Saturday, February 13, 2010

I’m Back To Best, Says Steven Gerrard

Those critics who believe Steven Gerrard has been in decline this season will have nodded sagely at the evidence.

There was the Liverpool skipper, statuesque in the middle of the Anfield turf and giving no impression of reproducing the lung-busting efforts and devastating thrusts that have been such a feature of his glittering career.

In fact, on closer inspection, Gerrard wasn’t even moving at all. And then the 29-year-old sauntered on to the field and all was explained.

Of course, the scene yesterday was the Liverpool captain coming face-to-face for the first time with a waxwork of himself to be displayed at Madame Tussauds Museum in London.

By his own admission, Gerrard has at times been a pale imitation of his spectacular best during a disappointing campaign for Rafael Benitez’s side.

But even in defeat at Arsenal on Wednesday, the signs were there once again that the fire is once again burning bright inside the England international after a campaign hampered by niggling injuries.

“I felt good about my performance, but I’d much rather we had got the victory,” says Gerrard.

“My fitness is very good now. I’ve trained well since I came back from the last injury. I was really happy with my performance against Bolton, and I felt good against Arsenal.

“I can’t take too much from that, though, because we didn’t win. But there is nothing we can do about this Arsenal result now.”

Liverpool’s seven-game unbeaten run came to a shuddering halt at the Emirates with Abou Diaby’s 72nd-minute header, with Gerrard berating the decision of Howard Webb not to award the visitors an injury-time penalty when his free-kick struck the flailing arm of Cesc Fabregas.

Benitez’s men remain in fourth place but have been joined on 44 points by Manchester City, with Tottenham Hotspur 43 points and Aston Villa a further point adrift.

City, though, have two games in hand, and with Liverpool’s next Premier League game coming at Eastlands on Sunday week, it is a game they dare not lose.

And Gerrard is upbeat. “We will reflect and be disappointed but we have got a very big league game up next at Manchester City, and if we play like we did against Arsenal then I fancy us to beat them,” he says.

“We have to aim for fourth place and we also have everything to play for in the Europa League. We need to play almost as if we’re in the title race – and we’re more than capable of doing that.

“We haven’t been good enough in the first half of this season and our position in the league tells you that.

“We’re too far behind in the title race and that’s because the consistency we need hasn’t been there this season. It’s as simple as that. There’s no point in saying we’ve been unlucky with injuries or whatever, because we just haven’t been good enough. No excuses.

“But if we show the consistency we did in that seven-game unbeaten run, then we’ll challenge to get in the Champions League place.

“I suppose everything comes down to confidence. You can have all the great players but with bad results comes a hit to your confidence and things spiral from there. It’s only in recent weeks that we’ve started to play like we can.”

As well as indifferent form, Gerrard has been forced to contend with rumours of discontent behind the scenes and a desire for a move away from Anfield.

But the skipper has once again dismissed such suggestions, and says: “There’s so much rubbish said about Liverpool that I can’t keep track! Maybe it’s done to try to drive a wedge or to upset things. It won’t work – we’re as committed as ever.

“I would be proud if I spent my entire career at Liverpool, so maybe I’ll quit playing when my current contract comes to an end. I’ll be 33 then and it might be a good moment to hang up the boots.

“For example, I don’t regret not leaving for Chelsea. I did think about it when the chance was there in 2005, but Liverpool has always been my club and it just wouldn’t have felt the same playing somewhere else.

“You’re often faced with temptations in this game and Chelsea was one, but I’m glad it never happened.”

Carra Facing Fitness Race

Jamie Carragher is facing a race against time to be fit for Liverpool's crucial Premier League trip to Manchester City next Sunday - but Fernando Torres is on the comeback trail.

The Reds defender was forced off during Wednesday night's 1-0 defeat at Arsenal after tweaking his groin and has been ruled out for seven to 10 days.

Carragher is doubtful for next Thursday's Europa League clash with Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni at Anfield and Rafa Benitez will take no chances with his vice-captain ahead of the potentially season-defining contest at Eastlands.

The manager's major concern will be ensuring Carragher is ready to face Roberto Mancini's side.

Manchester City pose the greatest threat to fourth placed Liverpool's hopes of Champions League qualification and if the 32-year-old was to miss out it would be a huge blow.

As Carragher focuses on a speedy return to action, Torres is stepping up his rehabilitation at Melwood.

The Spanish striker, who has been out since he suffered a knee injury in the FA Cup defeat to Reading a month ago, has started running again.

When the Reds' 12-goal top scorer underwent surgery to repair torn cartilage he was told he would be missing for six weeks.

Benitez is reluctant to put a time frame on Torres' return to action and will resist the temptation to rush him back.

The manager intends to monitor his progress over the next week before deciding whether he's capable of playing a part against City.

If Carragher, who has impressed at right-back in the absence of Glen Johnson, doesn't recover in time for next Thursday then Benitez will have a defensive headache.

He could draft in Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who is currently serving a three-match domestic ban following his sending off in the Merseyside derby but is available for the European tie.

