Sunday, January 24, 2010

Aquilani Asks For Time To Prove His Worth

A telling exchange took place between two Liverpool fans on the approach to Anfield on Wednesday night.

"I hope Aquilani has a good game," began the conversation.

"Same here," came the reply. "It's about time we started to see a bit more from him."

Less than three months ago, the only question surrounding the summer acquisition was whether we would ever get to see him at all.

In that sense, Aquilani has come a long way in a relatively short space of time.

From his debut at The Emirates in late October, to the part he played in setting up Dirk Kuyt for the first of a match-winning double against Tottenham this week, Aquilani has had to learn to walk before he can run again.

Still, whether he plays or not, he is well aware that the weight of expectation hangs heavier around his neck with each passing game.

But, although he accepts people are waiting for tangible proof that he can justify his substantial price tag, Aquilani subscribes to the notion that good things come to those who wait.

"I know a lot has been said and written about me so far without me being able to prove my ability in matches," he agrees.

"Soon, I believe that I will.

"I understand that people are still wondering whether I will be a good signing for Liverpool.

"But I need to be judged after I have played in a run of games. I feel a lot better about my fitness now, although it could still be higher.

"I am relaxed because I know I can do a lot better and with time I know that will happen."

Of his 12 appearances to date, Aquilani has stayed on the pitch from beginning to end just once - albeit for all 120 minutes of the FA Cup replay against Reading.

Had he remained with his boyhood club, Roma, he would probably have played a lot more this season.

The slower pace and familiarity of Serie A may have suited him better after missing so much football over the past 18 months, the consequence of a persistent ankle injury that eventually required surgery.

That saw Aquilani miss the start of the season with Liverpool.

Not only has he had to get back on his feet, but he has also been faced with learning a new style of play while adjusting to a new culture and all that this brings with it for the first time in his life.

It hasn't been easy for Aquilani, and former Liverpool midfielder Jan Molby suggests it could be next season until we begin to see the best of the Italian playmaker.

"I don't think it's fair to judge Alberto now," said the Dane.

"It always takes the type of player he is longer to adjust to the English game than say a battling midfielder.

"Then there's the fact he missed the opening months of the season and didn't make his first Premier League start until December.

"From now until the end of the campaign, he will gain experience and find ways of improving during matches. Then he'll have a break before getting a proper pre-season under his belt. That's when people should start to judge him."

The 2-0 win over Tottenham was Aquilani's most encouraging outing for Liverpool to date.

Although he faded before being substituted in the second half, his quick-thinking and eye for a pass were evident as he linked up well with Dirk Kuyt, playing in a support role behind the Dutchman.

The fact he hasn't been able to strike up an on-field rapport with Fernando Torres yet is as frustrating for Aquilani as it is his manager, Rafa Benitez, who brought the Italy international in to help quicken the attacking process between the back and front-lines.

Of the seven matches Aquilani and Torres have been involved in together, they have shared the same pitch for more than half an hour on just three occasions.

With Aquilani's speed of thought and Torres's turn of pace, the mind boggles as to the havoc they could wreak. Throw Steven Gerrard into the mix and it becomes a truly mouthwatering prospect.

Injuries to all three have put the development of a holy trinity on hold so far, while there have been the rudimentary doubts as to whether Aquilani can adapt to the idiosyncrasies of the English game. Again, given time to show what he can do, the 25-year-old is certain he can flourish where the likes of his recently departed countryman, Andrea Dossena, floundered.

"Some people may think that I will find the pace of the Premier League very quick," says Aquilani.

"I understand that some players who have done well in Serie A have come here in the past and struggled.

"But I think I am perfectly suited to the system Liverpool play.

"The manager has spoken to me about his ideas for the team and it is clear he wants me to play further up the pitch linking between the defensive midfielder and Steven Gerrard.

"The manager has explained to me in detail what he wants me to do for the team.

"At the moment, I am regaining my fitness after a long time away from football. It will take me a while to get to a level I am happy with and I don't think I'm that far away.

"When every player is fit, including me, I think it will bring the best from me and the best from the 11 players we have out on the pitch."

Put another way, Aquilani is looking forward to answering the questions being asked of him.

Skrtel Confident Of Run

Martin Skrtel is confident Liverpool can now finally string together the run of results they have been waiting for to save their season.

