Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Steven Gerrard Rates Liverpool 'Underdogs' To Claim Fourth Place

Frustration was etched on Steven Gerrard's face when Fernando Torres was withdrawn at Birmingham City and his outlook has not changed after a result that left Liverpool "underdogs" in the race for the fourth Champions League qualification place. The Liverpool captain believes only a 100% record can preserve the club's place among the European elite but accepts the time for making promises at Anfield is over.

Rafael Benítez's team are four points adrift of Manchester City in fourth place following the draw at St Andrew's on Sunday, a contest Gerrard admits Liverpool had to win to increase their chances of salvaging their domestic campaign. The manager's decision to substitute the ineffective Torres raised eyebrows at Birmingham, Gerrard's included, but would have been vindicated had his replacement, David Ngog, taken one of several chances to seal victory late on. His failure to do so has prompted a sombre analysis from the England vice-captain and an admission that Liverpool are more reliant than ever on City and Tottenham Hotspur faltering on the run-in.

"To give ourselves a better chance we had to take maximum points here and it's going to be really difficult now," Gerrard said. "But the race for fourth place seems to change from week to week. You have to look at the teams above us, they're the favourites and we're the underdogs at the moment. But we'll keep fighting all the way to the end."

Gerrard believes Liverpool must win their five remaining league games. Their best league sequence this season is four consecutive victories at the start of the campaign – against Bolton, Burnley, West Ham United and Hull City, and they still have to play the last three.

The midfielder is wary of making further predictions. "It's OK saying we'll be all right if we win our last five games; we have to go out on to the pitch and win them rather than talk about it. It will be difficult but we have the experience and we're hoping that will be vital in the end but I think it'll go down to the wire. It's easy for me to stand here and say we have to win all our games, we have to go out and do it."

Benitez Refuses To Give Up On Champions League

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has urged his players to still believe they qualify for next season's Champions League.

Sunday's 1-1 draw at Birmingham further dented the Reds' hopes of finishing fourth in the Premier League and winning a place at Europe's top table next term.

Benitez's side trail fourth-placed Manchester City by four points, and fifth-placed Tottenham by three, and they have played a game more than their two rivals.

Other than an Anfield date with Chelsea on May 1, their other four matches appear on paper to be more straightforward - they are at home to Fulham and West Ham, and travel to Burnley and Hull. But when you consider their last away win in the league was at the end of December - a run of seven matches - nothing can be taken for granted.

Benitez, though, is convinced Champions League football is not beyond his players, and is demanding they do not lose heart.

"The players were disappointed after Birmingham because it was a good performance and we had some chances at the end,'' Benitez told the club's official website.”But I told them, 'There's still five games so we need to keep going'.

"If we play in the same way then we'll at least win our games, then we'll see what happens. They (City) have some difficult games, so we just have to win our fixtures. Football is so special. You think 'Oh we'll win there and maybe lose there', but then everything changes.

"We just have to think about getting three points against Fulham on Sunday and then see what happens. We have to keep the belief.''

Prior to that Liverpool face the small matter of trying to overturn a 2-1 first-leg deficit to Benfica in the return of their Europa League quarter-final at Anfield on Thursday.

"The Europa League now is a very, very important trophy for us and we have to win against Benfica,'' added Benitez.

Liverpool Sign Swindon Teenager

Liverpool have completed the signing of teenager Jamie Stephens from Swindon for an undisclosed fee.

The 16-year-old goalkeeper will join the Liverpool Academy until 2012 and sign a professional contract on his 17th birthday.

Stephens was invited to train with the Reds earlier this year and did enough to earn a permanent move to the Premier League giants.

The youngster is yet to make his senior debut and has only played a handful of games for Swindon's youth team this season.

"This is a great opportunity for Jamie," said Swindon chairman Andrew Fitton.

"George Wood (Swindon's goalkeeping coach) recognised his talent immediately and did a great job developing him.

"Being such a specialist position, the opportunity to go to an Academy like Liverpool is the right move for him and will give him the chance to play in tournaments all over the world."