Alternatively, Benitez may opt to turn to Philipp Degen or youngster Martin Kelly.

Liverpool and City are level on points but City have two games in hand and with a trip to Stoke next Tuesday they could be three points clear by the time they entertain the Reds.

Talk Of Fernando Torres Comeback Premature, Says Rafael Benítez

The Liverpool manager, Rafael Benítez, has dismissed speculation that their star striker Fernando Torres could return to action next week.

Torres has been out since suffering a knee injury in the shock FA Cup loss to Reading last month. The Spaniard is reportedly making good progress in his recovery but Benítez insists any claims he could feature at Manchester City a week on Sunday are premature.

Benítez told the club's website: "I think it will be too early. He is training with the physios and the fitness coach, but he's still not involved with the team. We will see next week how he progresses."

Torres, 25, is Liverpool's top goalscorer with 12 this season despite being restricted to 21 appearances by injuries. A niggling groin problem curtailed his involvement earlier in the campaign.

Fernando Torres Could Return To Face Manchester City

Fernando Torres could make a shock return for Liverpool FC next week – but Rafa Benitez fears another potential selection headache in defence ahead of the crucial trip to Manchester City.

Torres has been absent since limping out of the FA Cup third-round replay defeat to Reading on January 13 with a knee injury.

The Spaniard underwent an operation in Barcelona and was originally expected to be sidelined for six weeks.

But the striker was back running in training on Tuesday, raising hopes he could be available for the crucial Premier League visit to near rivals City on Sunday week.

Liverpool, though, are mindful of rushing Torres back into action and manager Rafael Benitez will only consider handing the player a return if he is fully convinced by his fitness.

Torres has made only 19 starts in all competitions during an injury-hampered campaign but remains Liverpool’s leading scorer with 12 goals.

Johnson Closes In On Return

Glen Johnson has revealed that he expects to return to training with Liverpool in the next three weeks.

The England international right-back damaged his knee against Aston Villa in late December and it was initially feared he had suffered cruciate ligament damage. Those fears were allayed and Johnson is now looking forward to making his way back to full fitness.

"It's been frustrating. The worst thing for a footballer is being injured, but now I'm looking forward," Johnson told the club's official website. "I'm definitely over the worst of it now and I'm about two or three weeks away from training, so I'm getting there.

"It's been like groundhog day - I've been doing the same things, working in the gym and doing stability work. Every day has been the same for the last two weeks, but now I've started to run, things can change."

Johnson was a fixture in the Liverpool side prior to his injury but expects a battle to regain his place in Rafael Benitez's plans.

"I don't expect to walk back into the side and play, but I am doing everything I can to be in the best shape possible," he said.

CSKA Moscow's Milos Krasic: Liverpool Can't Afford Me

A Moscow attacker Milos Krasic insists that Liverpool do not have the necessary means to meet the price that has been placed on his head.

The Serbia international was tipped to join the Merseyside club and link up with his international team-mate, Milan Jovanovic, in an adventure at Anfield.

But the 25-year-old believes that his ambitions, coupled with the Reds' difficulty in meeting his price tag, will ensure that the potential move does not take place.

"I'd love to be in the same jersey as him [Jovanovic]," Krasic said, according to The News of the World.

"But it is, at least for now, mission impossible.

"I'm familiar with the situation at Liverpool.

"The price set by my team is too high for the English giants and, frankly, I have other ambitions."

Following the player's revelations, it has been claimed that Real Madrid have pipped Liverpool to pole position in the race to secure the signature of the highly-rated attacker.

Sissoko Eyes Rafa Arrival

Mohamed Sissoko has admitted that he would love Rafa Benitez to become manager at Juventus.

The Italian giants are on the lookout for a new boss after sacking Ciro Ferrara at the end of last month and appointing Alberto Zaccheroni on a short-term deal until the summer.

Benitez is understood to be one of Juve's preferred candidates despite his insistence that he is focused on staying at Liverpool.

And Sissoko, who worked with Benitez at Valencia and Liverpool earlier in his career, would welcome such an appointment.

"Benitez? If he came I would be very happy," the midfielder said on the Juventus channel.

"He gave me the opportunity to play in Valencia when I was 17 and with him I won a title.

"He is an excellent technician but when he knew me I was still immature. Now I've grown up as a footballer."

Sissoko admits he would also like Juventus to sign Bayern Munich's in-demand playmaker Franck Ribery.

Ribery's future has been the subject of speculation for some time and many of the continent's top clubs are keeping tabs on his progress.

"Ribery is a great player, any team in Europe would have him," said Sissoko.

"If he comes to Juve it will be a beautiful thing and he would give us a big hand."

Sissoko's own future has attracted fewer headlines and he insists he is fully committed to Juve.

"I have a contract until 2013. I want to stay here and become great here," he explained.

Jovanovic Deal A Sign Of The Times

Milan looms large in Liverpool's recent past. There was the unforgettable, immortal triumph against AC in Istanbul in 2005 and the rather less fondly remembered rematch in Athens two years later. In 2008, a typically clinical display of high-class finishing from Fernando Torres defeated Internazionale in the San Siro.

