Sunday, March 07, 2010

John Aldridge: Winning Is All That Matters For Liverpool At The Moment

During the days when I was playing, Wimbledon used to get some ferocious criticism for the direct style they favoured.

Games were never pretty but at least you knew what was in store and you would try to find a way of coping with it. Last Sunday, though, I watched a team play possible the most amount of long balls I have ever seen.

It was ridiculous how many set plays Blackburn launched into Liverpool’s penalty area and it was only when a subtle switch was made that saw Fernando Torres put pressure on Paul Robinson that we could deal with it.

When David Ngog came on, however, he stopped doing the kind of closing down that Torres had been doing and that was why we were left to deal with an onslaught in the final minutes.

Happily, we came out on top and that, in the grand scheme of things, was all that mattered.

I don’t expect the Reds to have to contest another war of attrition on Monday night, as Wigan Athletic are a side that like to play football, but with the DW Stadium just having a new pitch laid, I’m not sure it will suit our passing.

If that is the case, it’s imperative we get the ball up the field as quickly as possible to Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun to put as much pressure as we possibly can on a Wigan side that is threatened by relegation.

To qualify for the Champions League, Liverpool are going to have to win on the road as well as at home and we simply haven’t been successful as much as we should have been away from Anfield.

Fortunately, we have a good chance to rectify that and it would be a real fillip if Liverpool can win at Wigan and see off Portsmouth, as it would make a massive difference going into the Manchester United game.

But before we think about the trip to Old Trafford, we need a big result in another part of Greater Manchester – fingers crossed we’ll get it.

Maxi Rodriquez Getting Up To Speed With Premier League Pace At Liverpool

It has, on more than one occasion, looked as if things have been happening far too fast for Maxi Rodriguez.

Signed from Atletico Madrid during the January transfer window, he was thrust into Liverpool’s squad during a time when they were struggling for form and needed to fight their way out of a tight spot.

For someone whom Rafa Benitez described as being a “great technician” when unveiling him at Melwood, the agricultural style favoured by Stoke City – the side who provided the opposition for his debut – would have come as a big surprise.

Nowhere near as much as a shock, though, as a bitingly cold night in Wolverhampton, when the Argentine midfielder appeared frozen to the core and unable to move during a bore draw, or the helter-skelter of a Merseyside derby.

The last named game, in particular, was a real eye opener for the pint-sized Rodriguez who looked as if he was trying to cross the M6 in rush hour; he knew what he wanted to do but, in the madness, simply didn’t know how to do it.

There is reason for thinking, however, that all of a sudden the penny is beginning to drop; Rodriguez might have took another buffeting at the hands of Blackburn’s hulking defenders last Sunday but it was, without doubt, his best effort in a red shirt to date.

No matter that Pascal Chimbonda left an imprint of his boost in Rodriguez’s midriff or that he took several whacks from Martin Olsson, Rodriguez battled on to play a key role in an important 2-1 win. Indeed, he was responsible for setting up the clinching goal.

His display was enough to get Benitez nodding enthusiastically yesterday when, ahead of Monday night’s trip to Wigan Athletic, the manager was asked for an assessment of Rodriguez’s early progress.

Rodriguez might have some way to go to reach the levels that made him such an influential cog in the wheel for Atletico and Argentina but the more he sets up goals as he did for Fernando Torres six days ago, the quicker Benitez feels he will get there.

“I agree that last week was his best performance,” said Benitez, who has challenged his side to go relentlessly through the gears in the final 10 games as their quest for a Champions League spot intensifies.

“It is important for us to have a player who can keep the ball and understand the game and he knows what it means to play in the Premier League now. He knows all about the challenges!

“We have spoken a lot about the tempo of the Premier League and, in particular, the derby. It was very quick. But he knows now. He feels much better and he realises what it is all about, the tackles and everything else.

“Maxi is learning all the time and the main thing I see is that he is very keen to learn. He has got quality, he has experience and you can see that he is a very good professional. Little by little, he will give more and more to us.”

Little by little is how Benitez was hoping to bring Glen Johnson back into his starting line-up but the manager’s hand could be forced at the DW Stadium, given the fitness concerns surrounding Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel.

Skrtel, of course, is out with a broken metatarsal and will not play again until the middle of April at the earliest, while Agger – who left Anfield last weekend on crutches after damaging his knee – is facing a race to be fit to face Wigan.

