Sunday, March 14, 2010

Benitez Not Feeling The Pressure

Two defeats in four days have once again brought Rafael Benitez's position under scrutiny, but the Liverpool manager insists he is not feeling the pressure.

Losses against Wigan and then Lille in the Europa League heightened the feeling of impending catastrophe at Anfield.

And with Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini's long-term future in serious doubt after his side's exit from the Champions League, speculation has already started linking Benitez with the Bernabeu post.

But the Spaniard is determined to prove his critics wrong by delivering his guarantee of fourth place in the Barclays Premier League and turning around a 1-0 deficit from their Europa League last-16, first leg.

It could be a pivotal week for the club as they face bottom side Portsmouth on Monday, host Lille in midweek and then travel to face Manchester United at Old Trafford the following Sunday.

"I don't feel under pressure. I am disappointed for the season but we can still fight and still improve," Benitez said.

"Against Portsmouth we have to prove this determination and then afterwards against Lille.

"We know the season is not good enough. Every game will be important and the next one against Portsmouth is the most important as we try to get close to the top four.

"It is clear we cannot lose too many points so we have to start winning, beginning with this game.

"We know every game has to be like this but we have to have a good mentality to approach games in this way.

"Then we can go forward and start thinking about the Europa League when we have a 'cup final' against Lille. Every game in a knockout competition is like a final. That is the way."

Criticism began to mount after an inept first half against Wigan which was possibly the worst 45 minutes of Benitez's five-and-a-half-year reign.

Defeat in northern France was not as bad as some made out but it did not do much for the squad's battered confidence.

Benitez, however, accentuated the positives by insisting he saw signs which suggested his side could yet still pull their season out of the fire.

"We were improving in the last few games and we were stronger and defensively more solid and difficult to beat," the said.

"And then Wigan was a surprise for us but the reaction has been positive and hopefully we can carry on in this way.

"I think we saw we had some character (against Lille). To play against these type of teams who are quick, you could see we were strong.

"It was a good example of the way we want to play, not just the game, but the mentality, the attitude of the players.

"At Anfield, with the fans behind the players we will see a better reaction and the fans will see that.

"I am sure if we can play with this intensity we can beat anyone."

Midfielder Javier Mascherano insisted the players had put the Wigan defeat behind them and were fully focused on the task ahead.

"I think we had a very bad game, we didn't work in that game as hard as we can so maybe we deserved to lose," admitted the Argentina captain.

"The team was much better against Lille. Maybe we didn't play fantastic but we worked very hard.

"Now it has gone. We have forgotten about that and we have to look forward and not keep thinking about that (Wigan) game.

"Now we are thinking about the next game and we are thinking about playing the best game we can."

Mascherano Relishing Crucial Week

Javier Mascherano is confident Liverpool’s destiny remains in their own hands as they head into one of the biggest weeks of their season so far.

The Argentina midfielder reckons the Reds can bounce back from their recent disappointment with victory over Portsmouth on Monday night - a result that would set them up for crucial encounters with Lille and Barclays Premier League leaders Manchester United.

"We created chances against Lille but we couldn't score," said Mascherano. "Hopefully we will take them at Anfield. It was a difficult pitch, it wasn't the best but it wasn't the best for them either. It's not an excuse. Now we just start thinking about Monday.

"We've got to think we can win these two games, to get through to the quarter-finals and also get three points to help us in the Premier League. It is going to be a very busy week, with Portsmouth, Lille and Manchester United.

"It's very important and we have to keep our focus. Everything is still in our hands. Of course it was so disappointing to lose. We had some chances but we have to have confidence that we can go through. We've done it before and can do it again."

Liverpool's Europa League hopes were dealt a blow after Eden Hazard's late goal gave Lille a first-leg advantage on Thursday night.

However, Mascherano feels the Reds showed a marked improvement on their Wigan showing in northern France and feels they can rectify their recent goal draught in front of their home crowd.

"We have had a look at ourselves," the Argentine midfielder explained.

"The match in Lille was totally different to Wigan. We know we didn't play well there or create chances. But at least against Lille we created a few chances and should really have scored.

"We have got to score against Portsmouth then we will play the game against Lille as a final. Our target is the same. To finish in the top four and to do well in the Europa League. We know if we play well then we can progress.

"Wigan was a very bad game and a very bad night. We didn't work in that game as hard as we can and we could not complain that we lost. Lille was completely different but still we need to improve."

He added: "(Lille) is a difficult feeling because we lost a game we did not deserve to lose," said Mascherano. "It was a very tight game but still we have a chance to come back in Anfield. I am confident that we can do it. It's half-time and we have chance to change it.

