Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Liverpool FC Will Give Europa League Best Shot - Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez today promised Liverpool will make the best of a difficult situation when they return to European action later this week.

In normal circumstances, the Reds’ boss would have been preparing his side for a Champions League clash this week but events before Christmas means they have had to lower their sights.

Benitez, though, is looking forward to Thursday night’s assignment against Unirea Urziceni and insists he is preparing for the Anfield clash without any pangs for the competition with which Liverpool have become accustomed in recent years.

This, of course, will be the first time Benitez has managed a side in UEFA’s secondary tournament since he guided Valencia to the title in 2004 but he is not turning his nose up at the opportunity.

He, for one, believes Liverpool can put some momentum behind their campaign with a successful push towards the final in Hamburg and will urge his squad to give it their all before they tackle the Romanians.

“It is always difficult but when you have been a manager for a while, with different teams, sometimes you were only playing once a week, trying to avoid relegation,” said Benitez.

“When you have experience, you know all about the different feelings.

"Clearly I would prefer to be fighting for the title or for the Champions League but you must accept the situation.

“You have to be positive and turn things in your favour. Now we have another opportunity (of playing in Europe) and we must try to keep playing better.

“We have got to keep progressing in the Europa League and aim to finish as high as we can in the Premier League.”

Liverpool are favourites in some areas to lift the trophy on May 12 but Benitez is quick to point out that task facing them is far from easy.

“There are still big clubs involved,” said Benitez. “If we can get through a couple of rounds, though, I’m sure the atmosphere will be really good because the fans want to see us winning trophies.”

Rafa Reveals Seville Advice

Rafa Benitez has been getting information on Europa League opponents Unirea Urziceni from Seville manager Manolo Jimenez.

Seville faced Unirea twice in the group stages this season, winning 2-0 at home before falling 1-0 in the return.

Benitez has spoken to their gaffer ahead of the Romanian champions' visit to Anfield on Thursday.

He told "I was talking to some people at Seville, the manager. He was telling me some things about the team. The message is the same - they are well organised and have players with experience.

"I will try to win every game. People don't know the other team and it's not easy to see too much of them because they are not playing, so it will be tough. They have experience, some good players and they are well organised.

"It's important for everyone to understand that if you have an opportunity to win silverware, you have to be ready. It's a chance we have."

Rafael Benítez Wishes Liverpool Were Still 'Fighting' For Top Honours

Rafael Benítez has conceded disappointment with Liverpool's lack of "fight" in the Premier League title race and Champions League but says his side will be taking the Europa League seriously as they prepare for their first match in the competition, on Thursday.

In seasons gone by Liverpool would be preparing for a last-16 Champions League tie now, but instead they will face Unirea Urziceni of Romania at Anfield prior to a league encounter with Manchester City on Sunday.

"Clearly I would prefer to be fighting for the title or for the Champions League but you must accept the situation," said Benítez. "But you have to be positive and turn things in your favour. Now we have another opportunity [of playing in Europe] and we must try to keep playing better. We have got to keep progressing in the Europa League and aim to finish as high as we can in the Premier League."

Liverpool are among the favourites to reach the final in Hamburg on 12 May but Benítez remains cautious about his side's chances. "There are still big clubs involved," he said. "If we can get through a couple of rounds, though, I'm sure the atmosphere will be really good because the fans want to see us winning trophies."

Mark Lawrenson: Liverpool FC Must Prioritise Champions League Qualification

The full calamity of Liverpool’s early Champions League exit will really hit home this week when they make their first foray into the Europa League.

If there’s one consolation I suppose it represents a realistic chance to win a trophy this season.

But then again, those thoughts need to be put aside this week.

Because the game at Manchester City on Sunday could go a long way towards determining if Liverpool will be back in Europe’s number one club competition next year – and that has to take priority.

Winning trophies is traditionally the very reason why Liverpool Football Club exists. But you have to break with tradition once in a while.

Getting that top-four spot, and maintaining the revenue stream that comes with it, is vital.

Far more vital than winning the Europa League – a nice piece of silverware it may be but it won’t attract the type of players Rafael Benitez wants.

In fact, if there’s one thing that everyone at the club – from the Americans to the manager to Christian Purslow – is agreed on it’s that winning a cup this year won’t mean a jot if Liverpool are missing from the Champions League next season.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they should give up on the Europa League. In fact, I wouldn’t completely rule out them winning that AND finishing fourth. It’s just that each stage of it has to be taken on its merits.

Players have to be preserved for the trip to Eastlands to give Benitez the best opportunity he can to keep Manchester City at bay with a good result so Sunday.

He won’t get that by picking his strongest possible line-up to face Unirea Urziceni on Thursday and telling them to give it everything they’ve got.