Fitton believes the move shows Swindon's intention to build better relationships with top clubs which will benefit all parties.

The Robins already have young defender Stephen Darby on loan from Liverpool and Stephens himself could return in the future on a similar agreement.

"You can expect to see more interaction between Swindon and clubs such as Liverpool with talented players such as Stephen Darby coming on loan to help in their career development while we leverage the resources that only the big clubs have," said Fitton.

"I hope that one day Jamie Stephens may come back to Swindon, maybe on loan from Liverpool, and get his first taste of league football at the County Ground."

Stephens said after his earlier spell with Liverpool: "The Academy is unbelievable. They have so many staff, everyone is so polite and kind. It's really friendly, like a family club."

Kolarov Flattered By Reds Link

Lazio defender Aleksandar Kolarov is honoured to be linked with the likes of Liverpool and Real Madrid, but insists that he has not received a 'concrete' approach.

The full-back is hot property in Serie A and reports in the winter transfer window suggested that Inter's Goran Pandev had pleaded with the 24-year-old to move to the Giuseppe Meazza.

Liverpool are rumoured to be in the market for a left-back following the unimpressive season of Emiliano Insua and Kolarov has been mentioned as a target, while Real are also thought to want to reinforce their defence.

The Serbia international is pleased to be attracting such interest. However, he maintains that he has not been in official contact with either of the European giants.

"I open the newspapers on a daily basis and find that different clubs are interested in me," Kolarov told

"The interest from Real Madrid, Liverpool and Inter cannot but flatter me. However, up until now there has never been anything concrete."

Asked about the speculation regarding Pandev, Kolarov added: "No, it's absolutely not true that he called me to ask that I move to Inter.

"We talk simply as two friends. We don't just speak about football."

Smith Hopes Wilson Will Stay

Rangers manager Walter Smith is hoping youngster Danny Wilson resists the lure of the Premier League.

Spurs and Liverpool have been linked with the youngster while the Reds' interest in the teenager has been confirmed.

Smith has denied that Gers have an offer on the table for the 18-year-old, who has made 13 SPL starts this season.

Rangers' boss believes Wilson is enjoying his chance of first-team football and hopes he wants to stay and continue his education with the SPL giants.

"I don't think contractual or transfer talk will affect him at all," he told Sky Sports News.

"He's a level-headed boy, he's shown the same temperament in terms of coming in and playing at 18 and playing in the manner that he has done.

"He's not got an offer yet. Liverpool have expressed an interest in him.

"We haven't said that we don't want to let the player go. So he hasn't got an offer yet. He's playing away here.

"I take it that when he joined Rangers that getting a first-team game is what he wanted to do.

"He's been getting a lot more games than I'd imagine he would this season, but he's deserved them and he's played exceptionally well for us."

Liverpool Unearth Their Answer To Ibrahimovic: Nikola Saric

Despite a disappointing season by their standards, with the team constantly blowing hot and cold both domestically and in Europe, Liverpool have a bright future ahead of them, particularly in the striking department. Dani Pacheco and Lauri Dalla Valle in particular, look to be excellent prospects but there is another striker with a bright future, who has not received the attention of the aforementioned duo. This is Nikola Saric, the 19 year old Bosnian/Danish prodigy whose ability and potential has earned comparisons with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Fernando Torres.

Saric was signed by Liverpool from Danish club Herfolge in 2008, signing a three year deal at Anfield. Highly rated in Denmark, Saric and was voted the U-17 player of the year in 2007 and has represented his adopted country at U-16, U-17 and U-18 level.

Saric was born in Sarajevo, but left his home country when war broke out in Bosnia and his family fled to Denmark as refugees. The 19 year old made three league appearances for Herfolge and was regarded as one of the most exciting prospects in Danish football before being snapped up by Liverpool, who beat out the likes of Barcelona and Tottenham for his signature.

Unfortunately, the talented striker has been dogged by injuries in his time so far at Anfield. A persistent knee injury kept Saric out for most of last season, restricting him to a handful of reserve team games. The striker has returned to action recently though, scoring an injury-time equaliser for the reserves against Man City back in January and coming off the bench in the last three games for the reserves, who have only lost once this season in 12 games.

