that with his best players.”

Benitez himself, though, has looked to smooth things over after a meeting with Gerrard and his senior stars to paint more financially sound, future for Liverpool for next season and beyond.

And Managing Director Christian Purslow also paid a visit to Liverpool’s Melwood training ground on Wednesday to address the Kop stars and inform them officially about the possible £110million investment from the Rhone Group.

The players have also been informed that £25m-plus will be injected by the same global SDHp investment firm to go towards buying new players this summer. Now­ ­pressure will be mounted on co-­owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to back the Rhone move.

Liverpool’s debt is currently £237m with RBS – and the bank has given the club until the end of the season to slash that by £100m.

Hicks and Gillett have been looking themselves for extra capital but time is now pressing for them to agree to this outside cashpot.

Benitez said: “We are working behind the scenes and I have confidence we can move forward because I know we’re trying to do that in a good SDHp direction. I’m quite positive.

“My last conversation with Stevie was very positive and he has a great determination to improve and play. “Stevie is the captain. He knows we have to improve on the pitch and then it will be easier to change things."

Kenwyne Jones: The Striker Who Got Away From Liverpool And Rafael Benítez

If Rafael Benítez had had his way in January then Kenwyne Jones would be emerging from Anfield's famous tunnel on Sunday in the red shirt of Liverpool.

What with Fernando Torres's problems with injury and the lack of quality strikers in his squad, the Liverpool manager wanted to sign Jones in the transfer window but the club did not want to meet Sunderland's £10 million valuation.

For Sunderland the projected transfer was like a bad New Year's hangover that just got worse by the day and with a week left before the close of the window Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, snapped, describing the manner of Benítez's pursuit of his player as "hugely disrespectful".

"What happened is that January was January and now it's March and it's all over," Jones said. "That's all that happened. However long the transfer windows have been in effect there has always been something like that happening at some club. It's nothing new, the same old script."

Jones's desire to put the whole episode behind him is understandable. The speculation came halfway through a winless streak of 14 games for Sunderland, a sequence that pushed them towards relegation. "It was like we started tripping down some stairs and we just kept falling down and down until we hit the floor," he said.

Jones has helped lift the team off the floor and get them climbing again. For the last two months he had started to show the kind of form that brought him to Benítez's attention last season. A hip injury has kept him out of the last two games but he is optimistic of returning to the side on Sunday, a side who, after five games without defeat, are finally beginning to move in the right direction again.

Not that the wings of Jones's ambition have been clipped. "Like any footballer you don't want to be a fixture," he said. "What you want is to achieve something. You want to be one of the greats of football and win something. Some people, like me so far, have not been able to win anything throughout their career. You want to be in the place where you can win the big trophies and all the stuff that matters.

"All the attention? It's a pat on the back for me that I'm doing something that people recognise and they want. That itself propels me to keep working harder and keep doing the things I've been doing. Hopefully I can continue that until my knees go bad and I can't play any more, that I can fulfil the dream of playing at the highest level, winning things."

At 25 Jones has learned to seize every opportunity. As a promising Trinidad youth international his life was completely changed by the birth of his son Isaiah, when he was still just 18. "Having a kid on its own is an experience but having a kid at that age when you think you have your whole life ahead of you... it doesn't stop your life, it just propels you in a direction. It propelled me in a direction and I thank God for that."

Jones – "decently smart" – had full scholarship offers from some 20 American universities but feared college life would kill his hunger for football. So he went on a punishing series of trials with European clubs, even spending a week with Manchester United. "David Beckham was still there, Juan Sebastian Veron, Dwight Yorke, Laurent Blanc, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane – it was the biggest experience I'd had in my career so far."

Like so many other trials, it did not work out and, with the responsibility towards his family, Jones imposed a deadline to get a contract. If not he would go into the army, like his schoolfriend and former Sunderland team-mate Carlos Edwards.

"I'd been on trial at a lot of places, probably three months at a time. It wasn't nice being away from home for that long at that age and living out of my suitcase. I didn't want it to drag on for me. I wanted to make a decision and have something steady happening. For me it was do or die, now or never."

That determination resulted in a move to Southampton in 2004. It took a while for Jones to get into the kind of physical shape needed in English football but when he did, catalysed by a productive loan move to Sheffield Wednesday, he emerged as an intimidatingly powerful striker. In 2007 Keane took him to Sunderland for £6 million, where his rapid progress continued, John Terry describing him as the best he had faced in the air in the Premier League.

