Saturday, April 03, 2010

Mourinho The Man To Breathe Vitality Into Liverpool's Stale Corpse

At the end of a dismaying and diminishing season, a bright light beckons Liverpool. Whether they will respond to it, show the nerve to pay Rafa Benitez his £16m after acknowledging that he has never been further away from the future he offered when so astonishingly winning the Champions League five years ago, is far from clear; but then what is at Anfield these days?

There is, however, no doubt about the identity of the man holding the light. With increasing candour, Jose Mourinho is announcing that he craves again the passions and the fury of the Premier League.

He made English football his theatre; he felt the warmth of the audience; and even that section of it which poured down scorn was also agreeing that his presence had been both a key and dramatic element in the football life of his adopted country.

"I don't like Italian football," he proclaims now. "And it doesn't like me. So it is quite simple."

Real Madrid, where the respected coach Manuel Pellegrini already carries the burden of failure in his greatest imperative -- success in the Champions League after last summer's spending orgy -- is probably the most obvious next staging post of Mourinho's career. This will be especially so if he can deliver the European prize for Inter Milan after their serial run of Italian league titles, a possibility that has sharpened since the brilliant triumph over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last month.

Real Madrid is of course no mean stage for the extrovert Portuguese. It offers supreme kudos and a budget to meet any coach's dreams. But Real Madrid operate in Spain, not England, the place where the Mourinho brand still blazes in neon more brightly than anywhere else in the football landscape. In his early days at Chelsea he impatiently stopped an interrogator who was painting a scenario that didn't quite suit the Special One.

It involved, after all, the possibility that he might not achieve all his goals in his first season at Stamford Bridge. "Don't give me your movie," snapped Mourinho. "I have a movie of my own -- and I'm the star."

There is no doubt that there is a large measure of respect and affection still lingering for Benitez. The glory of Istanbul dies hard, heaven knows, but in the more realistic sections of the Liverpool following there is a pained recognition that Benitez has had his time to make a team that could build on that first dramatic success and that, as they now struggle to retain a foothold in the Champions League, it has passed.

Do Liverpool have a chance of landing Mourinho if they can dredge up the necessary finances? There are compelling arguments to say that they do.

While rumours persist that Manchester United see Mourinho as the dynamic successor to Alex Ferguson when he decides to go, the football man likely to be least inhibited or intimidated by the weight of the legacy, there is still not much of a clue about when the old warhorse is likely to gallop off over the horizon.

At Chelsea, where he would be given a rapturous welcome if he was to return -- as we saw so recently even when he was plundering the club's strong belief that it was their year to win the Champions League -- it is inconceivable that Roman Abramovich would make the public admission that he was wrong to first marginalise, then sack the man who delivered two Premier League titles as his opening statements to English football.

Arsenal, whatever the fate of their highest ambitions, belongs to Arsene Wenger as long as he wants them. Where else would provide a fitting home for Mourinho? The more you look at Liverpool the more you see the possibilities of Mourinho sating his ego.

Imagine the impact of a Liverpool revival under Mourinho. It is not as though he would be without some players of formidable ability. Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano (the most impressive defensive midfielder in the last World Cup) and Pepe Reina represent a hard core of excellence waiting -- in Gerrard's case it seems with ever dwindling optimism -- for the sense that they are part of a team with genuine prospects at the highest level.

If Mourinho still wants massed, fervent belief in his messianic powers, where better for him than a Liverpool where Bill Shankly, all these years after his glory, is still spoken of not as a mere football man but someone who changed the life and the expectations of a great city?

That there is still such an appetite in Mourinho, one that will not be assuaged if his second Champions League win comes later this spring, is plain enough.

He is much liked by the fans of Inter, but elsewhere in Italy there is no doubt the force of his personality is much less appreciated, infinitely less, certainly, than it was in England so far beyond the boundaries of Stamford Bridge.

"Italians do not really love football for its own sake," he said early in his Milan phase. "They like the contorni well enough, but not so much the football."

Contorni means the extras that come with the main dish and Mourinho was referring to the controversy and the intrigues of the game that occupies most intensely so many Italian fans when they sip their espresso and digestive.

"It is a different view of the game and I do not like it," says Mourinho.

