Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ian Rush: Liverpool All Geared Up For Champions League Battle To The Bitter End

Better football last year, better at grinding out result this year - Liverpool's win over Blackburn was not for the purists but its importance should not be dismissed.

It was hard work but when you come up against a side like Blackburn, the first thing that you must do is fight and it was really encouraging to see Liverpool roll their sleeves up and battle.

With Tottenham and Manchester City winning, we had no other option but to do likewise to keep ourselves in the running for fourth place; our two main rivals are refusing to go away and the remainder of the season is going centre on which team can hold their nerve.

There is some speculation that it will take a tally of around 80 points to win the title, so what do you imagine it will need to clinch the final Champions League spot? Looking at it from this distance, with 10 games left, I'd say 68-70 points will be enough to achieve that goal, which effectively means Liverpool need to win another seven times before May 9.

With games against Chelsea and Manchester United impossible to predict, you are working on the basis that we need to win every other fixture to get to where we want to be.

Some will say that is too big a task, that Liverpool have struggled for consistency all year, but the signs against Blackburn suggested Liverpool are going to be able to embark on a winning spree. All the good football that was played at Anfield came from men wearing Red shirts and it was great to see Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres all linking to good effect.

It was no coincidence that Steven and Fernando got on the scoresheet and the longer they play together, the better Liverpool will be on the run. As Jamie Carragher said after the game, you have always got half a chance when your special players are fit.

The way things stand, though, inevitably Liverpool are going to have to keep churning out results under pressure, as the majority of games they will play now will be on a Sunday.

Next week, of course, it is Monday night but that won't be a bad thing, as the international contingent will have a few days extra to recover for Wigan.

And that means they will be in good shape if they need to fight once more.

Rafa Ready For Double Swoop

Rafa Benitez is keen on Lille defender Adil Rami, and Rennes full-back Rod Fanni.

Manchester United are set to rival Liverpool and Arsenal for Lille defender Adil Rami.

Rami has been a long time target of Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez but Sir Alex Ferguson is looking to snatch the defender from under the noses of their rivals.

Benitez has reportedly had scouts track Rami at Lille matches for most of the year but is yet to follow up his interest in the 24-year-old.

Whilst neither of these Anfield targets are exactly household names they are both players who are currently in form and playing the best football of their careers. 24 year old centre back Adil Rami is a relatively late developer in the game and only got his first taste of Ligue 1 football at the age of 21 but has progressed rapidly since and is on the verge of his first French cap having declined the chance to play nationally for Morocco.

The well build defender could be a good squad player for us but I don't see the Lille man as a player likely to brush aside the likes of Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger or Martin Skrtel, but that being said he could offer us useful cover, much as Sotiris Kyrgiakos has done so far this season. It could be that further down the road he could emerge as a player who is ready for Premier League football and perhaps most importantly he wouldn't cost a great deal.

Fanni would presumably come in to offer cover for marauding right back Glen Johnson and is a full French international who has a great deal of experience in the French League and has previously been strongly linked with a move to Everton and West Ham. Again a relatively cheap back up player.

Rafa is only too aware of the financial constraints that may well be placed on him this summer so it is likely that we should expect moves for seasoned pro's or youngsters coming through rather than any big name signings. We all know that our best eleven firing on all cylinders can be a force to be reckoned with, but its only when injuries and poor form comes in to play we don't have the means to cope and our squad as a unit is not in the same league as the big three.

However I would have thought that the Liverpool boss would be most interested in bringing in attacking talent as defensively we have managed to steady the ship a little since the early portion of the season when we were conceding silly goals at an alarming rate.

Liverpool To Offer Javier Mascherano New Long-Term Deal

Liverpool will soon offer midfielder Javier Mascherano a new long-term contract in order to prevent the Argentine international leaving for Barcelona, according to a report from The Times.