His playing style has earned comparisons with Didier Drogba and it is the paucity of players with those kind of capabilities that make Jones a coveted player. "Thankfully I'm 25 and not 32 [Drogba's age]. I guess it's good to be in that mode because it fits me into a certain script: necessity to demand. You don't want to be superfluous. You don't want to be like everyone else. Thankfully I'm different. That's what people want and I hope it will stay like that for a long time."

Rafa Benitez In Talks With Liverpool Takeover Rivals From Rhone Group

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is understood to have met representatives of potential investors the Rhone Group.

He has also briefed senior players, including Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, about a future beyond the current boardroom stalemate.

The New York-based fund management firm wants to invest £100 million – to be put towards the club’s £237 million debt – for a stake of around 40 per cent, as well as putting in a further £25million to be spent on transfers. Talks with the Spaniard were constructive and positive.

Key men Gerrard and Torres, who has claimed that Benitez needs to be able to add “four or five top-class signings” this summer, have appeared particularly disaffected as Liverpool have been reduced to scrapping for fourth place.

But Benitez and managing director Christian Purslow met with senior members of the squad on Wednesday to discuss on potential future developments in an attempt to persuade them that good times are ahead for the Anfield club.

Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks, who is particularly resistant to the prospect of his stake being diluted, and George Gillett need to find £100 million in order to refinance loans from the Royal Bank of Scotland in July. If they are unable to do so, they will have little choice but to accept the offer from the Rhone Group, or another investor, and have their power decreased.

Purslow has kept Benitez updated on the Rhone Group’s interest, as well as that of several other interested parties. Having previously insisted he wanted all potential offers on the table by Easter, the managing director is now prepared to wait until the end of the season.

After pushing Manchester United all the way last season, Benitez does not attempt to deny that Liverpool have been blown off course this time around but is adamant that it can prove to be just a temporary set-back.

He said: “I have confidence we can move forward because I know that we’re trying to move forward in a good direction. I am quite positive.’’

Torres has repeated his claim that Liverpool need to spend heavily this summer but said: “My place is at Liverpool and in England. I’ve got three years to run on my contract.

“The most important thing is for the club to try to sign quality players, footballers who improve the quality of the squad. Next season we want to be challenging for the Premier League title and the Champions League or the Europa League but for that to happen we need some new signings.”

Liverpool Deal For Milan Jovanovic In Doubt

Liverpool’s move for Serbian striker Milan Jovanovic has stalled, according to a report in the News of the World.

The 28-year-old striker has been widely tipped to join Liverpool in the summer with his contract expiring at the end of 2009/2010.

In January reports claimed Jovanovic had undergone a medical at Anfield but Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has refused to confirm this.

Benitez said: "I won't talk about him now. We are working behind the scenes."

In 2009/2010 Jovanovic has scored 13 goals and provided four assists for Standard Liege in 32 appearances.

Jovanovic would be a useful signing for Liverpool as he can play up front, behind a striker or on the left.

Christian Purslow Held Meeting To Reassure Players Over Club's Finances - Report

Liverpool Managing Director Christian Purslow has reportedly held talks with players to alleviate concerns regarding the club's coffers.

The Reds' well documented crisis with respect to their finances, coupled with below par performances on the pitch, has seen them go from title chasers to top-four hopefuls this season.

Heavy speculation surrounding the future of star striker Fernando Torres is also believed to have been discussed at the meeting, with the Managing Director believed to have reassured players the Anfield outfit is still heading in the right direction.

According to the Sunday Mirror, the disillusionment concerning the club's fortunes this term had left skipper Steven Gerrard and Torres considering their future at the Merseyside club.

However, after being assured that fresh investment is close to being secured, both of the Reds' stellar performers are believed to have been convinced to continue plying their trade for the Kopites.

Purslow announced that a deal with the Rhone Group is in place for a 40 per cent stake to be sold to the New York based investment company for a price of £100 million, with a further £25m being made available to replenish the squad during the summer.

An unnamed source close to the club is quoted as saying: "Christian Purslow informed the players on the direction the club will be taking.

"He was able to give them the answers they were looking for about new investment and how the club will move forward. It was a very positive meeting."

Tom Hicks Unwilling To Sell 40 Per Cent Stake In Liverpool - Report

Tom Hicks is reportedly not interested in selling a 40 per cent stake in Liverpool, which could potentially derail any investment into the squad during the summer.

The boardroom battle is believed to have reached fever pitch, as the pressure is reportedly back on co-owners Hicks and Geroge Gillett to let go of their control of the club.

