Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rafa Benítez Insists Liverpool’s Season is Alive On Two Fronts After Benfica Win

Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez believes there is still all to play for in their season after victory over Benfica set up a Europa League semi-final with Atletico Madrid and gave them impetus to take the fight for fourth place in the Premier League down to the wire.

Liverpool produced an outstanding attacking performance at Anfield last night to overturn a 2-1 first-leg deficit with an emphatic 4-1 victory over the Portuguese league leaders.

Dirk Kuyt and the often-maligned Lucas, both superb throughout, set up the victory with first-half goals before top scorer Fernando Torres struck twice either side of an Oscar Cardozo reply.

The vibrancy and determination of Liverpool’s display made their struggles in the Premier League seem all the more perplexing.

With hopes of finishing fourth looking increasingly forlorn, the Europa League is now Liverpool’s best hope of salvaging a disappointing campaign, although Benítez is not giving up on Champions League qualification.

‘’Hopefully we can play well, score goals, get closer to the top four and get to the final,” said the Spaniard.

‘’We will try to win every game. We will try to do it against Fulham on Sunday and try to get close to the top four.

‘’If we can get to the final and win the final we will be very pleased. We have two targets now and we will try to do both.’’

The performance of Lucas was particularly pleasing for Benítez given the low regard with which the fans hold the Brazilian.

Lucas nonchalantly swerved around goalkeeper Julio Cesar for his first goal for 11 months and had a huge hand in Torres’ second after winning the ball in midfield.

Benítez said: ‘’Lucas was involved in two goals and that is always important for the fans and people watching the game.

‘’I am really pleased with him in terms of effort in every game.

‘’Between the lines we knew Benfica were very dangerous, so (Javier) Mascherano and Lucas were key players away and at home.’’

Torres created club history as his double made him the first player to score twice in four successive games at Anfield.

His first came at the end of a sweeping counter-attack just before the hour and his second, a delicate chip over substitute goalkeeper Moreira, settled the tie eight minutes from time.

‘’I was really pleased with the first and second goals,” said Benítez, “but the third was amazing because there were a lot of players involved. It was perfect.

‘’We have some very good players and the value of the squad is much greater than in the past.

‘’Torres has a big value because he is a good player, still young and I think he can improve.’’

Liverpool now return to domestic action with Sunday’s trip to Fulham, a match that could be a dress rehearsal for the Europa League final.

Veteran defender Jamie Carragher feels the victory will give Liverpool a huge lift for the remainder of their campaign.

Carragher said: ‘We can take massive confidence from this as they are flying in their league and next season will probably be in the Champions League.

“Before the draw was made they were the ones that everyone was trying to stay away from so this is a great result.’’

Pepe Reina Commits To Liverpool With New Six-Year Contract

Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina has put pen to paper on a new contract with the club, which commits him to another six years at Anfield.

The 27-year-old shot-stopper - rated as one of the best in the Premier League - will stay with the Reds until at least June 2016.

'I'm delighted to sign a new contract. It's probably the best news of my life that I'll be here for the next six years. Me and my family are really happy here, he told the club's official website.

'To play for Liverpool is very special. I've been here for five years and now I will be here for six more and it's very exciting.'

Reina moved to the Reds from Villarreal in 2005 and said his family have adjusted well to life on Merseyside, which was one of his main considerations when agreeing a new deal.

'It's very important that my family love it here as well, as family life is just as important as my career,' he continued.

'My wife told me from the beginning she was more than happy here. My kids enjoy it and they have picked up the scouse accent already. I am really proud of that.

'In the years ahead they will speak much more scouse too.'

Reina is expected to go to the World Cup this summer as Spain's second- or third-choice goalkeeper behind Real Madrid's Iker Casillas, although some Iberian pundits have speculated the Liverpool star's hopes of starting for his country are impeded somewhat by playing abroad.

He joins fellow Liverpool stars Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Daniel Agger and Dirk Kuyt in committing his long-term future to the club.

Benfica Boss Jorge Jesus: Liverpool Scoreline Was Harsh On Us

Benfica’s Europa League dreams are over after being humbled 4-1 by Liverpool at Anfield on Thursday evening, although coach Jorge Jesus doesn’t believe that result did his side justice.