So what’s the fuss about Nikola Saric? Left footed, the 19 year old is extremely versatile and can play on the left or right wing or as a central striker. He is naturally gifted and has been described as one of Europe’s most promising talents. In terms of comparisons, Saric has been likened to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, purely because of the Balkan heritage he shares with the Barcelona star, (Ibrahimovic is of Bosnian and Croatian parentage). Saric has similar traits to Ibrahimovic, in terms of his ball skills, height and finishing in front of goal. The Danish prodigy has also been likened to teammate Fernando Torres, in terms of his playing style.

Saric is yet to make an appearance in Liverpool’s first team, mainly because he has been so injury-prone so far in his Liverpool career, but the youngster is remaining positive, saying back in February.

Saric will be competing with fellow striking prodigies Pacheco and Dalla Valle to break through into the first team at Anfield next season, but if he can manage to stay fit, then it is a possibility that we could see the Dane make a few substitute appearances next season for Liverpool, just like Pacheco has in this campaign. It all depends whether Saric can stay healthy and start showing Rafael Benitez some of that obvious potential that made the Liverpool boss sign him from Herfolge two years ago.

Reds Miss Out On £110 Million Investment

Liverpool FC appear to have rejected an offer of £110 million from New York-based fund management company Rhone Group for a controlling share in the Anfield club, with owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett failing to respond to the bid ahead of its deadline.

Liverpool are keen to secure new investment in order to pay off the club's debts and finance a move from Anfield to a new state of the art stadium in Liverpool's Stanley Park, but negotiations with Rhone appear to have fallen by the wayside.

'Though Rhone's investment is needed to pay down £100m of debt demanded of the club by Liverpool's bankers, Royal Bank of Scotland, the club seem to believe they can secure a better deal elsewhere,' reports The Independent. 'It does not seem that Rhone will go back to the club in the future and though further negotiations are possible if Liverpool re-establish contact, the valuation may have changed if Rafael Benitez's side are not playing Champions League football next season.'

Participation in the Uefa Champions League is worth tens of millions each season to participating clubs. Liverpool have been a fixture in the competition in recent seasons, winning it in 2005 and reaching the final again in 2007, but were eliminated ahead of the knock-out stages in this season's competition and are currently trailing in the race to qualify for next season's edition.

The Reds, who can point to a seemingly less difficult run-in than their rivals for fourth place, were held 1-1 by Birmingham City this weekend, with Liam Ridgewell cancelling out Steven Gerrard's opener. Liverpool are in sixth place, four points behind fourth-placed Manchester City.

Gerrard Deserves Better & A Fresh Challenge

Arsenal FC hero Ian Wright believes Liverpool FC should allow their captain Steven Gerrard to leave Anfield in the summer.

Wright claims the long time Liverpool FC talisman looks unhappy and disillusioned with life at Anfield and his adoring Kop fans should respect the service he has granted them for all these years by allowing him to leave the club in the summer.

The once prolific Arsenal FC forward suggests Gerrard would benefit from leaving Liverpool FC in search of a new challenge because on the verge of his thirtieth birthday, he may not get another chance. Wright suggests Birmingham City’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool, during which Rafa Benitez withdrew Fernando Torres with 20 minutes remaining, may have been the nail in the coffin for Gerrard’s Anfield career.

The Arsenal FC legend told the Sun: “It was the moment that may have broken the camel's back as far as Steven Gerrard's Liverpool love affair is concerned.”

“The look of dismay on the skipper's face when Rafa Benitez inexplicably substituted Fernando Torres with 25 minutes to go in Sunday's 1-1 draw at Birmingham said it all.”

“For the first time since he broke into the first team 11½ years ago, Stevie G looked like he wants out of Liverpool.”

“And, with the way things are at Anfield right now, who could blame him?”

“With Premier League and Champions League hopes having long disappeared, the consolation prizes of fourth place in the table and the Europa League are now even touch and go.”