According to the News of the World, Reds managing director Christian Purslow believes he will secure sufficient investment to rebuild the squad in the summer should the Americans insist on holding the reins to the Merseyside club.

There has also been speculation concerning the future of striker Fernando Torres, who has called on the club to bring in "four or five new signings" to bolster the squad and consequently challenge for domestic and European honours.

It is claimed that any hope of hanging on to 'El Nino' will largely depend on whether Hick and Gillett remain in power after June.

Recent reports pointed toward Purslow negotiating an equity sale with the Rhone Group, who would gain 40 per cent control of the club should a deal reach fruition. But Hicks is believed to have vetoed the idea, as he would make no money from the potential takeover.

Rival investors, including the Sahara group from India, are said to be interested in a full buyout of the club, but face a similar conundrum due to Hicks' unwillingness to let go of his stake in the Premier League outfit.

It is claimed that co-owner Gillett is in line with reducing his stake for the greater good of the Reds, but Hicks' rock-solid stance is believed to be causing tension in the club's upper echelon.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Match Preview: LiverpooL vs. Sunderland

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has no new injury worries for the home match against Sunderland in the Barclays Premier League.

With no midweek match, Benitez has been able to give his squad some time off to recuperate from a busy schedule involving Europa League matches.

He may opt for a more attacking line-up at home than he did for last Sunday's defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford, which could bring the likes of Ryan Babel, Alberto Aquilani and Yossi Benayoun into contention.

Martin Skrtel (foot) and Fabio Aurelio (thigh) are still a couple of weeks away from fitness while Albert Riera is unlikely to be included as the club consider a loan deal to Russia for the Spain winger.

Benitez does not believe his summer transfer budget will be affected by their Barclays Premier League finish but remains confident they can still qualify for Europe's premier club competition.

"I understand really well. For five years we qualified for the Champions League so we knew it was important for the club,'' said the manager.

"They (the owners) told me at the beginning of the season that there would not be a big difference (in the transfer budget).

"Hopefully we can finish in the top four. We've had one bad season but we hope it will be better another day.''

If Liverpool are to overtake fourth-placed Tottenham and Manchester City, as well as keep Aston Villa at bay, they need to win at least five of their remaining seven matches.

That starts at home to Sunderland, who were 1-0 victors back in October courtesy of Darren Bent's goal which was controversially deflected in off a beach ball thrown from the crowd.

Anfield stewards will be extra vigilant to ensure there can be no repeat from the visiting fans but Benitez is more concerned with beating the Black Cats.

"We are strong. We lost against Manchester United (last Sunday) but they were at the top of the table and the difference between the two teams was very small,'' said the Liverpool boss.

"I am sure Sunderland will provide a physical test for our players but if we can play our game we can beat anyone, especially at home.''

Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones has a chance of returning at Anfield.

The Trinidad and Tobago international has missed the last two games with a hip flexor injury but is back in training and may well be involved.

However, defender John Mensah (hamstring) is struggling after limping off at Aston Villa in midweek while midfielder Andy Reid remains on the sidelines with a similar problem.

Fraizer Campbell will draw upon his Manchester United roots as he attempts to deepen Liverpool's misery.

The 22-year-old Sunderland striker grew up in the game at Old Trafford, and although he played only a handful of senior games for the club after emerging from the Red Devils' Academy, he is well versed in the long-standing rivalry between the two clubs.

This weekend, the Huddersfield-born player will step out at Anfield determined to complete a famous double which would be almost as well received in the red half of Manchester as it would be back in the north-east.

Campbell said: "I have got a lot of Manchester United fans in my family, so they would be more than happy with that.

"These are the type of games that, when you are a youngster, you think, 'I would love to play at Anfield'.

"Every time I have played against Liverpool, there has always been a bit of bite.

"It will be good to go to Anfield and hopefully come away with a result and more points.

"We beat them earlier in the season at home, so I don't see why we can't do it now."

John Aldridge: Benfica Against Liverpool Test Is So Eagerly Awaited

Europe comes back on the agenda next week and though the competition might not be the one Liverpool want to be in, we have got a fantastic game ahead of us.

I have been in Portugal for most of the past week and I can tell you that all anyone is talking about is Liverpool’s Europa League showdown with Benfica; it has really captured the imagination.

Benfica was undoubtedly the most difficult tie Liverpool could have been given but the atmosphere will be amazing and I would imagine Rafa Benitez is determined to prove a point back in the Stadio da Luz.