Should he miss out, Benitez would have the option of pairing Jamie Carragher and Sotirios Kyrgiakos – available after serving a three-match ban – in the centre of his defence and he could persist with Javier Mascherano as makeshift right-back.

Yet the temptation is there for Benitez to thrust Johnson back into the side for the first time since the 1-0 victory at Aston Villa December 29 – the last time Liverpool won away from Anfield.

Johnson has looked awesome in spells this season but, due to a succession of niggling fitness issues, there have been other times when he has looked considerably off the pace, such as on his return to former club Portsmouth.

Benitez remains in no doubt that Johnson will become a huge success for both Liverpool and England thanks to his outstanding natural talent and eagerness to learn and show those qualities on the training pitches at Melwood.

And that’s why Benitez is tempted to give Johnson the nod at Wigan; his influence on the right has been missed and he is looking to unleash him to enhance Liverpool’s prospects of snatching three points.

“Glen is doing well and I will have to consider if he is going to be in the squad,” said Benitez. “It has been difficult for him this season. He arrived here as a new player with quality but he has not always played.

“We have missed him because he is very good going forward.

“We knew that we needed to improve his defending but when you have these injuries, you cannot spend time together on the pitch with the coaches.

“That makes it more difficult.

“But we know he has got great quality. He is going to make a difference going forward but I felt he was starting to improve his defending before he got injured. But, hopefully, he will be okay from now and he will be a good addition for us.

“We don’t want to take any risks with him but when you have a player of Glen’s quality coming back in, you have to think about it. We have a few more training sessions before we face Wigan, so we will see.”

Rafa Benitez Confident Javier Mascherano Will Stay At Liverpool

Rafa Benitez has confidently declared how he expects Javier Mascherano to follow Pepe Reina’s lead and commit his future to Liverpool.

The Reds midfielder has been offered a two-year extension to his current contract but, effectively, it amounts to a new four-year deal which would expire in 2014.

Mascherano’s future has been the source of some debate for most of the season, particularly as Barcelona vigorously pursued his signature last summer.

Liverpool officials, though, have been in constant dialogue with Mascherano’s advisors and the latest talks, which took place on Thursday, were very positive.

It has left Benitez bullish that Mascherano will become the latest key figure in his squad – after Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Yossi Benayoun and Daniel Agger – to commit his future to Anfield.

“He is more focused and I know he is happier,” said Benitez. “I have spoken with his agent and now Javier wants to improve and he wants to push us into the top four.

“The approach (to contract talks) is good and he is happy. He is one of the best. He is captain of Argentina, one of the best teams in the world.

“The conversations we have had were very positive. The first thing is the player. He has really settled down now. Then there is the agent.

“He’s been very good when we have dealt with him in the past. Everyone knew that some clubs were interested in Javier but, talking with us, it was always fine.

“Will a deal be struck by the end of the season? I think so. I’m sure we will have (good) news about Javier and Pepe very soon.

“That will be very positive for the future. When I say 100 per cent (about Reina), that is because I know.”

As revealed in the ECHO on Tuesday, Reina has agreed a new, long-term deal and only the formalities of putting pen to paper remain before it will be officially announced.

Signed from Villarreal in the summer of 2005, Reina rates as one of Benitez’s best pieces of business in the transfer market and is a hugely popular figure at the club.

He is also one of the best keepers in the world and Benitez says evidence of that came with his spectacular stop from Christopher Samba in last Sunday’s win over Blackburn.

“Pepe is a key player and everything is fine,” said Benitez, whose side face Wigan Athletic on Monday. “There are no problems with either him or Javier. Pepe is a great character with great passion.

“When you talk about a goalkeeper in a top side, normally he doesn’t have too many things to do during a game. The save he made against Blackburn shows you his level.

“I remember when he came here, people said to me ‘for England maybe he is not the best’ but, for me, he is the best in England. We want to keep him for a long time.”

Johnson Set For Reds Return

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is set to receive an injury boost with the news that Glen Johnson is poised to return to action next week.

The England international has not played since December after suffering a knee injury against Aston Villa and could make his comeback against Wigan on Monday.

With Johnson returning to action and star striker Fernando Torres finding his feet after a long absence, Benitez is bullish about Liverpool's chances of claiming fourth place.

He said: "He trained on Friday. It was a full training session and I think he will be okay to go in the squad for Wigan.