The Reds' catastrophic season has been blighted by inconsistent form and early exits from both the UEFA Champions League and FA Cup.

Wins over Manchester United and Aston Villa have previously sparked belief of a turning point around Merseyside, but still the unpredictability remained.

Following the midweek 2-0 triumph over top-four hopefuls Tottenham, which followed a 1-1 draw at Stoke, Skrtel is adamant their season's woes are behind them this time.

"I firmly believe that better times are ahead of us as up to present we have been far behind the pre-season objectives," said Skrtel.

"The last two games against Stoke and Tottenham showed us that we are ready to do our best for the club. We would like to start a long winning run.

"I enjoyed the game. When the entire team is doing well, then it shows on the performance of each player. I am happy that I helped Liverpool to valuable points.

"It is a pity that we did not beat Stoke, but late goals are a part of football."

Skrtel partnered Greek centre-half Sotirios Kyrgiakos at the back in both games, and the Slovakia international admits the unfamiliar pairing was not a risk due to their collaborations in training.

"We are similar types of players, both playing physically. Our game is based on challenges. Even in training we start alongside one another often, so it was not an exceptional situation to either of us."

The chase is on to finish in the top four in the Premier League to secure Champions League football next season, with Liverpool facing strong competition from Spurs, Villa and Manchester City for the vacant spot.

"In the Premier League we want to finish fourth in the worst case," said Skrtel. "Unlike our rivals we will be playing fewer games, so we should be more relaxed and have more energy.

"I believe we will reach our objective of finishing within the top four. Also, we are still in the Europa League and will be trying to get as far as possible."

Italians Eye Reds Starlet understands Liverpool starlet Damien Plessis could be set for a move away from Anfield before the close of the transfer window.

A mystery Italian club is thought to be keen on signing the highly-rated 21-year-old.

The French midfielder has found himself well down the pecking order this season, making just one appearance in the Carling Cup against Arsenal.

Plessis joined Liverpool in 2007 from Lyon and he made his debut for the first team in April 2008.

However, the French Under-21 international has struggled to make an impact and has found himself restricted to a role in the reserves.

His Italian suitors are understood to have watched him in action for the reserves in midweek against Manchester City and they are hoping to strike a deal for his services.

Liverpool's Deal With Belgian Club Genk

Liverpool have struck a co-operation deal with Belgian club, KRC Genk. Following a series of meetings an agreement has been signed until 2014 that could have benefits for both clubs.

Genk representatives flew into the city for Thursday's night's reserve game at Prenton Park where technical director Herman Vermeulen and club scout Roland Janssen ran the rule over the Reds' 3-3 draw with Manchester City.

The co-operation deal will work on three levels with Liverpool and Genk sharing information from their scouting databases.

While Genk are interested in taking some of Liverpool's fringe players on loan, the main attraction for the Anfield club is the opportunity to bring in African and South American players to England via Belgium.

As Belgium is not subject to the same restrictions found in UK employment law, Genk will be able to act on Liverpool's behalf to sign non-EU players who could later join the Reds once they qualify for European citizenship or meet the 75% quota of international games to receive a work permit.

Liverpool have faced problems retaining non-EU players in recent years, most notably Argentine winger Sebastian Leto who was loaned to Greek club Olympiakos and eventually sold to Panathinaikos after his Italian passport was revoked.

EU regulations also delayed Chilean Mark Gonzalez's arrival from Albacete four years ago.

Genk director general Dirk Degraen was at Melwood last week, where he met with Reds manager Rafa Benitez and chief scout, Eduardo Macia.

Degraen said: "Liverpool wants to sign young talented players from Africa and South America. But because of the British law it isn't possible.

"We can get the players to Belgium and let them develop. It would be a win-win situation for both clubs.

"Also, Liverpool has a very big squad and many players don't get many minutes.

"Genk can offer a solution for that, if we are offered the players that can make our squad better."

Genk are currently tenth in Belgium's top-flight but are typically challenging among the European places each season behind Anderlecht, Standard Liege and Club Brugge.

The Jupiler League club, coached by ex-Belgian international Franky Vercauteren, are thought to be interested in taking one of Liverpool's strikers on loan.

However, as Benitez is looking to strengthen in this area with Fernando Torres currently sidelined and following the departure of Andriy Voronin this month, he is unlikely to release any more forwards unless any signings are made before the transfer window closes next weekend.