The last time Liverpool played there in 2006, we threw a great chance away and ended up being comprehensively beaten over two legs. Since then, Benfica have blossomed and are a team going places.

It will be a difficult test but it would be great to think we could take a step closer to Hamburg by getting a result in Lisbon.

The winners of this tie will be favourites to lift the trophy.

Torres Urges Club To Make Four Top-Class Signings

Fernando Torres has confirmed he has no plans to leave Liverpool this summer but has again called on the club to invest in "quality players" for next season.

Liverpool are currently struggling to secure Champions League qualification for next season and there have been persistent rumours that Torres may be sold to balance the books if they do not finish fourth.

However, Torres is hopeful that there will be significant investment over the close season and insists he has no plans to leave even if Liverpool fail to make the Champions League.

"My place is here at Liverpool, and in England," he told his personal website.

"It's too early to talk, but I still think that we will finish fourth, but qualifying for the Champions League isn't the most important thing on my mind. The most important thing is for the club is to try and sign quality players, footballers who improve the quality of current squad.

"We need four more top players to be really competitive, players who are better than all of us who are here at the moment, and whose arrival will make the rest work that extra bit harder.

"Next season we want to be challenging for the Premier League title and the Champions League or Europa League but, for that to happen, we need some new signings. And remember, I've still got three years to run on my contract.

"I've said before that we need four or five top players so that we push ourselves even more. Competition for places is a positive thing, especially at big clubs.

"As for the new signings, that's a question for Rafa Benitez. The boss in charge of everything to do with the new arrivals."

Torres Quashes Exit Claims

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has rebuffed reports he will leave the club at the end of their dismal campaign.

The news will come as a relief to the Anfield faithful, who have seen Torres net 18 goals in just 24 starts this term - a shining light in an otherwise wretched season for the Reds.

Rafa Benitez's men face an uphill struggle if they are to qualify for next season's UEFA Champions League and at present look short of mounting a Premier League charge next term.

Torres admits Liverpool must bring in "quality players" over the summer but insists failure to qualify for Europe's premier club competition will not force him to consider a move.

"My place is here at Liverpool, and in England," the 26-year-old told his personal website.

"We need some new signings," he admitted, while adding his ambitions for next season include "challenging for the Premier League title, and the Champions League or Europa League."

The former Atletico Madrid forward has three years remaining on his current Anfield contract and is expected to put his credentials on show at this summer's World Cup with Spain.

Rafa: Defender Not A Problem

Rafael Benitez has emphatically dismissed question marks over the form of Emiliano Insua, insisting he is satisfied with the full-back's first-team performances.

Fabio Aurelio's injury problems and the sale of Andrea Dossena have meant the 21-year-old has figured in all but two of Liverpool's 31 Barclays Premier League fixtures so far this term.

And while Benitez admits Insua still has room for improvement, he is pleased with the development of the Argentina international.

"He has made some mistakes like the other players, but he has also played some good games. I don't see him as a problem," said the Spaniard.

"It is true with Fabio Aurelio we had more experience and different options - we could give a rest to Aurelio and Insua - but that is not the case now, so we have to keep pushing Emiliano.

"He is at the age to learn. He is young and wants to improve, so we are working very hard with him trying to give him some ideas and advice.

"I think he is doing well - he is not doing badly."

With Insua the only senior left-back currently available for selection, some have questioned whether Jamie Carragher could operate in the position.

Benitez, however, has not entertained such thoughts.

"Insua can do it well," said the boss. "He is left-footed, so when you think of attack, he can overlap when he goes forward, cross and be a different option.

"If you have a right-footed player there, it is always more difficult for them."

Carra: Torres Is A Nightmare

Jamie Carragher today revealed how he hates marking Fernando Torres in training and lauded the Spanish sensation as the world's top striker.

Torres is currently in a rich vein of form having bagged five goals in his last three games and Carra reckons there is no finer front man than Liverpool's No.9.

"For me I think Torres is the best striker in the world," he said. "But I can see arguments for (Wayne) Rooney and (Didier) Drogba. Man Utd fans would say Rooney and Chelsea fans would say Drogba. They are all in the Barclays Premier League.

"Torres is a nightmare to defend against in training. He has pace and power and that is what causes you problems. He is not going to drop off and do nice touches. He is always looking to get beyond you and score a goal."

Meanwhile, Carragher believes dented confidence has been a key factor in Liverpool's up-and-down season.