"The players we have coming back now can have an influence on the run-in."

Torres scored on his first start of 2010 against Blackburn last week and featured as a substitute in Spain's 2-0 win over France on Wednesday.

Benitez is relieved to have his star striker back in action, adding: "Torres played 45 minutes for Spain and 25 minutes in a game here and he was fine."

Liverpool FC Starlet Eyes Athletic Bilbao Switch

Mikel San José is hoping to secure a permanent move to Athletic Bilbao after rejoining his former club last summer on loan from Liverpool.

The defender was signed by Rafael Benitez for £270,000 in summer 2007 after helping Spain to glory in the UEFA Under-19 Championship but found himself back in his homeland less than two years later.

Now 20, San José has expressed his wish to remain with Los Leones on a permanent basis after establishing himself in first team following injuries to Ustaritz Aldekoaotalora and Aitor Ocio.

He said: "At the moment I'm not concerning myself with this topic - there are people who are aware of the situation and I'm focused on playing," he revealed.

"What happens, happens. I'm happy here and, if it's possible, I would like to stay here.

"Things have changed a lot since I first came here. When I wasn't playing I was still happy and now I am enjoying more minutes. There's nothing that would make staying here a bad option."

Should Bilbao agree to secure the Pamplona-born player's services on a permanent contract, they would have to pay €9 million, inkeeping with a clause in the loan agreement reached with the Reds.

Aquilani Is Happy At Liverpool

Alberto Aquilani is happy at Liverpool despite making just four starting Premier League appearances in his first season at Anfield.

The 25-year-old midfielder joined the English outfit in a £17m transfer from hometown club Roma last summer.

He didn't make his Premier League debut for Liverpool until November 9 after struggling with injury since his move.

Franco Zavaglia, the player's agent, told Tutto Mercato Web: “Alberto made a decision of a lifetime.

“He is fine at Liverpool and next year will be the most important for him.”

There have been rumours that Aquilani might return to Roma on loan next season if his first team prospects don't improve.

Aquilani was expected to fill the gap left by Xabi Alonso even though he is a completely different player to the Spanish international.

Torres Going Extra Mile

Rafael Benitez today revealed how Fernando Torres has been reporting for work on days off to ensure he returns to full fitness as soon as possible.

The Reds' squad were given time off after the midweek round of internationals, in which Torres played the second half for Spain against France in Paris.

But such is his desire to rediscover his clinical sharpness sooner rather than later after weeks out with a knee injury, Torres arrived at Melwood for additional work in the gym.

"We still we have some good players around but Fernando is a key player for us, the same as Steven Gerrard," said Benitez.

"Fernando can score goals on his own so hopefully he will be okay.

"He was training yesterday - even though we had a day off - so that means he wants to improve and wants to be physically well so that is also good news for us.

"Fernando is not fully match-fit, not really. One week ago he was not fully fit for games and he cannot be in one week - it is not a miracle.

"He has to keep working and he has spent some time in the gym and he can be better every week.

"I could say to you he is 50% and then he scores three against Wigan. He is improving but it is a question of games.

"Sometimes it is not just your match fitness, it is if you can play well or be in the right position to score the winning goal.

"Then everything changes. It is not just a physical aspect."

Jose Reina Agrees To New Deal At Liverpool

Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina is the best in the Barclays Premier League, according to manager Rafael Benitez, which is why he is delighted the Spaniard has agreed to a contract extension at Anfield.

The 27-year Spain international has committed to a new deal to ward off interest from a number of Europe's top clubs.

Reina has been Liverpool's player of the season and, with 12 clean sheets, is in the running for the league's Golden Glove award with injured Chelsea rival Petr Cech.

"We are really pleased because I remember at the beginning people said 'for England, in the air, he is not the best'," said Benitez.

"He is the best in England, miles away from the others, and we are really pleased to keep him here for a long time.

"He is always organising the defenders and is more than a keeper.

"Sometimes the style of goalkeepers is for them to be really good in the six-yard box, Pepe is really good in the 18-yard box."

Benitez said Reina's performance in last Sunday's 2-1 victory over Blackburn, when he made a brilliant stoppage-time save from Chris Samba's goalbound header, illustrated his class.

"When you talk about a goalkeeper in a top side he normally doesn't have much to do," he added.