The new deal would apparently keep the player at Anfield until 2014. Preliminary talks are believed to have taken place between the Reds' hierarchy and the payer, with the club hopeful that the 25-year-old will sign the extension.

Mascherano's current contract expires in February 2012. It looked at one stage in the summer as if he was pondering an Anfield exit for Catalonia, though nothing materialised.

Now Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez is hoping that the Argentine follows the example of Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger and Yossi Benayoun, who have all signed new contracts in the last year.

Pepe Reina Agrees New Long-Term Anfield Deal

Liverpool were today given a massive boost after Pepe Reina agreed a new long-term deal – now the club are hoping Javier Mascherano will follow suit.

Rafa Benitez has been desperate to get the future of his influential goalkeeper sorted out and he will be delighted that talks with Reina’s advisors have now reached a successful conclusion.

Signed from Villarreal in the summer of 2005, the Spanish international has been one of Benitez’s biggest success stories and is currently on course to win his fourth ‘Golden Gloves’ – the Premier League award for most clean sheets in a season.

There has never been any suggestion that Reina, 27, was looking to move away from Anfield – on more than one occasion he has reiterated his commitment to the club – but Benitez wanted him to have a deal that recognised his standing.

That is now the case and once Reina returns back to Merseyside following Spain’s friendly with France tomorrow night, the formalities of putting pen-to-paper on the contract that will take him through to the end of 2014/15 campaign.

Despite working under strict financial constraints, Benitez is attempting to safeguard the club’s long-term future and in the past 12 months he has tied up Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Yossi Benayoun and Daniel Agger.

Reina will soon be added to that list and the hope is that Mascherano – who has been a target for Barcelona – will do likewise and agree a contract a new two-year extension to end the speculation that has surrounded him.

Mascherano’s current deal expires in 2012 but Liverpool are hopeful that the terms being offered to Argentina’s captain will finally stave off Barcelona’s interest and keep him on Merseyside.

Benitez has been endeavouring to lay lasting foundations and a clear sign of that came at the weekend when Academy Director Frank McParland and Pep Seguera secured the signing of the highly-rated 15-year-old Raheem Sterling from QPR.

Skrtel Ruled Out For Two Months

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel faces a fight to play again this season after being ruled out with a broken metatarsal.

The Slovakia international sustained the injury during last Thursday's Europa League victory over Unirea Urziceni in Bucharest.

The centre-back will not require surgery on his foot, but is expected to be out of action for two months.

Torres Tells Benitez: 'Don't Worry About Me'

Fernando Torres has told Rafa Benitez to stop fretting about him while he is away with Spain.

Benitez is anxious Torres does not get crocked just days after returning from six weeks out with a knee injury.

The striker is critical to Liverpool's Champions League hopes and his winner against Blackburn was his 13th goal in 17 league games this season.

But Torres did little to allay Benitez's worries by claiming he won't hold back in Wednesday’s friendly against France.

He says Benitez knows how important representing his country is to him and that he will play for as long as coach Vicente Del Bosque wants.

"Rafa has enough to deal with," said Torres from the Spanish training camp. "It's normal that he's thinking about his interests, but he knows that all the players want to go to the national team.

"For us it is an honour to be here, to play as much as possible and to return as fit as possible to our teams.

"Luckily I recovered in time and to be in the national squad is a prize for me. I have the good fortune that the coach called me up after playing just a few games since I recovered.

"I'm tired after playing nearly 90 minutes after two months of not doing so, but I'm ready for as much [of the game] as the coach thinks is right."

Talks Fail To Deliver Sports City Concept

A top-level meeting has failed to deliver progress on new stadium for Liverpool and Everton football clubs.

LFC chief executive Christian Purslow and his Everton counterpart Robert Elstone sat down with city council officials and Liverpool University yesterday, at the instigation of the university. Liverpool FC made clear the club is committed to building a new £400m ground, despite its problems raising finance to fund the 60,000-seater.