The Reds began the campaign amongst the title favourites after finishing second last term having amassed 86 points, but mixed early season form and misfortune saw Rafael Benitez's contingent fall out of championship contention.

Carragher said: "There is no set reason why the season has not gone as well as we would have hoped.

"We just haven't played well enough. We struggled right from the off. I think we were hit hard by the disappointment of not fighting for the league title like we thought we would. That knocked our confidence.

"Last year we were at our best. We were flying and confidence was high but it has been different this season.

"For other teams, fourth is top of the world and they have been buzzing all season, but we were disappointed realising we would not win the league."

Liverpool enjoyed great success against title rivals Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal last season - with only the Gunners preventing the Reds from winning by claiming a couple of draws.

Carragher continued: "Each year is different and the little things can change it, like when we conceded two quick goals against Arsenal at Anfield.

"Any little thing against the top sides gets punished. We still have Chelsea to play and that is a very big game if we want to get into the top four."

Nonetheless, the Reds will still aim to end 2009-10 on a high note as they pursue a top four finish and success in the Europa League.

At the start of the weekend, Liverpool were four points behind fourth place Tottenham Hotspur in the Barclays Premier League having played a game more.

Carragher feels Harry Redknapp's men are currently 'slight favourites' in the race for Champions League football - but the vice-captain is calling on his teammates to ensure a strong finale to the season.

"Tottenham are in the driving seat at the moment," he said. "They are playing well and winning games. But you don't know how the FA Cup will affect them.

"We have got to put a great run together because Aston Villa and Manchester City are challenging hard and Everton are sneaking up there."

He added: "The Champions League is probably the biggest club knock-out competition in the world. It is as big, or bigger, than the World Cup."

Striker Eyes Red Future

A first-team debut at the Emirates, goals galore at reserve level and a part to play in Huddersfield Town's bid for promotion - it's fair to say it's been an eventful season for Nathan Eccleston.

The 19-year-old striker has made huge strides this year and marked his first game on loan at the Terriers with a debut strike at Yeovil.

Earlier this week, made the trip up the M62 to see how the youngster has adapted to life in League One.

Here he tells us how Martin Kelly influenced his decision to make the move, why Terry McDermott is still passionate about all-things LFC and why he is determined to return to Anfield and make a big impression next term.

Well Nathan, you're a few months into your loan at Huddersfield Town now, how's life treating you?

It's been good. I arrived in late January and straight away the people here made me feel welcome. It's a terrific stadium and they are a good ambitious club. Hopefully we can end the season with promotion.

It's been an eventful campaign for Nathan Eccleston hasn't it...

Yes it has. I moved up from the youth team last year and it's been a whole new experience for me. I've made quite quick progress. I did well in the reserves and then the manager gave me a chance in the first-team. I had those two games within the space of a week and now I'm here on loan looking to gain more experience. As a young player I think that's what I need and I'm grateful to Huddersfield for giving me the chance.

Of course, you're not the only former red to have been on loan at Huddersfield. Last season Martin Kelly earned rave reviews here - did you speak to him when you were mulling over the move?

It all happened quite quickly really. A week earlier I was actually speaking to Martin about going out on loan and when I first heard about a potential loan move here I got on the phone to him. He basically confirmed everything, telling me that they were a good club and played football the right way. He told me he enjoyed his football here last year and that it would probably benefit me.

We bumped into former red, Terry McDermott earlier (assistant manager of Huddersfield Town). He's really pleased with how you've done so far. Has he been a big help?

Yes, definitely. The first day I arrived here all of the coaching staff were really welcoming. The players have all been great too. They could have seen it as competition for their place, but it hasn't been like that at all. They've been really helpful.

Have you had much banter with Terry Mac, particularly when you consider his past exploits with the Reds?

Yes, right from the first day, he was telling me all about his career at Liverpool and how times have changed. He's highly respected throughout the game and from what he achieved at Anfield he is rightly regarded as a legend. He's still got a big interest in Liverpool, asking me about all the up-and-coming players and who to watch out for.

You made an immediate impact too, with the winner against Yeovil. How pleasing was that to score your first senior goal?

It was great. I did a few interviews before the game in which I talked about how pleased I would be to score on my debut, so to actually do it was fantastic. But the main thing was to get the three points. I think Yeovil had only been beaten twice at home before that, so it was a bit of a dream start for me.

You've been in and out of the side since then, has that been frustrating or have you just seen it as part of your learning curve?