“It appears the only certainties on the horizon at Liverpool this year are more in-fighting and uncertainty.”

Wright claims Steven Gerrard, one of the greatest players in Liverpool’s history, deserves better then the club’s current malaise.

He continued: “Gerrard deserves better. Much better.”

“He turns 30 at the end of next month. It's a milestone that is bound to make him take a long, hard look at himself and his career.”

“It would be totally understandable if he came to the conclusion that he needs a new club. I know the Kop will be up in arms at this view, as they were when their inspirational captain came close to joining Chelsea in 2004.”

“Gerrard turned down a reported £20million switch to join Jose Mourinho and it proved the right decision.”

“He led Liverpool to a Champions League triumph over Milan 12 months later, an incredible FA Cup final win over West Ham a year after that before another Champions League final appearance in 2007.”

“But things are totally different this time. Gerrard's body language as he trudged off at St Andrew's suggested he needs a new challenge and the Koppites should respect that.”

“As the old saying goes, if you love somebody set them free. That is how Liverpool fans should be with Gerrard.”

“Nobody has given more for the Reds cause, particularly in recent seasons. Torres has got the goals but Gerrard has carried the club, almost single-handedly at times.”

“But the time may have come where he needs to think about himself. Spending a career with one club - even one as good as Liverpool - is not always healthy and players can get stale.”

“He would thrive at a big club where there are more than two world-class stars expected to carry the burden week in, week out.”

“A fresh challenge would rejuvenate Gerrard after a draining season with Liverpool.”

“And we might see a smile back on the face of one of English football's genuine world-class talents. Instead of the dejected expression we saw on Sunday.”

Mark Lawrensen: Fernando Torres Treatment A Big Clue To How Rafa Benitez Sees His Liverpool Future

I wish I could answer the questions as to why Fernando Torres was taken off at Birmingham on Sunday – but I for one have given up trying to guess.

Preserving players early in the season is one thing – but doing it in April just doesn’t make sense.

No wonder Steven Gerrard was scratching his head.

I hate harking back to the old days because that’s exactly what they are – old. But if Rushie had been subbed after 65 minutes of a game we needed to win back in the 1980s there would have been a mutiny.

And Torres is the modern day Ian Rush – the one player who you need on the pitch when you are chasing a winning goal.

Yes, he might have been having an off day but looking at the way Liverpool pressed late on, he would have only needed to stand there and swing his leg at the ball to have an impact.

He would surely have buried the couple of chances David Ngog had when he came on to replace him.

But the most baffling thing about the decision to haul him off was, if you really need to wrap him in cotton wool and make sure he doesn’t do any long term damage, why didn’t that happen in Portugal on Thursday night?

There were only eight minutes left when Torres made way for David Ngog that night and by the time he came off he had been kicked from pillar to post.

Taking him off would have been justified on that occasion because he was getting no protection from the referee and the Benfica defenders were having a field day.

That would have been the time to give Torres the safety of the bench.

As it is, the 2-1 defeat Liverpool suffered still, for me, gives them a 60/40 chance of qualifying at Anfield, as long as they don’t concede an away goal.

One thing is for sure, after missing half an hour of action at St Andrew’s, Torres should be flying!

But the other thing I really don’t get about the whole tiredness argument is, why not send Ngog on for someone else and give Torres some help? Ease the burden on him a bit.

If you have someone who can do the running and occupy defenders, then Torres can just stand around and be as worn out as he likes, all he needs to be there for is to add a finishing touch.

That’s all you need in such a finely-balanced game and I’ve lost count of the times a decision by Benitez has jeopardised his side having the best chance of winning a game.

When your own captain is looking at the number board in utter disbelief, you know you’ve got problems.

Gerrard was playing really well, had scored a great goal and he knows that when he is in the mood he and Torres can destroy a team in an instant.

So what conclusions are we supposed to draw from all this? Is it that Benitez wants to go all out to win the Europa League rather than push for fourth place? A fourth place that he has already ‘guaranteed’?