"To be involved in this game especially at the end and the save shows the level of the player."

Reina has agreed to sign a new deal, while Benitez is confident midfielder Javier Mascherano will also extend his stay.

"Pepe is a key player and it is 100% he will continue with us," said the Reds boss.

"Since he came from Villarreal always he has shown his character and his passion, his commitment with the club."

Benitez, stressing the word know, added: "Now I know 100% that he will continue with us."

When asked whether Mascherano, who was linked with a move to Barcelona in the summer, would follow suit the Spaniard added: "Everything is very close and no problems.

"I was talking with Mascherano and his agent the other day and it is true Javier is happier.

"The agent had been really good when we were talking in the past and the conversations were very positive.

"When you talk with Javier he is very settled and happy.

"Everyone knew about some clubs (being interested in him) but talking with us he was fine."

Asked if a deal would be struck before the end of the season the Spaniard said: "I think so."

Liverpool FC One Of The World’s Great Sporting Brands

Liverpool has been urged to remain true to their heritage in order for the club to increase their brand around the world.

Simon Middleton, a brand strategy expert and author of the best selling book “Build A Brand in 30 days”, is in no doubt that Liverpool are in a far healthier position now compared to where they were when last winning the league championship in 1990.

Though there has been criticism in the past that Liverpool have missed opportunities to bolster revenue and fears that the failure to bring in silverware might impact on their ability to compete on and off the field, Middleton sees things differently.

He says history stands for so much when it comes to promoting a brand and, thanks to all the drama Liverpool have experienced and the trophies they have won, Middleton is in no doubt the Anfield brand will continue to flourish.

“Liverpool FC, even to a football outsider, is not only one of the great brands of British football, but one of the world’s great sporting brands in any category,” he said.

“I think Liverpool have achieved this by embodying the four principles of branding, which all great brands have in common – being authentic, being distinctive, being compelling and being excellent.

“Being authentic means being true to who you are and not pretending to be something else.

“It's to do with roots, heritage, a sense of place and values: and Liverpool have these qualities in abundance.

“Being distinctive means telling your own story, not imitating, offering an experience that is qualitatively different to competitors. In a world of sameness, Liverpool FC, like the city itself, retains its true distinctiveness.

“Being compelling means offering an emotional impact, coupled with a sense of narrative, even of myth. Liverpool has that too, arguably more than any other club. And being excellent speaks for itself.

“You can claim all the other things, but you have to actually be excellent to be a great brand. Liverpool is clearly that too... the most successful club on the pitch in British football history.

“And the wonderful thing about great sporting heritage is that if you have decades of success then a few seasons of more modest results, whilst disappointing for supporters, do not undo the magic of the brand.”

But how does Liverpool continue to improve their brand while the club remains in a period of uncertainty under the ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett?

“My recommendation would be for Liverpool to always be authentic, distinctive, compelling and excellent – and to focus on those things rather than the brand pecking order,” said Middleton.

“That way they will continue to be the great brand they have been since the concept of branding was even invented.”

While Manchester City and Chelsea are investing billions to become global entities, Middleton feels they will continue to play second fiddle to Liverpool because neither club has a dramatic history, one that strikes a chord with fans around the world.

“Brand is about meaning,” he explained. “About making powerful meanings that resonate in hearts, minds and imaginations. So becoming a bigger brand for Liverpool – and to be long-term sustainable – means strengthening that meaning around the world.”

Middleton, who has helped Barclays, Deloitte, British Airways and sandwich-chain Pret A Manger improve their brands, has watched the Premier League’s brand mushroom in the last decade but he has warned that there is a danger of it being damaged.

“Clearly Premier League football is huge in every sense,” he said.

“But I also think it is vulnerable. The behaviour of some high profile players threatens the brand of football. The billionaire owners. The proportion of foreign players.

“The perception of success being something that is bought and sold, and achievable simply through money. All these things undermine the brand of football itself in the long term, and I think they go against the spirit of what Liverpool FC is about.”

Liverpool FC Commercial Team In Winning Form As Turnover Rises

Cast your mind back to when Liverpool were last crowned champions of England in 1990 and picture the way Anfield looked.

Many will have no trouble remembering the stadium, with its three fairly primitive, single-tiered stands and a standing Kop, but try and recall some of the names on the advertising boards that flanked the playing surface.