No, it's more about a learning curve. I'm only 19 and coming from reserve football, it is a lot different to league football. Any player who comes out on loan from the Premier League has to expect to fight for their place. You can't just expect to come out here and be in the team, you have to earn your place. It's just made me more hungry to fight for a place in the team.

Huddersfield are currently pushing for a place in the play-offs. Would the dream finale be for you to play in the final at Wembley?

Yes, definitely. Obviously, it's something you aspire to do when you are young boy. Just playing there in itself is a big achievement. If we can do that it would be magnificent for the club and obviously for me as an individual as well.

And just finally, in the summer your main aim must be to return to Liverpool and try to kick-on again...

That's my personal goal. I've come here to gain the experience so that I can go back to Liverpool and push for a place in the first team squad. I've got three more years to do that, so I'm looking forward to going back there in the summer.

Reds In Madrid Striker Link

Real Madrid President Florentino Perez is set to rule the roost at the Bernabeu with a summer clear as he looks to recoup some of the £250 million spent on 'Galactico' signings last summer.

Reports this week in El Mundo Deportivo and Marca report that up to nine Madrid squad members could face the axe this summer with Premier League clubs Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool linked with possible swoops.

Perez is set to execute a strict summer exit policy at the 'White House' in an effort to raise funds for new stars.

It is understood that the influential businessman was shocked by Madrid's sixth consecutive premature Champions League after they were dumped out of the competition by French Ligue 1 side Lyon.

To rub salt into the wounds Madrid fans had hoped the club would reach the Champions League final as it is being held in the club's magnificent Bernabeu stadium.

The Premier League quartet of Chelsea, Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool have been linked with moves for a number of Madrid's players who are surplus to requirements under Perez.

Reports in El Mundo Deportivo suggest that Madrid legend Raul will retire at the end of the season, as could former Liverpool FC goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek.

Reds boss Rafael Benitez has been linked with a move for in-form Argentinean international Gonzalo Higuain.

The striker has been in great form for Los Merengues this campaign, and despite good performances could still lose his berth in the first XI if Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery joins moves to the Bernabeu.

Liverpool boss Benitez is a confirmed admirer of Higuain, with reports suggesting he would swoop for the player if he became available.

Benitez To Bank On Experience

Manager Rafael Benitez thinks Liverpool's previous experience in securing Champions League football will help them come good at the end of the season.

The Reds are currently sixth, four points behind fourth-placed Tottenham, but that gap could be more by the end of the day.

And although his side have played more matches than Spurs, Manchester City and Aston Villa, Benitez is confident his players can rise to the occasion with at least five wins required from their last seven matches.

"I had the belief before last weekend's defeat at Manchester United and the main thing is to keep focused on our games and try to win and we will see what happens with the other teams," said the Spaniard.

"Normally when you are in a top side and you have been in a top side for years you expect to approach every game thinking about just winning.

"With the other teams you never know but at this moment they have an excellent motivation.

"But it is different for them, when they have been coming fifth, sixth or seventh, to go forward than when you have been in the top four and have had some problems.

"That is the extra motivation they have so the experience we have will be our motivation too."

Liverpool host Sunderland on Sunday, a game they have to win if they are to maintain the pressure on their rivals.

Midfielder Javier Mascherano is likely to play a key role against combative opponents Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana.

Benitez praised the attitude of the Argentina captain, who this week said the Reds boss had made him "a better player and better person".

Mascherano is on the verge of signing a new long-term contract and Benitez, with a dig at winger Albert Riera who criticised him for not communicating with his players, said that was partly due to the relationship they had.

"We are working hard behind the scenes so it is closer. I talk with him every day so I know the latest news," said the manager.

"The last conversation was very positive. He knows we are trying to improve the club and hopefully we can do it sooner rather than later.

"For a manager who doesn't talk to the players - so some of them say - that is good.

"I think he has improved a lot and he is keen to learn. He is 100% and the fans love him and we know when we are trying to improve him in a different way he will listen and try to do what you say.

"The main thing is the attitude of the player and his character."

Anfield stewards will be extra vigilant with visiting fans on Sunday to ensure there can be no repeat of Darren Bent's infamous beach ball goal which earned Sunderland a 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light in October.

Benitez: I Have No Cash For A Summer Spree

Rafael Benitez does not expect his Liverpool transfer kitty to be adversely affected if his club does not qualify for the Champions League this season – only because he has precious few funds to play with in the first place.