"It was a totally different game compared to Wigan. We were working very hard and we didn't deserve to lose but that is football. We conceded a foul and then a set piece."

Liverpool Hope Yossi Benayoun Will Be Fit To Face Portsmouth

Liverpool will monitor Yossi Benayoun’s fitness over the weekend in the hope he will be able to make an immediate return to action against Portsmouth.

The Israeli midfielder missed Thursday night’s Europa League defeat in Lille after he picked up a knock to his ankle during the 1-0 reverse at Wigan three days earlier.

It had been hoped Benayoun would make the trip to France but a fitness test at Melwood before the Reds flew out for the first leg of their round of 16 tie ruled him out.

He has since undergone intensive treatment and is responding well but boss Rafa Benitez will leave the decision on whether Benayoun features on Monday as late as possible.

Benayoun enjoyed a terrific start to the campaign but since damaging his hamstring in a 2-2 draw with Birmingham City in November his form has ebbed and flowed.

Benitez, though, will be anxious to get him back in his starting line-up as Benayoun had been linking well with Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres before this latest setback.

Maxi Rodriguez will also return to Liverpool’s squad after ineligibility ruled him out of the Lille game to give Benitez more options, as the club aim to get back into the top four.

If that is going to happen, much will depend on the form of Torres and Gerrard, who only had brief sightings of goal against Lille.

Torres, however, showed signs that he is not far from hitting top gear – his link play with Ryan Babel was excellent – and Benitez took great encouragement from his efforts.

It has been a difficult campaign for Torres, with injuries ruling him out for large chunks, but his manager is confident the Spaniard can end the campaign with a bang.

“There are signs Torres is coming back,” said Benitez. “He was working hard today and maybe his pace is coming back. There were still a lot of positives.

“The main thing for me was the team, but there were some individuals that were playing at the level that is expected of them.”

Fernando Torres: Signings More Important Than Qualifying For Champions League

Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has declared that making four or five top class signings during the summer is more important for the Reds than qualifying for the UEFA Champions League.

While El Nino still believes that Liverpool will secure the fourth and final Champions League place, he has identified the transfer market as key to the future success of the much decorated Merseyside club.

"It's too soon to talk, I sincerely believe we will finish fourth but for me qualifying for the Champions League isn't so important. What's really important is that the club makes a big effort in bringing in important players that exceed the quality of what we have," he told Spanish publication AS.

"We need four or five top players to compete, better than what we have here to make us all grit our teeth and try to keep our position. Without reinforcements for a team that finishes fourth, we will again be fighting for fourth next year.

"I want to fight for the Premier League, fight for the Champions League or UEFA [Europa League] but for this we need signings."

The former Atletico Madrid captain also stated his desire to remain at Anfield and stressed the importance of the arrival of new managing director Christian Purslow as a major step forward for the club's development.

"I still have this year and three more. I've left my home and it is clear that I owe Liverpool a lot and I'm very happy here, people treated me as if I were from here. Hopefully my future will be here, I think the club deserves to win again, but they themselves know that right now that's far away," he declared.

"Fans are worried that the players go, that's a problem when you start to be afraid that your players go because then you know that the club is not going forward, but I believe this is not going to be the case at the club. Since Christian Purslow arrived Liverpool have had an important boost, we signed a sponsorship deal to match that of Real Madrid, then things will go forward."

Kenny: Let's Put It Right

Kenny Dalglish believes Liverpool have a chance to make amends for one of the most frustrating performances of the season when they welcome Portsmouth to Anfield on Monday evening.

The Reds suffered a 2-0 defeat at Fratton Park in December and Dalglish feels that game will serve as a reminder to the players that they will need to be on top of their game if they are to gain three points.

"The game down at Fratton Park in December isn't a game we look back upon with any fondness, so if there are any misgivings there, then there's a real opportunity to put it right at Anfield on Monday," Dalglish told LFC Magazine.

"We've got our own reasons for wanting to be winning as many games as we possibly can. All the games at this stage of the season are particularly important."

Liverpool are still in contention for fourth spot, but Dalglish believes Rafa's men have to concentrate on their own game rather than worrying about other teams who also have their eye on Champions League football.

He said: "You can never predict how results are going to go and you cannot wait for someone else to do you a favour.

"You've got to do yourself a favour and then if someone helps you out a wee bit, you've got the maximum reward for what you have done.

"All we can do is concentrate on what we can do."

Dalglish also has sympathy for Pompey, who have recently gone in to administration and currently lie at the foot of the Barclays Premier League table.

He said: "I think you have to have sympathy for anybody in the situation they're in.

"It is commendable that against this background the team has got to the semi-final and maybe that will make it a little bit more attractive for someone to get them out of the plight they're in."