After failing to deliver on that, success in Europe is an absolute must if you’re going to make sacrifices elsewhere for it.

Of course, if we do win the trophy then great, happy days. But how are we going to attract top quality players to the club for next year if we are not in the Champions League?

Or maybe Rafa knows that come the summer that won’t be his problem – and if he does go he will at least have gone out with some silverware.

Rafael Benítez Insulted Liverpool Fans With His Birmingham Surrender

They've won it five times. Liverpool have won the European Cup in such glamorous places as Rome twice, London, Paris and Istanbul and now, shamefully, Rafael Benítez appears to have surrendered in Birmingham any chance of adding to that tally for the foreseeable future.

Liverpool's manager has eschewed qualifying for football's grand prize by focusing on the Europa League, the realm of also-rans. How the mighty are falling.

Finding Liverpool concentrating on the Europa League is akin to discovering The Beatles entering the Eurovision Song Contest. They should be above it. Great fans deserve better. Ambitious players such as Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Javier Mascherano and Pepe Reina deserve better. Even Benitez's backers struggle to support him now.

Liverpool may recover, of course, and with talent such as Torres, Gerrard and Reina it would be foolish to dismiss them whatever the frustration with a manager so cautious he probably drives with the handbrake on. Yet for anybody with any affection for England's most successful club it was so galling to watch Benítez withdrawing Torres with 25 minutes remaining and the St Andrew's scoreline showing (and finishing) 1-1.

Chasing victory to cling to the coat-tails of Manchester City and Tottenham in the race for fourth, Liverpool were suddenly deprived of their best attacker. Benítez and friends can talk all they like about the three chances that fell to Torres's replacement, David Ngog, but Torres, even off the pace, might have put one away.

Torres looked surprised at the summons to the bench. So did Gerrard, scratching his head as if bemused by Torres's departure. Benítez appeared to sacrifice his best hope of a goal against Birmingham to give him more hope in the Europa League against Benfica on Thursday. Even a Torres masterclass against the Portuguese cannot provide retrospective validation for the white flag against Birmingham.

What happened at St Andrew's was an insult to the fans who had travelled in numbers, craving the points to keep alive Benitez's "guarantee'' of a return to the cherished Champions League. In the Second City, Benítez seemed to make a statement that he believes Liverpool are second-class citizens in the European class system. What an affront to a distinguished history.

Whichever way Benitez's decision to remove Torres is analysed it lacks logic unless he is planning to leave this summer and wants to bow out with some silverware, however modest, that might be noted by a few European chairmen. In a period of flux among those below the Chelsea-Manchester United-Arsenal triumvirate, any failure by Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League has expensive short-term ramifications, notably the £30 million-plus cheque that now goes to a rival.

Most damagingly in terms of finance, prestige and the chance of retaining or attracting stellar performers, the likelihood of missing out on Champions League football this year has immense long-term significance.

If City, Croesus-rich and already blessed with talent in Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Adam Johnson, Gareth Barry and Shay Given, gain a place in the Champions League, they will invest again, and could become regular diners at Europe's top table. Liverpool are sliding down a costly snake.

Failing to make the Champions League roster ensures a painful summer for Liverpool. It is hard to see such loyal club men as Gerrard and Carragher moving on but Torres will be targeted, particularly if he enjoys a show-stopping World Cup. Ditto Mascherano.

Just as Gerard Houllier's French era at Anfield came to an end, so could the clock be running on Benitez's Spanish reign. Those who know Benítez well talk of the man's warmth and intelligence.

To most people, though, he just seems a stubborn, slightly cold, possibly dysfunctional individual with a knack of buying brilliantly (Torres, Reina, Mascherano etc) or atrociously (Alberto Aquilani). The persistence with Lucas highlights Benitez's reputation as one of football's most quixotic characters.

Yet this is the coach who can set teams up perfectly, particularly in Europe, but the great sadness for those who admire Liverpool is that the Continental assignments are now of the B-list variety. Liverpool deserve better. Liverpool deserve new ideas in the dugout.