After defeating the Reds 2-1 in Lisbon last week, the Portuguese had genuine hopes of progressing to the semi-finals, but first half goals from Dirk Kuyt and Lucas Leiva quickly had the game running away from the guests.

After the interval, Liverpool continued to find the net, with Fernando Torres grabbing a brace that sandwiched Oscar Cardozo’s sole response from the guests.

“From the second goal, we have sought to reduce the gap and we ended up losing goals,” Jorge Jesus told the press after the game.

“Physically, some of my players had trouble keeping up with the speed of the Liverpool players.

“I think the result is a slight exaggeration of what happened, but it also reflects a very strong team from Liverpool, who have more experience, who have played with the score.”

Os Gloriosos must now focus on their domestic campaign, which looks likely to end with a 32nd league title.

Daniel Agger Hails Fernando Torres As One Of The World's Best Players

Liverpool defender Daniel Agger believes that Fernando Torres has shown once again just why he is one of the best players in the world after bagging a brace against Benfica on Thursday evening.

The Spaniard's two goals helped the Reds to an emphatic 4-1 win over the Portuguese side and put Rafael Benitez's men through to the last four of the Europa League.

Agger, slotting in as an emergency left-back on the night, was in awe of his colleague's display.

"Fernando was very impressive," the Dane told his club's official website.

"He proved again he's one of the best in the world. It's really difficult to compare players, but the way he has played this season has been unbelievable.

"Even when he doesn't have a great game he scores goals and that shows what a good player he is.

"He can come out of nowhere and get us a goal and that's what the team needs."

Agger also confirmed that the Reds players are now very keen to win the competition and add their own little bit of history to the club's traditions.

"Now we just have to focus on the semi-final but we are aiming to get to the final. You have to try to win trophies - that's what we play for," he explained.

"Not everyone succeeds but at least you have to try to give your best, otherwise there's no point playing football.

"We want to create our own history. That's what we are working for every day."

Rafael Benitez Praises Lucas Leiva And Aims For Europa League Final

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has praised his side after they beat Benfica 4-1 on Thursday to progress to the Europa League semi-finals.

The quarter-final second leg tie at Anfield saw goals from Dirk Kuyt, Lucas Leiva and a brace from Fernando Torres as the Reds progress past the Portuguese giants, who pulled one back through Oscar Cardozo.

Benitez singled out Lucas for particular praise for the emphatic result, and is aiming to arrive in the final against familiar opposition.

"To be in the semi-final of a European competition is really good for us," Benitez told reporters.

"Hopefully now we can see Fulham in the final because it would be good to have two English teams there. The performance of the team pleased me most.

"Everyone played really well but especially Lucas. We try to win every game. If we can get to the final and win the final then I will be really pleased but we must target both that and finishing in the top four."

Attention must now turn to the Premier League, where a top four finish is the aim for the club. Coincidentally, their next opponents are fellow Europa League semi-finalists Fulham.

Daniel Agger Happy To Fill In At Left-Back For Liverpool During Europa League Win Over Benfica

Liverpool defender Daniel Agger feels that he handled the unfamilar role of left-back well against Benfica during the Reds' Europa League victory at Anfield on Thursday night.

Rafael Benitez's men reached the last four of the competition after two goals from Fernando Torres and strikes from Lucas and Dirk Kuyt helped them win the quarter-final second leg 4-1, giving them a 5-3 aggregate victory.

Agger filled in on the left side of the defence in place of the injured Emiliano Insua and the Dane felt that he handled the test well.

"I thought I did okay at left-back and was happy to play in that position for the team," the defender told his club's official website.

"It's always difficult when you change positions but I had a job to do and did my best. It was a good experience and I enjoyed it."

Liverpool now face Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals of the competition.

Agger insists that the Reds go into the tie full of confidence and feeling that they can now beat anyone and win the trophy.

"We want to get to the final and it doesn't matter who we play," he added.

"We have to be confident against any side we play. We stuck together and we played well and deserved to beat Benfica.

"We are happy that the second leg is at Anfield and it’s always special to play at Anfield on any occasion, not just a European night."

Boss On Agger Display

Rafael Benitez praised the commitment of Daniel Agger after the Dane was deployed in an unfamiliar left-back role against Benfica on Thursday.

Emiliano Insua's suspension and an injury to Fabio Aurelio meant Benitez was forced to utilise the defender as a makeshift full-back in the 4-1 triumph over the Portuguese side - and the boss was delighted with his accomplished display.