You would see companies such as Rumbelows, Martin Dawes and All Man Kind, businesses all within the locality, alongside that of the then club sponsor Candy, an Italian firm that manufactured fridges and washing machines in Bromborough.

None of the first named ever had pretensions of being global entities but that didn’t matter. Liverpool – the first club in England ever to have sponsored shirts when a deal was struck with Hitachi in the late 70s – did well financially from them.

What’s more, they were the perfect fit for the era; they were local and their product would have been familiar with the vast majority of match-goers. Football back then, though, was not anywhere near as driven by finance as it is now.

Of course, Liverpool were known around the world and had a big following, not least because of their exploits in winning four European Cups in seven years, but any day-trippers to Anfield came largely by ferry from Ireland. That’s why the club shop, which was situated just behind the Main Stand, was adequate for servicing the needs of supporters; it was small but all it really needed to stock were replica kits, posters and knick-knacks, such as key rings, badges and pens.

Fast-forward to the present day and the Anfield you now see has been revolutionised from what it was back then; Liverpool are no longer just a football club but more a global brand.

“As a club, our aim is to be at the top and competing on a level playing field with our competitors,” said Liverpool’s commercial director Ian Ayre. “We have got to win on the pitch as much as we can.

“But we have also got to generate as much money as our peers to generate funds to give us the opportunity to compete for the best players. That is why you have got to follow the market.”

Now the advertising boards are littered with some of the biggest companies in the world, the stadium – while still not big enough to service the club’s needs – has been transformed and the money being brought in dwarfs the totals of 20 years ago.

Look, for instance, at the record-breaking deal that was struck last September; even as champions, Liverpool in 1990 could not have dreamed of negotiating a figure of £80m to let Standard Chartered Bank put their names on the front of that famous Red shirt.

The catalyst for change, undoubtedly, was the advent of Sky Television; the money they started pumping into football in return for beaming pictures of the Premier League all around the world, opened up many opportunities for clubs.

Aside from that, the influx of foreign players has increased the interest for supporters in different countries and the ease with which you can travel nowadays, both domestically and internationally, has helped increase Liverpool’s appeal.

“International fans make a huge contribution to the club,” said Ayre. “We convince them that we are the best in the world, so it would be wrong to deny them a chance to see us; that is why we have tours to the Far East, to give them the ability to see us play.

“Chelsea and Manchester United go to the Far East and make money, so you can either do it or not. But commercially we have a great opportunity to do well there, as we have a growing army of international fans.”

There have been times in the past when criticism of the club in terms of marketing and ability to bring in revenue has been justified – that the official store was shut the day after the heroics of Istanbul still beggars belief – but they are clearly making up for lost time.

Perhaps the best example of that is the fact Liverpool now has more retail floor space in this city (35,500 square feet), thanks largely to the superstores in Liverpool One and Williamson Square, than Manchester United have in Manchester.

Meanwhile, the club’s official website experiences higher numbers of visitors every day than all its rivals and Liverpool comfortably sell more Adidas shirts than that company’s three other “big guns” AC Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea.

Clearly, then, the Liverpool of 1990 cannot stand comparison with the Liverpool of 2010 and while the past two decades have not seen the kind of success many wished for, it’s possible to argue that the club’s brand has never been bigger or more popular.

Aside from Adidas and Carlsberg, who have had their names on the front of Liverpool’s shirt since 1992, there are a further 11 official partners, including Thomas Cook Sports, the Bank of America and Turespana.

But while improving the brand continues to be imperative, it will not be done at all costs; the tradition and reputation Liverpool have built up over the years must also be safeguarded; they are, after all, a football club first and foremost.

“The Liverpool Way strikes a chord with people and particularly in Asia,” said Kirkdale-born and lifelong Liverpool fan Ayre, who – having lived and worked in Malaysia, Hong Kong and China – is better placed than most to offer an opinion.

“If we ever get beaten by a really good team, you know the Kop will stand up and applaud the winners. We have never come across as arrogant and respect is a huge thing in the Asian culture.

“Standard Chartered have the right attitude and we could imagine from our first meeting with them having a successful partnership together. Of course, it is a real challenge trying to make progress yet keep with tradition.

“For every person that rings me up and say that it is about time Liverpool were able to do more commercially around the world, you will get another one asking why we are giving tickets to our sponsors.

“But, hopefully, we are moving on the right lines.”