Benitez was advised at the start of the season that he could do little more than spend the money he generated, hence the purchases of Alberto Aquilani and Glen Johnson only once outgoing deals for Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa had been settled.

The manager has also spent a relatively small amount bringing Maxi Rodriguez and Sotirios Kyrgiakos to Merseyside yet he is anything but the last of the big spenders.

Not finishing fourth is currently unthinkable yet if they do not make it, he expects no reduction in his war chest only because he is determined not to miss what he never had.

"They [the owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks] told me before that it didn't make a big difference [if we don't qualify]. Every year that we have qualified for the Champions League it hasn't made a big difference so if we don't qualify this time I don't expect a big difference."

A failure to qualify for the Champions League would be a stark wake-up call to the fact that the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Aston Villa are now all genuine contenders. The hegemony of the old Big Four looks to be over – with Liverpool the principal victims – yet Benitez has not given up faith that a strong end of season can restore their position among the elite.

"It could go to the very end," he said. "I don't know which teams will be there. Hopefully it will be Liverpool and maybe another one but now there are four and maybe five teams involved so it is important to remain calm."

He also confirmed that Albert Riera's time at Anfield is almost up after he publicly criticised the Liverpool manager last week. Benitez said Riera could be sent out on loan.

Mark Lawrenson Says Failure To Qualify For Champions League Could Be Disastrous

As a player, he made 241 appearances for Liverpool during the club's glory years of the 1980s, winning nine major honours. Now, he is one of the most recognised pundits around, a lynchpin of the BBC's football coverage. But whilst Mark Lawrenson retains a special affection for his old club, he believes that failure to finish in the top four this season could have disastrous consequences for the club in the long term.

Speaking exclusively to UK, Lawrenson revealed that he feels Manchester City are the team best placed to snatch the final Champions League qualification spot, despite their midweek defeat at home to Everton.

"At the moment, I think Manchester City are favourites," he said. "Tottenham have a really tough run of games, and that could prove their undoing. Liverpool, meanwhile, are inconsistent. You don't know what you are going to get with them at the moment.

"As for City, well I know Everton beat them - and beat them comfortably - but at this stage of the season I would rather have the points in the bag than the easier games to play. Because when it gets to this stage of the season, teams look at the fixtures and say 'we can win the next three or four', but it never works out that way."

Tottenham currently occupy fourth spot on 55 points, two points clear of City, and four ahead of Liverpool, and Lawrenson concedes that failure to qualify for next season's Champions League would have far harsher consequences for the Reds than their rivals, and queries whether the club's prized assets would be prepared to settle for Europa League football.

"If you look at Manchester City for example, if they can secure Champions League football next season, can you imagine the players they will be able to sign? They already have a strong squad, that will only get stronger and stronger if they can guarantee Champions League football," he said.

"Of course I would dearly love to see Liverpool finish fourth, and they do have more home games than away, and with Torres back they will always have a chance. But if they don't finish fourth, I think it becomes a major problem for them - both in terms of attracting the kind of player they need, and in keeping hold of the ones they have got.

"If we’re not in the Champions League, does Fernando Torres want to play in the Europa League? Does Steven Gerrard, after all he has done for the club? I’m not sure. The problem we have is if we don’t get fourth, there will be so much open for debate, and that’s a worry."

That worry is certainly exacerbated by fears for the club's financial well-being. The £100million of fresh investment promised by managing director Christian Purslow has yet to appear, despite reports of interest from US-based bankers the Rhone Group, and Lawrenson believes the Reds co-owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, are simply waiting for the best possible deal on their investment.

"The Americans promised Liverpool a new ground, with George Gillett saying that there would be a spade in the ground within 60 days," said Lawrenson, "That was over three years ago, which tells you all you need to know about the situation at the moment.

"I think the key with Liverpool is – what will investors get for their money? If you are going to invest in a football club, you want value for money. And I think the American’s are looking at new investment from a perspective of how much money they can make."

It is certainly a come-down from this time last season, when Liverpool were pushing Manchester United hard in the Premier League title race. This year's championship is a three-way battle between United, Arsenal and Chelsea, and Lawrenson has a sneaking feeling for Arsene Wenger's side.

"I have to tell you, when Arsenal lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, I got 10-1 on Arsenal for the league, and I took it," he says, "Just looking at their fixtures, I'd give them a massive chance. I’m not saying they are definitely going to win it, but it is looking like a good bet at the moment.

“Having said that though, would you back against Manchester United? Would you back Chelsea to go and win at Old Trafford? I’m not sure."