The co-operation deal with Genk is not dissimilar to the agreement between Manchester United and Belgian second division club Royal Antwerp. United's long-standing partnership has seen a host of youngsters gain first team experience in Belgium, including John O'Shea, Jonny Evans, Frazier Campbell and Ronnie Wallwork - the latter being sent home in shame following an altercation with a referee.

John Aldridge: Clearing The Air Has Been A Boost For Liverpool

All the stories that came out regarding a dressing room bust up during half-time against Reading have been a good thing.

Whether it was trivial or whatever, something has gone on. I’ve seen it loads of times at various clubs.

For me, it’s positive when things come to a head. It shows people care.

Johnny King had a cracking saying at Tranmere; ‘Don’t let things fester under the carpet.’

He’d say if you keep on brushing things under the carpet they start to stink.

Things need to be out in the open, so whatever it was at Liverpool, and whoever was involved, there has been a reaction and the air has been cleared.

For me, that has contributed to the effort the lads have put into the last two games. Why that didn’t happen before, I don’t know, but at least it’s started to turn.

We went missing in the FA Cup against Reading but there’s been an improvement in the league since Aston Villa.

We’ve got 10 points out of the last possible 12, which could easily have been all 12.

That’s a good sign, especially when you consider we’ve been missing Torres and Gerrard for the last two games, plus we haven’t been playing well.

But now the lads seem to be knuckling down and having a good go. That’s what people want to see. You could see the reaction of the Kop against Tottenham when the tackles started going in.

Jamie Carragher epitomised everything we need from the team; running through brick walls. That gets everyone up for it and gets everyone pulling together.

People have said that Rafa has lost the dressing room. The response of his players says otherwise.

They need to keep it going until the end of the season.

We’ve got a massive month ahead with Wolves away and then Bolton before the derby, Arsenal and Manchester City.

We’re right back in with a chance of getting fourth place so you’d hope we don’t put any more pressure on ourselves going into some of these games.

With the way City are now, and with Tottenham and Villa in there, it’s going to be tight.

But we seem to be getting back to winning games and playing a bit better, plus a couple of clean sheets and it’s suddenly looking much brighter.

WHILE it was good to see Dirk Kuyt rise to the challenge in Fernando Torres’ absence against Spurs, I’m still concerned about the lack of strikers at the club.

It remains a problem position.

We’ve got to go and find another striker before the transfer window closes.

I’m not sure we can see it through with what we’ve got.

Kenwyne Jones would be a good addition, plus I’ve spoken before of someone like Kevin Davies who could provide what we need.

Young David Ngog looked lost at Stoke playing up front on his own. That’s what you’ve got to do with Rafa’s formation but he was like a fish out of water.

He did OK when he came on in midweek against Spurs – winning the penalty – but that’s at home.

If Torres is out we need someone who knows the ropes, a player who can get a few goals but also allows others to play around him.

Lee On Lucas, Maxi And Kyrgiakos

Sammy Lee believes Lucas has made great strides this season after the Reds No.21 clocked up his 100th appearance during Wednesday's 2-0 win over Spurs.

The Brazilian international is joint second in the table of the highest appearance holders at Anfield this season having played 29 games so far, and Lee admits he is in the team on merit.

"It's a great achievement to play 100 games for this football club," Lee told

"He has shown a great strength of character because he has had a lot of criticism and he is doing a great job for this football club.

"To play 100 games for this club is immense. He has come on a lot this season. There is room for improvement as is the case for each and every one of us at this club.

"He wants to improve, he wants to listen and he wants to learn. So when you have characters like that you have got a chance to do well.

"He has had his difficult times because he's not everyone's favourite player but we know at this club just how good a job he does for us.

"Working with him on a daily basis he is a great character and he has shown a great strength of character."

Lee also spoke about how well recent recruit Maxi Rodriguez is settling into life at Anfield.

"He has settled in very well," added Lee.

"He has only been here a short time and it's been a hectic time for him because he had to go back to Madrid to say his farewell to everyone.

"He has integrated himself into the group very well indeed. The Kop gave him a great welcome when he came on against Tottenham and if he performs and works hard then he will become a favourite here."

Another foreign import beginning to find his feet in a red shirt is Philipp Degen who has started the last three games and his form has impressed the Melwood coaching staff.