I think a bit of tinkering might be in order and, in this case, nobody would argue.

The beauty of European knockout football is, of course, that you get two bites of the cherry and if a weakened line-up doesn’t get an ideal result in the first leg, there’s always a chance to make amends in Romania.

And if Liverpool do make progress and start to flourish in the league then they might get the opportunity to give the Europa League more attention later on.

After all, the further you go and closer to the final you get, the mindset can really start to focus on the silverware.

With Fernando Torres hopefully back in the groove towards the end of the season, it will only enhance the possibility of Benitez being able to commit himself on two fronts.

But in the last 32 of the Europa League, thoughts of going for glory in Hamburg are still too far away

But Manchester City away is too close for comfort – and has to be the most pressing concern.

Ian Rush: Stakes Are High In Liverpool FC's Fight For Champions League Spot

From suddenly having a chance of claiming third place it appears Liverpool are now back in a fight for fourth.

The seven-game unbeaten run had put us in a decent position ahead of the trip to The Emirates. But looking at it now, Liverpool probably needed to avoid defeat to have a realistic chance of clinching third place.

It was a decent enough performance against Arsenal and a draw would have been a fairer result.

I wouldn’t say Liverpool are playing great football but I’ve noticed a fighting spirit over the last few games. There is a bit of fight in them now, compared to earlier in the season. The players seem to know what’s expected of them.

It’s unfortunate they lost at Arsenal but Liverpool have a chance to turn it around against Manchester City.

City are on the same number of points as the Reds but have two games in hand.

If they win on Sunday, City will be in prime position to finish fourth. But if Liverpool win, it puts the pressure back on City.

People will often say they prefer points in the bag to games in hand.

It’s a crucial match for both clubs but Liverpool are used to this kind of situation. It’s all new to City, though, and we’ll have to see whether they can stand up to it.

The way they let Mark Hughes go is a sign of the pressure at the club now.

Roberto Mancini has come in to try and take them to the next level.

Although they rarely lost under Mark it was unfortunate for him that they drew too many games.

While that was only ever going to see City progress gradually, Mancini appears to try and take that extra step and go for the win.

Mancini seems happier to win three games and lose two than draw five.

They’re obviously looking to get points on the board and that’s why Mancini has been brought in, to turn one point into three.

Although they’ve lost a couple of games under Mancini, City have got a decent home record – winning four from five under the new manager – where they tend to go for it and attack more.

Against a good side, this can make them vulnerable at the back.

Liverpool specialise in picking off teams on the counter-attack and that’s how I see us getting something on Sunday.

Liverpool FC Come Into Focus As English Soccer Clubs Embrace Technological Revolution

Liverpool FC is leading the way as Sports Revolution installs a new generation of high-definition television (HDTV) networks in football stadia across the UK. The move follows Sports Revolution's acquisition of the trading assets of Sports TV, which had networks in 45 grounds in the English leagues.

Liverpool will have a concourse television network for the first time as part of major new investment. Boosted by a £2 million investment in new audio-visual equipment, Sports Revolution is now upgrading many of these grounds to HDTV systems. It is now the largest provider of match-day content to UK stadia, streaming material tailor-made for each club's advertisers and fans.

As well as upgrading clubs from their old Sports TV networks, such as Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane, Sports Revolution is also introducing its compelling TV service to grounds that have not previously had a concourse TV system, including Liverpool's Anfield.

Sports Revolution has equipped the famous 45,000-seater ground with 200 42" BEKO HDTV screens, and is streaming club and branded content on match days.

All content on the new Liverpool FC TV system is tailored to both the club and the specific match, with output concentrated into pre-match and half-time slots. Content is scheduled around commercial advertising spots, delivering value to the club and its partners.

Sports Revolution will use its software to distribute news, statistics and live score data supplied by the Press Association throughout the ground.

"For us, the most important thing is to offer a TV service that enhances the match day experience," said Ian Ayre, commercial Director for Liverpool Football Club. "We want it to add value for the fans, not only for the club commercially. The old model for this type of network tended to be a one-size-fits-all system, not sufficiently tailored to a particular club.

"The good thing about this solution is that Sports Revolution creates and streams content that engages our fans and fits it around our existing LFC TV channel. The result is a bespoke package that the fans enjoy and that advertisers and the club’s commercial stakeholders want to buy into. It is an excellent addition to our media inventory, using state-of-the art technology."

Sports Revolution is already the largest media rights owner in UK football stadia, bringing advertiser money into the game through exclusive media rights with 72 clubs across all the leagues, including 16 in the Premier League. It is also a major player in the sale of Premier League digital perimeter advertising space, and has a media planning consultancy expertise through its sister company, Sports Insight.