It is understood a football quarter, as suggested by fans' group Keeping Everton in Our City (Keioc) was dismissed on the grounds that the £700m-plus price tag is unaffordable. But Liverpool Council leader Warren Bradley said the meeting was fruitful in helping draw up plans for a sports strategy for the city.

"We discussed how to develop a sports strategy - a sports city with the football clubs at the heart of it. It's inconceivable for me that we have not developed a sports city ethos. It's the next leg of the regeneration of the city."

He said Tom Cannon, Professor of Strategic Development at the University of Liverpool, will now speak to the Football Association to work on ideas.

The plans are currently in the concept stage, Cllr Bradley added.

New Stadium Just As Essential As Champions League For Liverpool's Future

So the Deloitte Football Money League has been published for 2009, and for Liverpool fans, it makes for very interesting reading.

The table - which ranks European clubs in terms of revenue generated – shows the Reds have risen a place to seventh for the 2008-09 season, but also highlights the gap that is emerging between the club and the rest of English football’s ‘big-four’ cartel.
Liverpool’s revenue for last season stands at £184.8 million, but compared to Chelsea (£206.4m), Arsenal (£224m) and Manchester United (£278.5m), they are lagging way behind.

The explanation for such a deficit requires only a simple glance at the breakdown of Liverpool’s revenue streams, in comparison with other clubs. And in particular, one area: match-day revenue.

Dan Jones, partner for Deloitte's Sports Business Group spells it out: "When compared to Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United it is the area of match-day revenue where Liverpool noticeably fall short of their rivals.

“Liverpool made £42.5 million in match-day revenue whilst Manchester United and Arsenal - with their bigger stadium capacity - made more than £100 million, and Chelsea – even despite a smaller ground - earned £75 million. It is a gap Liverpool have to bridge, and they are acutely aware of that."

A new stadium has long been high on the club's agenda, with plans for a new arena on Stanley Park – a stone’s throw from Anfield – having been floating round Merseyside since the late 1990s.

And these latest financial figures will serve only to embellish the belief that the building of such a venue is of paramount importance if Liverpool are to retain, and build upon, their place amongst the world’s elite football clubs.

For the club, plans for a new, 73,000-seater stadium are currently at a delicate stage. In December, Merseyside Council Leader Warren Bradley stated that he expected the green light for building work to be given “in or after the second quarter of 2010”.

This claim was later rejected by Reds’ managing director Christian Purslow, who has been publicly seeking around £100m of fresh investment in the club across the world, in a bid to drive down the restrictive £237m debt loaded onto the club by co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks.

Financially, the new stadium would provide an incredible boost – in the long run, at least. Securing enough investment to ensure the arena is built may force a tightening of belts at Anfield, and could well put off potential benefactors but, as Arsenal have found out since the Emirates Stadium was opened in 2006, a plush new arena brings with it a multitude of financial benefits. In 2008-09, the Gunners made the most in the world from matchday revenue - even more than Real Madrid.

Naming rights is one potential benefit, and Liverpool’s commercial director, Ian Ayre, told UK in January that talks have already taken place between the club and a number of major companies with regards to the right to name the Reds’ new home.

Considering Arsenal collected around £100m from their deal with Emirates Airlines in 2006, and that Liverpool enjoyed an impressive 25 per cent rise in their commercial revenue last year, the Reds will be hopeful of securing plenty of investment from a similar move.

Additionally, there are plans for the Reds’ new arena to contain around 10,000 corporate seats, which despite the inevitable sneers and disdain from the traditionalists, is a massive revenue generator for any club.

Anfield currently seats around 350 corporate spectators, another indication of how far the club has to go to match their rivals. Arsenal, for example, make almost as much from their corporate customers as they do from ordinary ticket sales, and are well on the way to becoming a self-sufficient club as a result.