An extraordinary statement, maybe, from a man who can whip up intrigue faster than the author of the 'Da Vinci Code', but then this is Mourinho weaving his charisma, plucking headlines out of the air as though they are white rabbits.

Imagine Mourinho throwing down again the gauntlet at the feet of Ferguson and Wenger and whoever happens to hold the Chelsea job from which he was banished. The effect on English football would of course be electric. At Liverpool, you have to guess, it would be like the dawn of their old life.

Steven Gerrard Keeping Tabs On Jay Spearing At Leicester City

Midfielder Jay Spearing has been receiving advice on how to help Leicester City's play-off push from Liverpool and England star Steven Gerrard.

Gerrard has taken a special interest in the 21-year-old's progress since he arrived at City on loan from Liverpool and has told Spearing to show the City fans what he is capable of.

Spearing revealed how Gerrard and Jamie Carragher took him under their wing from the moment he first arrived at Liverpool's training ground at Melwood, and how vital their advice has been.

One day he hopes to emulate them and become an integral part of Liverpool's first team, and he sees his stay at City as a vital stepping-stone.

"There is no-one better than Stevie G to learn from," said Spearing, who made his full City debut at Cardiff City on Tuesday night.

"I think he is the best midfielder in the world at the moment, and I think he has been for the past few years.

"I don't need anyone else to learn from. For the defensive side of the game I look at Javier Mascherano but, from the attacking side and his all-round game, I look to Stevie G.

"I spoke to him a couple of days ago. He texted me to see how it was going and he told me to enjoy myself and just show people what I am made of at Leicester. It doesn't sink in at first but then you realise it is actually him on the phone.

"Since the first moment I went down to Melwood he has looked after me. He gives me advice and suggests areas I need to look at, and what I need to work on in games. He has been great from the off and so has Jamie Carragher, he has been a massive help as well.

"They are both Scouse lads and they see me and want Scouse lads to come through.

"From the moment we went down they grabbed us and told us to stick by them.

"If they think we could do things better they would inform us. Who better to listen to than them?"

Spearing knows he has a long way to go before he can regularly play alongside the likes Gerrard and Carragher, but in the meantime he is focused on helping City reach the play-offs.

"It would be wonderful to have play-off winners on my CV and I think we are capable of it," he said.

"We have a great young side here with plenty of willingness and desire."

Jovanovic: I'm Still Anfield-Bound

Standard Liege star Milan Jovanovic insists he still expects to join Liverpool for next season, despite reports the summer move was in doubt.

Reports emerged last week that Liverpool's Bosman move for Jovanovic was in doubt because of fears over Rafa Benitez's long-term future at Anfield.

However, the player has refuted the suggestions and says he is only waiting for a work permit to make the move to Merseyside.

"For me, it's sorted," Jovanovic said. "The only thing is that my work permit is not yet in order.

"But I have until June to get it. I'm at ease. Next season I will play at Liverpool."

Rafael Benitez Wants Anfield Revenge After Benfica Defeat

Fuming Rafael Benitez has called on the Anfield factor to help Liverpool avenge defeat to Benfica after a controversial evening in Lisbon.

Benitez could barely contain his anger after his 10-man side were beaten 2-1 by the Portuguese side in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final.

The Spaniard was at a loss to explain a succession of decisions against the visitors by referee Jonas Eriksson and his assistants during a volatile encounter at the Estadio da Luz.

After Daniel Agger had given Liverpool a ninth-minute lead, Ryan Babel was harshly sent off on the half-hour for a push on Luisao when the Benfica centre-back somehow escaped a red card of his own for a vicious foul on Fernando Torres.

Torres then saw a goal contentiously disallowed before two hotly-disputed second-half penalties by Oscar Cardozo gave the Portuguese a slender advantage ahead of next Thursday's return leg.

Benfica could face sanctions from UEFA after a series of firecrackers were thrown on to the pitch with referee Eriksson at one point threatening to abandon the match unless the bombardment was halted.

And Benitez has challenged the Anfield crowd to create a similarly hostile atmosphere for the return leg.

“I'm confident we can do well,” said the Liverpool manager. “It will be totally different. With the fans behind us we can score goals and progress in the competition.

“Today was a very good example of what the fans can do, pushing the team. Our fans are fantastic and if they are behind the team we can work as hard as today and maybe do a good job and progress.