Despite Dalglish's empathy for the FA Cup semi-finalists he believes that will not be present at Anfield on Monday night.

"There's a lot of sympathy for them because of the position they're in, but next Monday we won't be showing any sympathy on the pitch." He added.

Kuyt Moves On Frm 'Off-Day'

Liverpool forward Dirk Kuyt has written off Monday's Premier League horror show at Wigan as a one-off.

The Reds' season sank to a new low on Monday after an abject 45 minutes at the DW Stadium when it seemed the ability to pass the ball to each other had deserted even the most gifted players in the side.

That defeat was followed up by another loss against Lille in the Europa League on Thursday - though that was not entirely unexpected given the French side's formidable home record and boss Rafa Benitez declared himself happy with the improvement in performance after the game.

Now Kuyt has called on his team-mates to make up for their showing at Wigan when they face Portsmouth on Monday in their next league outing.

"Before Wigan, the last 10 [Premier League] games we had seven clean sheets and many games we won," he said.

"The only defeat we had suffered in the league was at Arsenal and it was getting better and better.

"Monday was just an off-day for every one of us. We were all very disappointed, most of all with ourselves.

"We have got to change that."

What will have to change are Liverpool's fortunes on a Monday night, when they have a poor record, for Pompey's trip to Anfield.

It is the beginning of a hugely significant seven days in the Reds' season.

After Portsmouth, the Barclays Premier League's bottom club whose troubles put Liverpool's stuttering campaign in perspective, they face a must-win Europa League second leg against Lille before travelling to Old Trafford on Sunday.

With fourth place in the league looking less achievable by the week, Europe may well provide Liverpool's only measure of success.

And Kuyt is confident they can overturn a 1-0 deficit at home to the French side.

"If you see the quality in this team, we should really beat them with more than one goal," said the Holland international.

"Obviously 1-0 in a European game is not the best result for us but this is what has happened.

"We have got to look forward. We can't think how difficult it will be - we know what happened to Real Madrid (who trailed 1-0 to Lyon in the Champions League and could only draw 1-1 at home to exit this week).

"We all watched that game and we have to be focused.

"Hopefully it will be a good night at Anfield and I think we've got a good chance to go through.

"We are disappointed but we are capable of turning it around.

"I am glad that this round is not decided in one game. We have a chance to put it right."

John Aldridge: Liverpool's Current Plight Is So Tough To Take

I feel so sorry for Liverpool fans at the moment and what’s happening is really tough to take.

There is something deeply wrong and the worry is it doesn’t look like it’s going to improve.

It was refreshing to hear Wigan chairman Dave Whelan speak out this week. He said Reds supporters deserve better and he’s spot on.

We can’t blame the owners for everything. I know their influence must hurt the likes of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard deeply, but you can’t take that on to the pitch.

You have to fight but that spirit isn’t there and the lack of belief is a huge concern.

I hope I’m wrong but I can’t see us getting fourth place now.

Yes, we’ve got a favourable run-in but if you lose at Wigan then you’ve got problems.

We’ve got no goals in us. We’ve only scored than more two in a game once since September and that was against Unirea.

At times we’ve ground out results but we’ve not played well since we beat United in October.

To get fourth I think we’ll have to win all our home games and three of our last four away. Considering our poor away form that’s a tough ask.

The Lille game on Thursday was a slight improvement but we’re getting beaten far too easily.

We conceded a sloppy goal and for once Pepe Reina, who has been flawless this season, was to blame.

We’re still capable of getting through, but we’ll have to keep a clean sheet at Anfield.

Before that it’s Portsmouth at home on Monday and they are dangerous opponents. Everyone expects them to lose so there’s no pressure on them. They are going down and their players are playing for a move.

In Piquionne and Belhadj they have a couple of dangermen who will be available at a cut price in the summer.

We should look at them because that’s all we’ll be able to afford.

Liverpool Fans Target RBS In Email Campaign To Starve Owners

Liverpool supporters have begun a coordinated email campaign to the Royal Bank of Scotland warning of a product boycott if the taxpayer-owned bank provides a long-term extension to the club's £237m loans.

The bank confirmed there had been correspondence from fans but declined to expand on its nature. The business wire service Bloomberg reported that the bank's chief executive, Stephen Hester, has received hundreds of messages, each with a different individual's signature.

"It is my understanding that, if the refinancing deal is renegotiated beyond July 2010, then a campaign in protest against the Royal Bank of Scotland will take place which will include billboards with anti-RBS messages encouraging Liverpool fans to boycott RBS," the emails say. "As a British tax payer and a lifelong Liverpool fan, I can assure you that I am not happy that my hard-earned money is being used to pay for the purchase of Liverpool Football Club for George Gillett and Tom Hicks."