On the field, of course, Liverpool have plenty of other issues to ponder. The club netted £50.3m from its second placed Premier League finish last season, but being currently embroiled in a four-way battle for fourth place, that figure is likely to be substantially lower next year.

Purslow himself commented in November that a sustained run in the Europa League, in which the Reds recently qualified for the last 16, would offset the revenue lost by this season’s early exit from the lucrative Champions League; but failure to qualify for next season’s premier European competition would have a marked effect, on and off the field - especially considering the fact that UEFA have announced a provisional increase in their Champions League TV and sponsorship deals, as of next season.

Liverpool earned £19.7m from their Champions League campaign in 2008-09, and £23.3m for 2007-08. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see that failure to dine at Europe’s top table next season would have a massive impact on the balance sheets. And that is without considering the impact it would have on the club’s ability to attract and retain top class players, and challenge for major honours.

There are some bright spots for Reds fans. Their commercial team, as revealed by Ayre, are enjoying a successful spell building the global reputation of the club, raking in £67.7m last year, and a new shirt sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered bank will net the club around £12.5m per annum more than their current agreement with Carlsberg.

But if Liverpool are to close the gap to the rest of Europe’s elite, then a new stadium and Champions League football are simply essential.

Without those two critical factors, and with the emergence of new forces such as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City – who are listed in 15th and 19th place respectively in the Football Money League, and boast ambitious, benevolent owners – English football’s most successful club is at risk of being left trailing.

Fernando Torres Crowned ECHO Sports Personality Of The Year For Second Year Running

Fernando Torres last night joined a select band of sportsmen as he retained the Liverpool Echo Sports Personality of the Year award.

At a glittering awards ceremony, held at the Crowne Plaza, Torres beat off competition from team-mate Steven Gerrard, Everton pair Louis Saha and Tim Howard, World Champion gymnast Beth Tweddle, St Helens prop forward James Graham and talented local youngsters Francesca Halsall and Katarina Thompson to lift the gong.

Torres, who took the prize last year after scoring Spain’s winning goal at Euro 2008, became the first man since Kenny Dalglish in 1979 and 1980 to become a double winner.

He was recognised by a panel of judges after becoming the quickest Liverpool player to reach 50 league goals – it took him just 72 games and smashed a record that had stood for more than 60 years.

“I’m really, really proud,” said Torres. “This award means a lot to me. It’s the second year I have won it and I have to say ‘thank you’ for giving me the opportunity.

“To get to 50 goals was a very proud moment. Liverpool is a team with one of the most successful histories in the world. It is not the same to break records at other clubs.

“In the past, Liverpool have had fantastic strikers so, for me, it is really important that I have beaten them.”

Injuries proved a source of frustration for Torres during 2009 but he still managed to score 24 times during the calendar year and he nominated his spectacular strike in a 4-0 drubbing on Blackburn Rovers on April 11 as his personal highlight.

However, his record-breaking goal – at Villa Park on December 29 – also held a special place in his affections, given the importance of the game, as did the one he fired past Real Madrid keeper Iker Casillas in the Champions League.

“I received a lot of texts from Liverpool players, my team-mates, people in Spain who were aware of the record,” said Torres. “It was really important but it was more important because we beat Aston Villa.

“The goal against Blackburn was very good, especially as it was a few days before the Hillsborough Anniversary. The goal was for the victims and the families. It was an important moment.

“I enjoyed the goal against Real Madrid, too but maybe the best one was Blackburn.”

International commitments prevented Torres collecting the award in person but, via a video link, he once again revealed how happy he is on Merseyside – and how determined he is to help Liverpool qualify for the Champions League.

“The people have been kind here to me since the first day. I feel here like I do at home. I can go to any part of the city and receive kind words.

“I get on well with Evertonians, too. It's strange for me, as in Madrid football is the most important thing in the city and Real Madrid fans were not the best with me.

“So it was a big surprise that I can talk with Everton fans about everything. They respect me and I respect them.