Sports Revolution commercial director Vange Kourentis said: "Many business models have failed in this area before, so we have focused on delivering a service that is club and fan focused, ensuring that we deliver an engaging product that fans enjoy and that advertisers and the club’s commercial stakeholders want to buy into. Clubs working with Sports Revolution have a lot to gain, not only in terms of new equipment, but new commercial opportunities surrounding a truly fan and club-centric model."

Tomkins: Youthful Promise

If you ever want to see the perfect example of how media reporting of football has changed in the past 40 years, consider the following.

In 1970, Liverpool lost 1-0 in the FA Cup to Watford. And yet given the extent of reporting back then, it will have received less hysterical coverage than one particular newspaper provided upon the exact same result four decades on.

The difference? This time it was the FA Youth Cup. Yes, one popular paper wrote a condemnation of the Reds' youth system based on one cup result. I don't think I've seen many things that have made me despair quite so much.

Never mind that the Reds progressed to three of the past four finals, or that the club, with a very young side, are on course for a second reserve championship in just three years; losing one game at U18 level apparently undoes all that. By 2020, can we expect big headlines when the U11s fail to win?

Youth football, much like pre-season friendlies, has been blown out of all proportion in recent years.

While I personally love watching the U18s and reserves on this website or the club's TV channel, it worries me that some get carried away with those who impress at what is a far inferior level to the first team.

I can fall into the trap too, such as thinking that Paul Anderson was set for stardom when he was named as a sub for the first-team aged 17. But the difference is, I respect the judgement of those making the decisions as to who is good enough, and fully understand that some experience arrested development.

This hit home to me a few weeks ago, when Liverpool decided to sell Christopher Buchtmann to Fulham. Having impressed last year as a 16-year-old for Liverpool and Germany, I, like many others, thought he was on course for the big time; but it was an opinion gleaned from precious little hard evidence.

When I spoke to Rafa Benítez back in October, we discussed many of the fledgling players at the club. Buchtmann was one I expected to hear good things about, but it was others who were praised. So it came as no major surprise to me to see him move on.

But because he'd received some attention, and looked promising in a few games, it became an outcry to let him go; never mind that he was not going to get into the reserve team at left-back for a good while, with the more-promising Chris Mavinga establishing himself at that level and looking a real thoroughbred.

When I wrote about my chat with Rafa, I mentioned that he'd stopped me to point out one very promising youngster who was passing by. I didn't mention the lad's name in the piece, because it's up to the boss to manage expectations around players. But I lost count of the people emailing me to beg "go on, who was it?” all of which I batted away.

Hype doesn't help the individual concerned; my point was that there is talent that Rafa feels optimistic about.

We need to remember the Freddy Adus, Sonny Pikes and Nii Lampteys of this world - real superstar kids who amounted to relatively little - rather than think everyone will be the next Messi, Fowler, Owen, Rooney, et al.

Players develop at different rates, but even the best 18-year-olds, unless they are truly sensational, offer no guarantee of making the grade. Players change and develop physically as they age, but success is as much a mental challenge as anything. And that's a side of it only those at the club can truly assess.

Years ago I wrote something along the lines of this:

It's one thing being a forward who is better than some of the best U18 centre-backs in England, and another entirely being better than the best U18s of the previous year as well, who are now gaining experience with the reserve teams and may have had a taste of senior action; and those of the year before, who might already be U21 internationals and regulars in the senior side; and those of the year before that, who are now in their 20s.

And so on; all the way through to the best U18s of a decade-or-so ago (such John Terry), who are now full internationals, and the best U18s of 15 years ago (Jamie Carragher, Rio Ferdinand), who are the canny old pros who'll snuff a rookie out in an instant.

Yes, that hypothetical U18 striker can improve with experience, too. But he's going up several levels in terms of quality, and just as players successfully jumping from lower divisions are less common, so too are top youngsters succeeding quickly at the very best clubs.

Even with multicultural youth set-ups in England, the quality needed to break through is further highlighted by the fact that it's not just the best home-grown players from the English system they're up against, but the brightest U18s of the past 15 years from the French, German, Spanish, Italian, Argentine, Brazilian and other youth systems, who, once they've established themselves as senior players, are being brought to England as the finished article.

Take Craig Lindfield, an honest, hard-working Academy graduate with an eye for a goal at youth level (top-scoring in the club's 2006 success), and who scored in one pre-season friendly for the senior side. After this, I had lots of people asking me why Benítez won't give the lad a chance.

Yet despite turning 22 this year, Lindfield now plays his football at Macclesfield, near the foot of the lowest division. In many ways he's doing well; most youngsters don't even make it in the game at all. But despite some England U19 caps, he wasn't of the required standard. And as yet, even though he can still improve, he's only rated good enough for the 4th tier of professional football.