“We have to move forward at Anfield with the fans behind our team. We need our fans to show everyone that Anfield is different.”

Of Babel's red card, Benitez added: “I was surprised because a foul from behind is usually more serious than what Babel did. It's hard to understand but impossible to change.”

Benitez otherwise refused to be drawn on the controversial incidents, and instead preferred to praise his team for the manner in which they played despite being at a numerical disadvantage for more than an hour.

“We did well playing with 10 players for 60 minutes, and we were disappointed with the result as we had some chances,” he said.

“We conceded two penalties and had one goal disallowed. There were too many things but we have the second leg to come.

“When decisions are against your team you don't like them. The only thing we can do now is be positive and think about our fans behind the team.

“I haven't seen the replays of the penalties. We can't change the situation. We have to move forward.”

Benitez added: “They were attacking and pushing really hard. We defended well and we showed to Benfica that we can be strong, we can create and we can score goals.

“We had our chances against a good team. It could have been a better result, especially with the chance for Fernando at 1-1.

“It's half-time for us. We have one more game. I don't want to dwell too much on the problems or incidents.”

Babel is ruled out of the second leg along with Emiliano Insua, who accrued his third booking in the competition last night and must now serve a one-match ban.

Both Torres and Steven Gerrard were substituted late on, but Benitez allayed injury fears concerning the duo.

“Fernando and Stevie were really tired and we needed to break up the game and get some fresh legs on,” said the Spaniard. “It wasn’t easy to keep our tempo.”

Liverpool Can Overcome Benfica In Europa League Says Jamie Carragher

Jamie Carragher believes Liverpool FC can turn around their Europa League quarter-final tie against Benfica as they have the advantage of a valuable away goal.

Although Liverpool FC lost 2-1 in controversial circumstances in the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon last night the result could have been much worse.

Striker Oscar Cardoza, scorer of two second-half penalties, missed three good chances even before Ryan Babel was sent off on the half-hour for pushing a hand in Luisao’s face.

Numerous other opportunities were wasted by a very forward-thinking Benfica side who will pose a threat on the counter-attack in the second leg at Anfield next Thursday.

However, defender Carragher is confident Liverpool FC can overcome the obstacle of a one-goal deficit.

"It’s disappointing but it’s still all to play for and only half-time," said the Reds’ vice-captain, who in playing his 621st match on Thursday moved up to eighth in the all-time list of Liverpool FC's appearance-makers.

"The plan was to keep it tight and nick a goal, which we got early on. Obviously the sending-off had a big part to play.

"To play an hour with 10 men is always difficult and although it’s still disappointing the result is not too bad.

"It’s good to get the away goal but we have to capitalise on that in the second leg to make it count.

"At the moment we’re behind but a 1-0 victory at home will be enough to see us through and if we can get that, that’s when the away goal will prove crucial."

A guilty Babel has apologised to his team-mates for being naive in allowing himself to get sent off, admitting it was "stupid and silly".

"I will learn from the mistake and it won’t happen again," said the Holland international, who will be suspended for the second leg.

"It was a stupid, silly thing for me to touch him in the face, but I think a yellow card would have been fair enough.

"I have spoken to the lads and said sorry. It’s good to know that my team-mates are backing me up and they didn’t let me down.

"They fought all the way and I am confident we can do well in the next game.

"I feel very guilty that we lost but a big complement to the team is that we were still comfortable with 10 men.

"Hopefully we will get the good result we need."

Liverpool Midfielder Lucas Leiva Happy With Away Goal After Europa League Defeat To Benfica

Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva was content after the Reds' 2-1 loss at the hands of Portuguese outfit Benfica in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final.

The Brazilian international feels the Reds did well in the opening stages of the game, and is confident that Liverpool can overturn a one-goal deficit in the second leg in order to ensure progression to the semi-finals of the competition.

"We are really disappointed," Lucas told

"We started really well in the game and scored an early goal. We created some chances even with 10 men.

"Now we have to keep going and try to go through in Anfield."

Lucas was hesitant in his analysis of Ryan Babel's red card following a heated argument with Benfica defender Luisao, suggesting that the team are more focused on the second leg than disputing refereeing decisions.

"The referee just said it was 'hands to face' - something like that," he added.

"To be honest, we don't want to talk about the referee. I think everyone saw the game and you can analyse better than us.