“I’ve only played 20 games and I’m desperate to help the team. I hope to score as many goals as possible until the end of the season.”

Lucas: Gerrard Has Edge Over Kaka

Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva believes captain Steven Gerrard is a more complete player than Brazil superstar Kaka.

Gerrard, who will captain England against Egypt at Wembley on Wednesday, has been well short of his best form this season.

His goal against Blackburn on Sunday was only his eighth for the club this season, having scored 24 in the previous campaign when Liverpool ran Manchester United a very close second for the Premier League title.

But even taking that into account, Lucas insists Gerrard has the all-round game to make him one of the world's greatest.

"There are similarities with Kaka and Stevie but Stevie makes more of a contribution all over the pitch," said the 23-year-old, an international team-mate of Real Madrid forward Kaka.

"Stevie is more complete in that sense because he can attack but also defend just as well.

"This is probably because Stevie has experience playing in a number of positions earlier in his career."

Lucas added in LFC Weekly: "Even now, he is so good, he could probably play anywhere."

The Brazilian midfielder is by no means a fans' favourite and regularly comes in for criticism for not being of the standard to warrant a regular first-team place.

However, manager Rafael Benitez sees him as a key member and, along with Dirk Kuyt and goalkeeper Jose Reina, has played him in every Premier League match this season.

Lucas has freely admitted his Liverpool career, which began with a move from Brazilian side Gremio in July 2007, had inauspicious beginnings but he now feels he is contributing more to the side.

"Since I have been at Liverpool there have been quite a few knocks," he said.

"This season I have played more games and that has pleased me. But it isn't about me, it's about the club doing well.

"Winning the league isn't possible so we need to finish in the top four.

"That is more important than any personal statistics or achievements I have made.

"This year has been really difficult for the team but we have improved a lot in the last 10 games, especially defensively.

"It is clear we have not scored enough but we have become difficult to beat again.

"Over the next month we have quite a lot of home games against teams from the bottom half of the league, while our rivals for fourth have more difficult fixtures on paper.

"Maybe this will help us out."

Reina has been Liverpool's best player this term and his form has been key to their recent defensive improvement.

The Spain international jointly leads the race for the Premier League Golden Glove - which he has won four out of the last five seasons - with injured Chelsea keeper Petr Cech as both have 12 clean sheets.

"There is nothing easy in the Premier League and we have to carry on with the same shape," he said.

"I think we are a stronger defensive unit and we can do better things now.

"It's a long race but there are a few games to play and nothing will be decided until the last fixture."

Reina also welcomed the return to fitness of compatriot Fernando Torres, who marked his first start since January 13 with the winning goal against Blackburn on Sunday.

Torres' partnership with Gerrard is, according to Reina, crucial to Liverpool's fortunes.

"That is the difference between us and any other side," he added.

"We have them and they are world-class players. As long as we have them it will be absolutely brilliant.

"It's very important to have Fernando back. It's not just his goals. His presence worries the opposition and this allows space for Stevie, Yossi Benayoun and, as you saw against Blackburn, Maxi Rodriguez (who set up Torres' goal)."

Luis Suarez: Liverpool vs Manchester United For Ajax South American Scoring Star

Rafa Benitez’ chances of bringing Ajax star Luis Suarez to Liverpool this summer are decreasing with the news that Manchester United and Barcelona are stepping up their interest. The Uruguayan international has been in superb form in Holland with reports from the Dutch press suggesting that he will have his pick of three of the biggest clubs in European football at the end of the season.

Suarez tops the Dutch scoring charts with 26 goals in 25 league appearances (all starts), so it’s unsurprising he is attracting so much attention. Liverpool will need to offload Ryan Babel to raise funds which could be their downfall with Barcelona and Manchester United ready to pounce for the creative South American.