"He has got energy and one thing the opposition doesn’t like is people running at them with pace," added Lee.

"He gave us width and it was positive."

Lee also had praise for Greek international Sotirios Kyrgiakos who has been in impressive form during the last two outings against Stoke and Tottenham.

"I thought the whole back four were excellent against Tottenham," he said.

"It's never easy to play against Crouchie because of his size and I thought we handled him and Defoe very well.

"Kyrgiakos has produced two outstanding performances for us against Stoke and Tottenham and that's what we need. We knew it was going to be like backs to the wall against Stoke and he did very well."

Young Reds Lose To Wolves

A goal eight minutes from time saw Wolves gain revenge for their FA Youth Cup defeat as they beat Liverpool Under-18s 2-1 at the Kirkby Academy on Saturday morning.

Lauri Dalla Valle thought he had earned Rodolfo Borrell's side a share of the spoils with a first half equaliser, but Andre Landall's finish from a right-wing cross saw the side from the Black Country take the three points.

Liverpool's Academy side had already beaten Wolves at Anfield 2-0 in the FA Youth Cup 3rd round which was sweet revenge for losing 2-1 in the Academy league a couple of week's earlier.

Boosted by the inclusion of Melwood based duo Christopher Buchtmann and Dalla Valle the Reds kicked-off with an intent to attack Wolves right from the start.

However, the away side had the first chance of the game on five minutes when James Spray shot wide after good work from Kyle Bennett down the left flank gave the Wolves No.9 an opening.

The boys from the Black Country had started well and Landall went close five minutes later when he fired a first time shot wide after a good break down the right from Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.

The breakthrough arrived after 14 minutes when Wolves scored from a set piece. Bennett's left wing corner found the head of Landell who found the net from a tight angle with a looping header beyond the reach of Deale Chamberlain.

Despite the frustration at going a goal down the young Reds showed great character and were level after 22 minutes with goal machine Dalla Valle on target.

German starlet Christopher Buchtmann provided the assist with a precise through ball and the Finn did the rest. When he gets one on one with the goalkeeper there is usually no doubt about the outcome and he finished nicely.

Reserve team boss John McMahon was amongst the spectators and he would have been impressed by Buchtmann's eye for a pass and Dalla Valle's finishing qualities.

The No.9 had another chance on 26 minutes when Tom Ince's left wing corner picked him out but he misdirected his header wide of the target.

Michael Ngoo then almost created an opening for himself but was denied by some brave goalkeeping from Aaron McCarey who dived at his feet to smother the ball.

Wolves had a great chance five minutes before the break when Mendez-Laing had a clear opening from the edge of the box but fortunately for Liverpool he dragged his shot wide.

They went even closer from a free-kick two minutes before the break. Craig Roddan tripped Landell on the edge of the penalty area and skipper Nathan Rooney curled an effort just wide.

The highlight of the first half was a wonderful run down the right wing from centre half Andre Wisdom on the stroke of half-time. The England youth international beat three defenfers before curling an effort just wide of McCarey's far post. It would have been some goal had it gone in.

The second half started at a ferocious pace. McCarey in the Wolves goal showed good handling when he did well to meet a Roddan right wing free-kick after being put under pressure from Ngoo and Stephen Sama.

Then at the other end Ince tracked back to make a superb interception as Landell eyed a sight of goal.

On the hour mark Ngoo's header gave Dalla Valle a golden chance but from a tight angle he couldn't get enough power behind his effort which was saved by McCarey.

Tackles were now beginning to fly in as both side tried to get control of the game. Jack Robinson and Spray were both booked after an altercation and Roddan quickly followed into the notebook after a late challenge.

Rooney then went close to restoring the lead for the away side when his rasping drive was cleared behind for a corner.

Buchtmann nearly won it for the home side 15 minutes from time when he shot just wide after cutting in from the right.

Then with 10 minutes remaining the away side got the winner when Landell found the net from close range.

Dalla Valle almost stole a point three minutes later but his header landed just wide, and in stoppage time McCarey dropped a cross from a corner under pressure from Robinson, but Wolves managed too frantically clear the danger.

Liverpool had four corners in stoppage time but try as they might they couldn't force an equaliser their efforts deserved.