"We'll just keep going now. We have an important game in the Premier League and then we'll try to go through to the semi-finals."

The second leg of the Europa League tie will be played next Thursday at Anfield, with the Reds going into the game with the advantage of Daniel Agger's away goal despite facing a one-goal deficit.

Benitez Blasts Ref After Benfica Beating

Rafael Benitez was left fuming by the performance of ref Jonas Eriksson in Liverpool's Europa League quarter-final first-leg defeat to Benfica.

Defender Daniel Agger had put the visitors ahead by converting Steven Gerrard's ninth-minute free-kick with a clever backheel.

However, Ryan Babel was sent off on the half-hour for pushing a hand in Luisao's face in a melee sparked by the defender's crunching tackle on Fernando Torres.

In the second half two controversial penalty awards allowed Oscar Cardozo to score twice having earlier missed a host of chances.

Benitez said he was disappointed with Babel for his response but felt Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson should have been stronger when he only gave Luisao a yellow card.

"I was surprised because a foul from behind is more serious," he said.

"I would like to analyse the foul before. And after, when one player is shouting in front of the referee after he already has a yellow card.

"It is a big difference when you kick a player from behind to a player touching another in the mouth.

"It is difficult to understand and impossible to change but we have to move forward and think about Anfield.

"Always decisions against your team you don't like but you cannot change them and the only way now is to try to be positive.

"Half-time was a 1-0 game and we had confidence, I prefer not to talk about problems or incidents."

Torres, in particular, came in for some rough treatment but Eriksson was content to allow it - much to Benitez and his players' anger.

Throughout the second half fireworks were thrown towards Jose Reina's goal, resulting in two stoppages and a report to the UEFA delegate, which did little to improve the visitors' mood.

It was to their credit the Liverpool players, in the main, kept their cool as Torres and Javier Mascherano were both in danger of being suspended for the crucial second leg had they been booked.

Emiliano Insua was not so fortunate, however, and his yellow card late in the first half gives Benitez a problem at left-back next week.

Despite the defeat Benitez felt his side had performed well and even though he felt at least one of the penalty decisions was harsh he has urged his players to forget the game and move on.

"I haven't seen the replays but you can't change the decisions," he added.

"Our play for 60 minutes with 10 players was good and we are disappointed because we had chances.

"It means we are a good team because we had chances.

"They (Benfica) were trying to push very hard and we were defending well.

"We showed we can be strong, we can create and we can score goals.

"The team was working very hard and with the fans behind us we can progress in the competition.

"Hopefully we will not need to push too hard (in the second leg), just push and play well and score goals."

Benfica coach Jorge Jesus felt his side should have put the tie beyond reach with the number of chances they created.

"We could have scored more but it was not an easy game," he said.

"It was easy after the sending-off but we played well, we were more offensive after that and the two best teams in this competition were playing against each other."

Ryan Babel Admits Red Card Against Benfica Was 'Stupid And Silly'

Liverpool FC forward Ryan Babel has admitted to being "stupid and silly" following his sending-off in Thursday night’s 2-1 Europa League quarter-final first leg defeat to Benfica in Lisbon.

Rafa Benitez's side took an early lead through Daniel Agger and watched the Portuguese league leaders waste numerous chances but the match turned on the 30th-minute dismissal of Babel.

The Holland international raised his hands to Luisao in a melee started by the Benfica defender after he had viciously gone through the back of Fernando Torres - a tackle which infuriated Liverpool FC manager Benitez.

Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson, who lost control of the game the moment he allowed Luisao to escape with a yellow card, had no hesitation in sending-off the Liverpool FC player.

Two second-half penalties from Oscar Cardozo turned the game around for Benfica to leave Babel regretting his actions.

"The referee told me the red card was for touching Luisao’s face - that was it," said the Dutchman.

"It was clear that Luisao had made an awful foul and all I wanted to do was back up Fernando.

"Too harsh maybe. In the end maybe it was a stupid, silly thing for me to touch him in the face, but I think a yellow card would have been fair enough. But if they are the rules...

"He came very loud and very close with his face and I just tried to back him off with my hand (to say) don’t come too close.

"That’s it and in the end, they made it bigger than it was. But it was a mistake by me, I will learn from it and it won’t happen again."