"I am really pleased with Agger because he was really good against Benfica in a different position," he said.

"For all centre-backs, especially if they are big, it is not easy to play as a full-back, but we were talking with Daniel and practising in the training sessions.

"When you have a player with his commitment, it is really good for the team."

Agent Insists Juventus Have Not Made Contact With Liverpool Boss Rafael Benitez

Rafael Benitez’s representative has reiterated there is no truth in press reports suggesting that Italian giants Juventus have made the Liverpool manager their top target.

Juve are expected to part with caretaker coach Alberto Zaccheroni at the end of the season and Benitez is said to be favourite to take over at the Olimpico.

But agent Manuel Garcia Quilon told “I know nothing about it. I’ve had no contact with Juventus. Rafa has still four years left on his contract with Liverpool, and there is nothing else to add.”

Sources in Italy claim that Juve will search for a new goalkeeper next summer as they might release Italy international Gianluigi Buffon and Quilon also represents the interests of Villarreal shot-stopper Diego Lopez, who has been linked with the Bianconeri in the past.

“Villarreal have not received any offers,” said the agent. “He is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe. Should a good offer come in, for both the club and the player, he could leave.”

Liverpool Owners Tom Hicks And George Gillett Consider Stepping Aside

Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are considering appointing an independent chairman at Anfield and have sounded out leading business figures, including British Airways chairman Martin Broughton, about taking on the role, Telegraph Sport can disclose.

The appointment of an independent chairman is understood to be one of a number of options discussed by the Americans during three days of substantive talks with their advisers in London.

Hicks and Gillett co-chair the Liverpool board but are considering stepping aside in favour of a well-respected independent figure. Such a move would make sense if they were successful in finding a minority investor to help reduce the £237 million debt, but it is understood they will consider standing down even if they do not sell a stake in the club.

While they would still remain in control of Liverpool, a figure of the stature of Broughton would increase their appeal to potential investors and draw some of the sting from criticism of the Americans' stewardship of the club.

It is unclear if Broughton would be interested in the role or have time to do it, given the pressures BA is under. As well as the industrial dispute with the cabin crew’s union, Unite, the airline is closing on a merger with Spanish national carrier Iberia.

Broughton, who joined BA in 2004, has considerable sporting pedigree, having chaired the British Horseracing Board from 2004-07. He was chairman of British American Tobacco when it launched the BAR Formula One team and he has taken an interest in the 2012 Olympic project.

Hicks and Gillett arrived in London on Tuesday and have held talks with advisers, including respected City lawyers Freshfields Bruckhaus, before travelling to Anfield for the Europa League tie against Benfica. They are thought to be considering a range of options, from selling a minority stake to the outright disposal of the club.

The discussions are taking place ahead of the looming summer deadline for the owners to re-finance Liverpool's £237 million debts with banks RBS and Wachovia. RBS, the principal lender, has requested that the owners reduce the debt by £100 million ahead of the June 31 deadline.

With that in mind club managing director Christian Purslow, Rothschilds and Merrill Lynch, the advisers retained by Gillett and Hicks, respectively, have been engaged in a global search for third-party investment for months.

Hicks's presence in London suggests the talks are significant. He has often delegated responsibility for negotiations to senior figures in his family company Hicks Holdings, including former executive vice-president Casey Coffman, who dealt with Rafael Benitez's contract talks last year and joined the Liverpool board after Tom Hicks Jnr.'s resignation.

Coffman, who is still listed as a director at Anfield, has recently left the Hicks group to take up a senior role at Madison Square Garden in New York, however, leaving Hicks to take a more hands-on role.

Purslow has previously said that five or six interested parties are still in play and sources have suggested that some of these are interested in a deal to buy the whole club. Any buyer is likely to wait and see if Liverpool qualify for the Champions League before closing any deal, however.

The Rhone Group, a New York-based private equity fund, tabled a £105 million bid for a 40 per cent stake in the club last month, but a deadline for the deal to be accepted passed on Monday.

The price, as ever, will make or break any deal. Hicks and Gillett have previously maintained that any investor or buyer would have to pay a price that reflected Liverpool's potential increase in value after the new Anfield, which is yet to leave the drawing board, is built.