Although RBS did not express any opinion about the messages, the banking sector has always had concerns about the effect on retail operations of a fan backlash if institutions' corporate lending arms make life difficult for clubs. That did not appear to be the case, however, as fans were quiescent when Barclays made a stand over the stricken former Southampton owner, Southampton Leisure Holdings, closing off the club's overdraft and effectively pushing it into administration.

Paradoxically this time the pressure from Liverpool fans is for banks specifically to cause financial problems for the club. The campaign is an attempt to starve the club's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, of credit and, if the bank refuses to roll over the club's borrowings, it could precipitate a financial crisis at Anfield.

Few lenders are willing to offer new facilities in the current climate and Hicks and Gillett have so far shown no great enthusiasm for injecting their own equity.

Hicks last year suffered the indignity of defaulting on the $525m (£345m) debt in his Hicks Sports Group holding company, leading to the sale of the Texas Rangers franchise and much of its surrounding real estate to an investment group including the club's president, the former pitcher Nolan Ryan, in January.

Despite that successful transaction – reportedly worth £310m – Hicks's personal wealth is estimated to have slipped in the past 12 months. Forbes calculated in its most recent rich list that Hicks had lost his billionaire status over the course of the year, now being worth $950m. Liverpool are currently exploring the market's appetite for a £100m third-party investment.

Kelly: My Debt To Finnan

Steve Finnan returns to Anfield with Portsmouth on Monday night with one Liverpool player in particular eager to thank him for his valuable assistance.

Martin Kelly was coming through the ranks at the Academy when Finnan was part of Rafa's squad preparing for the glory that was Istanbul.

Despite his first team status, the Republic of Ireland international always made sure he had time to speak to the aspiring youngsters and help them in any way he could.

"I used to watch Steve closely when he played for us because he was so consistent and he is a great person off the pitch as well," Kelly told

"He was good to watch and he would always help everyone. If he saw you were shy he would come over and talk to you and make you feel like you belonged at the club.

"He is a great player and a great person to have around. He is still playing well for Portsmouth and Steve is still someone I look up to."

Kelly has also spoken of his respect for the Portsmouth players who, despite the well documented off-field problems, have reached the FA Cup semi-finals.

"I've got a great deal of respect for those players for getting on with their job and doing a good job for Portsmouth, he added.

"They have a great team spirit and it's great achievement to get to the semi-final.

"For us it's important to start winning again and we need to forget about Wigan and put that behind us.

"We've got two home games coming up and we need to concentrate on Portsmouth first and get the three points."

The 19-year-old joined the Academy at the age of seven after being spotted at the Alan Kennedy Soccer School and has made his first team breakthrough this season as a right-back. The Reds number 34 has played most of his football at Liverpool as a centre-half, but Benitez favours him as a full-back."I don't know what my best position is to be honest but this season I've been playing at right back and am enjoying it," he added.

"I played at centre half in a practice game in training the other day and it felt weird to be honest because I haven't played there for so long. I don't mind either position and I'm enjoying playing at right back.

"The boss plays me at right back in training and that's where I have played for the first team this season. I can also play at left back if the boss needs me and it doesn't make much difference for me. I will adapt for the team."

Kelly has also spoken about the challenge he faces to try and hold down a regular place in the first team at Anfield, and added: "When you get the chance you have to give your best and try and show the manager why he should keep you in the team.

"It is hard being a local lad because of the players that have been brought here so I have just got to keep working hard and show him I'm good enough to deserve a chance in the first team.

"I admire Glen Johnson a lot as he is England's best right-back so I can only learn from him every day and that can only be good for my game.

"I wouldn't swap this job for anything and it's brilliant training with the first team every day and learning so much off someone like Jamie Carragher."

Liverpool Keeping Close Eye On McLeish Contract Talks

Liverpool are monitoring Alex McLeish’s contract talks at Birmingham closely as Rafa Benitez continues to struggle.

Reds manager Benitez, 49, penned a lucrative new deal a year ago, committing him to the club until 2014.

But Liverpool face a battle to finish in the top four of the Premier League and lost the first leg of their last 16 Europa League tie at Lille 1-0 on Thursday.

Benitez still has the support of the club’s under-fire American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

But Brum boss Big ’Eck is in their contingency plans should Benitez quit or the season end in complete disaster.

The former Scotland and Rangers chief has guided Brum to eighth on a modest budget which has impressed the Anfield hierarchy.

He is in negotiations with new owner Carson Yeung and has a buy-out clause of just £1million in his contract, which expires in 18 months.