Suarez has been playing in Holland for the past four seasons and has consistently scored goals whether playing on the flanks or just behind the main striker. This campaign has been his most prolific already scoring 4 more league goals than his previous highest tally. This doesn’t include a sensational 6-goal haul in Ajax’ 14-1 domestic cup win over WHC in December. Last season he scored 22 goals in 31 league appearances (30 starts) as Suarez finished joint 2nd in the Dutch scoring charts. Despite the Uruguayan’s best efforts, Ajax finished 12 points behind champions AZ and one point behind 2nd placed FC Twente meaning they failed to qualify for the Champions League. This season Martin Jol’s team sit 3rd, seven points behind leaders PSV.

Ajax’s failure to qualify for the Champions League last season led Suarez to urge the club to bring in new recruits. He told Sportsweek in the summer, “It would definitely be useful for Ajax to sign some quality players. It’s up to the coach to decide on which position we need to strengthen the squad. However, we could use some physically strong players in my opinion.”

“I’m extremely disappointed that we failed to qualify for the Champions League once again. I need to play at top level in order to keep improving as a player.

“Nevertheless, missing out on Champions League football is not just bad for me, but also disastrous for the club. Ajax have to wait yet another year to play at the highest level.”

Ajax may miss out again so Liverpool, Manchester United and Barcelona may be the teams to provide the Uruguayan with the ‘highest level’ of football required although Rafa Benitez’ team are facing a battle to clinch 4th spot. The player’s versatility is of interest to Sir Alex Ferguson and Josep Guardiola as he can fill a number of positions. He would provide competition on the flanks for the likes of Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ryan Giggs or could partner or compete with Wayne Rooney up front.

Ajax may be 3rd in the Dutch top division, but there’s no disputing who is top of the scoring charts. Suarez has scored 26 league goals, nine goals more than his nearest competitor. Only six of those strikes have arrived via the penalty spot. Not only has Suarez been his sensational form domestically but also in Europe and for his country. The Uruguayan has scored 6 goals in the Europa League with 4 coming in one match v Slovan Bratislava. He has also scored three goals in his last seven international appearances.

The 23-year-old began his career in his homeland with club Nacional where he won a Uruguayan title before moving to Groningen in the summer of 2006 for €800,000. In his only season for the club he scored 10 goals in 29 league appearances (26 starts) before Ajax made their move for a fee of €9.5M. He has been monitored by Rafa Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson for a number of seasons but he has really caught their attention since he moved to Amsterdam. The fact Ajax were dumped out of the Europa League by Juventus has only increased speculation he will be leaving in the summer for either Anfield, Old Trafford or the Camp Nou.

Suarez has been a big hit since his move to Amsterdam after scoring 65 goals in just 89 league appearances (84 starts). His present contract expires in 2012 but with Liverpool, Manchester United and Barcelona stepping up their interest, this may well be his last season in Holland.

The Uruguayan with 9 goals in 28 appearances for his country does have a reputation for ill-discipline which is perfectly illustrated by the 25 yellow cards he has received in 4 seasons in Holland. He was also sent-off on his international debut against Colombia in February 2007. However, for what he lacks in discipline, he certainly makes up for in talent. Not only does he score goals but he is also very creative. Liverpool or Manchester United fans will certainly enjoy his talents if he does finally join one of them. Ajax have opened the door to a move with comments made in the press during the last transfer window.

“It’s up to the technical staff to decide whether Luis will be allowed to leave the club. Nevertheless, we’re ready to talk about a transfer if an extremely good offer comes in,” club director Rik van den Boog was quoted as saying in Algemeen Dagblad.

“We still expect Luis to stay in Amsterdam until the end of the running season, but we are ready to listen to other clubs if a transfer is in the club’s or the player’s best interest.”

Ryan Babel has failed to make a big impression on Merseyside but is still highly regarded in Amsterdam and his homeland which suggests he may well be a make-weight in any deal struck with Liverpool. However, Manchester United will be strengthening their squad this summer with Suarez high on Sir Alex’s hit-list.