Lawrenson admits the title race is as open as it has been for many years, but says the reason for this is an improvement in the top seven clubs, rather than the entire league.

"I think the reason the league is so open is because the top six or seven have improved, and the rest of the league has not," he added. "So you have the top teams all beating each other, whilst the rest of the teams are perhaps scrambling around a bit, that's why the race is so open this season."

And with the PFA Player of the Year awards fast approaching, Lawrenson feels there is one candidate who stands head and shoulders above the rest this season.

"I think Wayne Rooney is a shoo-in," he says, "How can anyone vote for [Didier] Drogba when he keeps getting sent off in the Champions League? Cesc Fabregas? Maybe, but for me Rooney is a certainty.

"When you think that [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Carlos] Tevez left in the summer and people wondered where United would get the goals from, and he just stepped up and has been absolutely sensational. He is a shoo-in for Player of the Season surely.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Rafa Aware Of Transfer Impact

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez acknowledges that his transfer options could depend on a place in the top four of the Premier League and success in the Europa League.

The Reds are clinging to the hope of a spot in next season's UEFA Champions League and they are also preparing for a Europa League quarter-final against Benfica.

Benitez has admitted that sixth-placed Liverpool are now dependent upon mistakes among their rivals in the race for fourth position and they were grateful on Wednesday when Aston Villa and Manchester City dropped points.

The Anfield boss is well aware of the importance of participating in the Champions League and winning silverware from a playing perspective, but also in attracting new faces to move to Merseyside.

"Players want to win trophies and want to finish in the top four," said Benitez, who has already agreed a pre-contract deal with Standard Liege forward Milan Jovanovic.

"The players know it is important to perform now for the future and they want to stay here so I think it will be okay.

"We are now in a situation where we have to move forward and try to bring the best from each player. It is not easy to stay at a very good level in a season.

"The main thing is we have some players coming back from injuries and if they are together and push together I am sure we will do really well.

"This club is a massive club so if we can progress in the Europa League and finish in the top four a lot of (other) players will be thinking whether to come here or stay where they are."

Benitez Confirms Riera Set To Leave Liverpool

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has confirmed the club are looking to offload winger Albert Riera in the next fortnight.

The Spain international angered Benitez with his outspoken criticism last week, claiming the manager does not communicate with players and describing Liverpool as a "sinking ship''.

He was immediately suspended for several days by the club and it now seems certain Riera, who has a Russian wife, is likely to be farmed out on loan to a Russian club before the close of their transfer window early next month.

"We are working with different clubs trying to find a solution at this moment,'' Benitez said.”We will try to do some business if we can and see what happens.''

Benitez: Rest Of The Season Vital

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez believes how his side finishes the season could have a significant bearing on his transfer options in the summer.

Although the club are sixth in the Barclays Premier League, four points behind fourth-placed Tottenham having played a match more, on paper they have the easiest-looking run-in of all the Champions League hopefuls.

And Liverpool go into a Europa League quarter-final against Benfica next week hoping there is still a chance of winning some silverware.

Benitez believes the incentive to finish fourth and win the Europa League applies not only to his players but any prospective new signings.

"Players want to win trophies and want to finish in the top four," said the Spaniard, who has already agreed a pre-contract deal with Standard Liege forward Milan Jovanovic.

"The players know it is important to perform now for the future and they want to stay here so I think it will be okay.

"We are now in a situation where we have to move forward and try to bring the best from each player.

"It is not easy to stay at a very good level in a season.

"The main thing is we have some players coming back from injuries and if they are together and push together I am sure we will do really well.

"This club is a massive club so if we can progress in the Europa League and finish in the top four a lot of [other] players will be thinking whether to come here or stay where they are."

Last week goalkeeper Jose Reina confirmed he was very close to signing a new long-term contract and now Javier Mascherano has followed suit.

Securing the pair on extended deals was a priority of Benitez's and it seems he has been successful in persuading the 25-year-old Mascherano, who was linked with a move to Barcelona last summer, his future lies at Anfield.

"I have never said I was not happy at Liverpool. That was the press," said the Argentina captain, who has been one of the more consistent performers in a disappointing season - even when filling in as an emergency right-back on a couple of occasions.

"I am happy here and the only way I can show that is with my performances on the pitch.

"The club are talking with my agents. I don't like to be involved in the contract meetings so I leave that to my agents and the people at the club.

"Liverpool know I want to stay. I don't think it will be difficult to arrive at a deal and we will see what happens in the next few weeks."