Now Milan will play a part in the future: not in the Champions League, given Liverpool's early elimination, nor indeed with any connection to Italy. But Milan Jovanovic will join from Standard Liege in the summer. Trading one Milan for another can feel like downsizing: the Serbian striker has said he is moving to one of the world's top ten clubs; Liverpool could only face one of the other nine - Juventus, Rafa Benitez's supposed suitors - in the Europa League.

But it is a sign of the times. Jovanovic's appeal may lie in his excellent scoring record in Belgium, but his availability on a free transfer when his contract expires at Standard is probably the determining factor. He may not be the new David Silva or David Villa, but he comes rather cheaper than many of Benitez's previous targets.

The search for a snip is not confined to Anfield, as the widespread pursuit of Bordeaux forward Marouane Chamakh, also on a Bosman, seems to indicate. It is, however, particularly relevant for Benitez. Jovanovic will join Maxi Rodriguez, recruited last month at a similar lack of cost, on Merseyside. Selling Andriy Voronin, Andrea Dossena and Nikolay Mihaylov brought the club a January profit of over £7 million; last year's, courtesy of Robbie Keane, was £12 million while the Liverpool manager broke even in the summer. It is tempting to ask, once again, where the money has gone, but the new realities have required Benitez to adapt.

Having to make do is a constant theme. Jovanovic and Rodriguez come with a pedigree as regulars for Serbia and Argentina respectively; few with better CVs can be acquired without a hefty investment but that does not necessarily make either the ideal addition. The latter is already 29, the former will be by the time he arrives; they are not long-term solutions as much as the men who were on offer.

The same description applies to the last signing to command a fee. Sotirios Kyrgiakos was the stop-gap centre back, brought in because Benitez could not afford his preferred alternatives. Despite his derby dismissal against Everton, his last five appearances have provided the Greek with an unexpected renaissance in his Liverpool career.

At the heart of a defence that only conceded one goal in that time - as many as Kyrgiakos scored on his own - a man who had appeared a liability against Fulham and Lyon came to have sufficient impact that he was preferred to Martin Skrtel against Everton. Short of pace and seemingly clumsy, there is no pretence that the ungainly 30-year-old possesses the class of Daniel Agger or the longevity of Jamie Carragher, but he proved a doughty battler, especially against physical opponents. In short, he has served a purpose.

His reappearance was a reminder that needs must, which could be Liverpool's unofficial motto nowadays. It may also indicate a change of approach from Benitez. The Spaniard has been criticised for effectively exiling players he did not want. That is not an option now. Ryan Babel, who attracted bids in January, is back in the reckoning and almost equalised against Arsenal. Philipp Degen, another who appeared surplus to requirements, surprised with his effectiveness against Tottenham. He was another signed on a free transfer.

There is proof of the perils of delving into football's bargain basement at Anfield. In a summer when they spent £50 million, Voronin was another Bosman and his abject displays suggested Liverpool still didn't get value for money. But beggars can't be choosers and as long as Tom Hicks and George Gillett remain in situ and without additional investment, Benitez is in a form of penury.

So signing Jovanovic, like Rodriguez before him, makes sense. Remembering Kyrgiakos and Degen does, too. Targets have been downgraded, in the transfer market as they were on the pitch. Top four, not the title, is the aim; the champagne football has to give way to a diet fit for a more workmanlike team. Minus Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and Glen Johnson, albeit temporarily, and minus the world-class reinforcements that a bigger budget could have brought, the style of play has had to be customised to suit the players available.

Aspirations to being the most enterprising attacking side in the land, as Liverpool were for the final two or three months of last season, have been suspended, to win any way they can, aided by defensive frugality, a high work ethic and Dirk Kuyt's invaluable services as a scrapper. Making do is becoming the done thing at Anfield now.

Liverpool's Sotirios Kyrgiakos Just Loves Those Premier League Flying Elbows Week In, Week Out

Liverpool defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos has been pummeled by elbows, had a tooth knocked out and been red-carded in a Merseyside derby - but he wouldn't change life in the physical Premier League for anything.

The 30-year Greece centre back missed the midweek defeat at Arsenal because of his sending-off against Everton and will also be suspended against Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers.

Kyrgiakos has played a huge part in the recent Liverpool revival and admits he is relishing every fresh battle.

He said: 'English football is what I imagined it to be, it is tough - I didn't have too many problems adapting to football here because I had played in Scotland with Rangers.

'In Germany or Greece I did not have to be as physical because the football isn't so aggressive.

'Anyway it's not all about aggression, that's not the most important thing. You have to want to go and win the ball. There is no point waiting for it to come to you, you have to go and get it.

'There are a lot of elbows flying in football here and the referee says no foul. That is part of football. It's tough and I like this side of the game.'

But life at the sharp end does have its drawbacks. During the 2-0 defeat of Bolton, Kyrgiakos lost a tooth and his all-action style led to an early bath against city rivals Everton when many felt that it was opponent Marouane Fellaini who deserved to go instead for his initial challenge.