So when people badger me about why Daniel Pacheco isn't a regular yet, I advise them to be patient and appreciate the jump in class. Unlike Lindfield, Pacheco has really impressed in the reserves, and Rafa has spoken very positively about the lad this week, but it's not fair to treat youngsters like saviours; especially during a difficult campaign when the pressure is more intense.

As it is, few people realise that according to Opta, Liverpool have on average fielded the 2nd-youngest side in the Premier League this season. And as I've mentioned along similar lines over the past couple of years, much of that is down to a lack of 30-somethings in the starting XI.

Most weeks, Jamie Carragher, recently turned 32, stands alone in this regard, with Gerrard at 29; Hyypia and Voronin, both in their 30s, have moved on. New arrival Kyrgiakos is 30, and at times his experience has been vital.

Pepe Reina is still not yet at the peak for a goalkeeper (he's 12 years younger than Edwin van der Sar!), and Agger, Mascherano, Lucas, Aquilani, Torres, Johnson, Skrtel, N'Gog, Babel and Insua are all aged between 20 and 25. The average age of the best sides tends to be between 27 and 30.

While it's been a long time since a first-team regular emerged from the youth system at Liverpool (if you discount Insua, who was purchased as a 17-year-old; although Arsenal's similar purchases tend to be credited to their youth set-up), you only have to look at how many teenagers have played in very meaningful games for the Reds this season to see that there is promise.

Some are local lads, others are imports; but all have shown that they can hold their own at the level in the sink-or-swim introduction; even if it's another big step to finding the consistency once the initial adrenaline rush of the debut (and the high it brings for a few weeks) wears off.

(Poor Martin Kelly has had plenty of time to contemplate his excellent debut in October, having been injured ever since.)

It is only recently that the scouting system has been revamped, and made more professional. But overhauling a youth system can never bear instant fruit.

A problem has been simply not discovering enough English talent.

Connor Coady, Jack Robinson and Andre Wisdom all played for the national U17 side against France this weekend, so that may bode well; and even though, as seen with Lindfield, even England U19s can fail to make the final step, it can't hurt to have a strong crop in any younger age group.

Stephen Warnock aside, I can't think of one Academy player Benítez has discarded who has gone on to be a big success. If Liverpool had been shipping out star after potential star, I'd be concerned by his actions. But Potter, Welsh, Mellor, Otsemobor, Partridge, et al, are all lower league players; only Danny Guthrie has played a lot of games in the top division.

But even someone like Warnock possibly needed the chance to play regular football at a club where there was less pressure and scrutiny, in order to develop; a bit like Ryan Shawcross leaving Manchester United.

And while the comparison isn't entirely fair, Emiliano Insua was a full Argentine international at 20 (like Lucas with Brazil), while Warnock hadn't even played for Liverpool by the age of 22, at the point when Benítez arrived.

"Throw in the kids, we've got nothing to lose" is a great saying, until you throw in the kids, lose the game, and the kids lose confidence. Then those same people say "these kids are rubbish!”

Untested young players represent to fans a get-out-of-jail-free card. They cost nothing, and as with conspiracy theories, they are never better than before they've kicked a ball for the senior side, because those who say they should be in the team every week are yet to be proved wrong.

The important thing, however, is to keep their chances in perspective. It's not like breaking into a side in the '90s or before; big clubs now have 20+ full internationals, all of whom were the stars of their respective youth systems in the past.

But if the kids do get their chance, then please, please give them time to adjust. Expect too much too soon, and they will only let you down.

Academy Football: Liverpool Under-18s Left To Focus On The League

Liverpool Under-18s will look to put the disappointment of their FA Youth Cup exit behind them when they return to FA Premier Academy League action this weekend.

Rodolfo Borrell’s side were beaten by Watford in the fifth round at Anfield last week, but travel to take on Manchester City at Platt Lane this Saturday (kick-off 11am).

It has been a tough campaign for Liverpool so far and they have lost 10 of their 18 games in the Academy League, while the Youth Cup exit was the latest blow.

They sit seventh of 10 in the Group table, but the tightness of the division means they are only seven points behind leaders Blackburn.

Coach Borrell said: “We have been struggling the whole season with some very young lads. We have played well in some games, but not so in others. But we have to keep going.It was difficult since the first day I arrived. It wasn’t a team with balance, and a lot of them were born in 1993 and that is one or two years below many of the players and teams they face. But they should understand it is a unique opportunity that they have for them to fight to arrive at the top level.”

Liverpool skipper Conor Coady also captained England under-17s during their 1-1 draw with France on Saturday at the Algarve Tournament.

Team-mates Jack Robinson and Andre Wisdom also played in John Peacock’s side’s opening match of the four-team tournament.

They also played in Sunday’s 3-0 victory over the Ukraine on Sunday. England also take on hosts Portugal in their final match today.