Liverpool team: Deale Chamberlain, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson, Andre Wisdom, Stephen Sama, Craig Roddan, Christopher Buchtmann, Conor Coady, Lauri Dalla Valle, Tom Ince, Michael Ngoo (Krisztian Adorjan 85). Subs not used: Michael Ihiekwe, Chris Oldfield, Alex Cooper, Kristjan Emilsson.

Wolves Under-18s: Aaron McCarey, Jack Metcalf, Jamie Reckord, Nathan Rooney, John Dunleavy, James Parsonage (Paul McCone 68), Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, David Davis, James Spray, Andre Landall, Kyle Bennett.

Has Pako’s Departure Finally Been Felt At Anfield?

The answer to this question a week ago would have been an emphatic “no,” after all Rafa had his best finish in the Premier League without his trusted number two last season, but after Rafa’s recent run in with Ryan Babel, it’s a question which is worth pondering once again.

There is no doubt that Pako Ayesteran was well liked among Liverpool players before he left, especially among the Spanish contingent. He had been Rafa’s assistant for over seven years since his days at Tenerife and assisted Rafa during his fantastic spell at Valencia where he won two La Liga titles, before following him to Liverpool where he helped mastermind Liverpool’s Champions League victory in 2005 and FA Cup success in 2006.

It is known in football that every manager needs a decent assistant manager to support him, Rafa was no different and there were questions raised after Pako’s departure in 2007: how crucial was Pako in helping Rafa to succeed as a manager? How instrumental was the assistant in the La Liga successors at Valencia and the Champions League triumph at Liverpool? There were two competing theories at the time, one that came out of Liverpool dressing room that he was just a fitness coach, the other from journalists that Pako was the man who kept a good relationship between players and management.

Certainly if we look at what Jamie Carragher said about Pako’s departure, the assistant’s role in the club’s success seems less significant:

Gerard Houllier had the same thing thrown at him when Patrice Bergues left, and in that case I do think that had a big impact. But the difference now is that Rafa Benitez is a coach, while Gerard Houllier was more of simply a manager and observed coaching rather than actually taking it. I got on great with Pako, he was superb at his job and he had a great relationship with the manager, but he was the fitness coach. Rafa is the coach. At the end of the day, we’ve lost a fitness coach, not a football coach, although it’s a fitness coach who was outstanding at his job. But it’s still the manager picking the team. Rafa is the football man and that hasn’t changed.

Certainly nothing changed in regards to training and coaching after Pako left but what about in terms of man management? Benitez has always been seen as a coach rather than a manager. He analyses tactics, statistics and initiates training accordingly but he never felt that managing players was in his remit. Something Steven Gerrard and other players such as Xabi Alonso have mentioned about Benitez is that he operates in a different way to most managers by being pretty aloof from his players. Pako’s job may have been to fill this void while at the same time giving Benitez a sounding board for his ideas, disagreeing on footballing matters when he saw fit.

The loss of his confidant and the lack of somebody else to talk to regarding tactical or player advice was seen as a main reason for a slump in form during the 2007/2008 season, but such talk evaporated during Liverpool’s relatively successful campaign last year. In the meantime Sammy Lee had been installed as Liverpool assistant coach, and there is certainly great affection for the scouser in the Liverpool dressing room. The appointment may have had a significant impact on Liverpool’s season but this is by no means certain.

Rafa as the coach always has the tactical ideas and when things were going well last season he may have not needed to turn to Lee for advice that often. The fact remains Lee has not been a confidant of Rafa as long as Pako was. Pako knew Benitez’s training methods, style of play and mentality inside out and would be able to provide ideas on the same wavelength as well as to reject them in the same measure from Rafa.

Now when things started to go wrong this season, who did Rafa turn to for ideas? And just as importantly, who did the players go to when they were low on confidence? Certainly not to Rafa. The run in with Ryan Babel maybe a situation which Pako may have dealt with in the past, and although it has been resolved now, the rest of the team including Gerrard have certainly looked low on confidence many times this season.

Has Sammy Lee been the man to get the players out of the doldrums when they have needed it, and is he the man who tells Rafa the problems in the team tactically? They are questions I don’t have the answers to but what I do know is Benitez needs less ‘yes’ men and more ‘no’ men for he is one stubborn man and Lee in the future will need to be Rafa’s confidant in the same way as Pako once was.