Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Liverpool FC Stage Their Lap Of Dishonour

Arms folded, heads bowed and gazes fixed firmly at the floor, never can a group of players have appeared more uncomfortable when embarking on a lap of honour than at Anfield yesterday.

Shuffling resignedly around the pitch perimeter, Liverpool's squad sheepishly responded to the half-hearted applause from those supporters that opted to stay behind after the final whistle.

As a symbol of a hugely under-whelming, disappointing and tortuous season, it could not have been any more appropriate.

And having seen Liverpool end their Anfield campaign the way they began it with a morale-sapping defeat, the fans that trudged home were left to ponder an uncertain future for Rafael Benitez and his players.

The Spaniard's post-match refusal to dismiss speculation of an imminent departure once again fanned the flames that his tenure as manager is drawing to a close

If this does prove his home swansong, it was a pretty ignominious one. Five years ago today, Chelsea provided the opposition for Benitez's greatest-ever occasion at Anfield as the Londoners were swept aside on a wave of emotion in that famous Champions League semi-final.

By contrast, yesterday was arguably his worst, the visitors underlining how far Liverpool have fallen since thrillingly challenging for the title just 12 months ago.

The chants of “we're going to win the league” emanating from the away end would not have overly irked a home support that could at least clutch some sort of silver lining given Chelsea's win means Manchester United are unlikely to surpass Liverpool's record of 18 titles. For now, anyway.

More pointed, though, were the strains of “you're ancient history”, a dagger in the heart of every Liverpool fan who fears that, unless there are radical changes both on and off the field this summer, such taunts could well become fact.

No wonder Benitez has clearly had enough of the inertia, false promises and apathy of co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks. While hardly blameless for a season of underachievement, the Spaniard hasn't been helped by the unrealistic balance between resource and expectation.

And Benitez won't be the only one considering his future at Anfield. The biggest cheer during the lap of honour was reserved for when Fernando Torres, recovering from the knee operation that ended his season a fortnight earlier, wandered on to the field to join his team-mates.

How Liverpool have missed Torres. And how their fans will pray to see the striker in a Liverpool shirt again, the club bracing themselves for a transfer window in which Torres, along with prize assets Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard, will have their loyalty tempted by the lure of riches and silverware elsewhere.

But who could blame them for going? The longer the uncertainty over investment and the sale of the club continues, the more likely it is players will move on in search of stability and a realistic chance of major honours.

They deserve better. Benitez deserves better. And the supporters deserve better.

Of course, not every exit this summer will be a great loss. This Liverpool squad, while sorely lacking strength in depth, has simply not been good enough in a season in which teams as average as Aston Villa, Portsmouth and Fulham have all reached major finals.

With victories for Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur the previous day making Champions League qualification highly improbable and Everton's failure to beat Stoke City already ensuring a Europa League berth, Liverpool realistically had little other than pride to play for yesterday.

Indeed, conspiracy theorists will have rubbed their hands in glee when Steven Gerrard's unfortunate backpass was intercepted by Didier Drogba in the 33rd minute to send Chelsea on their way to an ultimately comfortable victory.

But conveniently overlooked among all the talk of Liverpool making life easy for Chelsea was that the Londoners might just win because they are the better team. After all, Carlo Ancelotti's title-chasers started the day a mammoth 28 points ahead of their seventh-placed opponents.

While the reminder from Sir Alex Ferguson to Liverpool's players “not to throw away their history” was as unnecessary as it was patronising, the United manager was somewhat more on the money with his assessment after the game when he said: “Liverpool have lost 19 games this season so maybe you shouldn't expect them to beat Chelsea.”

So it proved. Liverpool were in the ascendancy during the opening half-hour but, once Drogba intervened, the outcome was never in doubt, leading to a surreal, hushed atmosphere among the home support.

An early Javier Mascherano shot was deflected wide for a corner, while Alberto Aquilani was much closer with a dipping drive from 25 yards that clipped the top of the crossbar.

However, the Italian should have done better in the 29th minute when, having been released by a fine pass over the top from Maxi, he dawdled too long and allowed Branislav Invanovic to bundle him off the ball before having the chance to shoot.

That was as good as it got for Liverpool. Chelsea's early nerves dissipated once ahead and, after Lampard was narrowly wide with a 20-yard drive, only a last-ditch Sotirios Kyrgiakos challenge denied Nicolas Anelka as the former Liverpool man shaped to shoot.

Chelsea thought they were denied a clear penalty in first-half injury time when Salomon Kalou fell under pressure from the pursuing Lucas, but television replays confirmed Alan Wiley's decision to wave away appeals was correct; any contact from Lucas was minimal and Kalou had in fact tripped over his own leg.

But the visitors eventually extended their lead on 54 minutes when Drogba released Anelka to deliver a low ball across goal that Frank Lampard slid home.

Reina made a good save from Florent Malouda late on as Liverpool, having played an arduous 120 minutes less than three days earlier in their ultimately futile attempt to reach the Europa League final, struggled to muster any meaningful response.

Chelsea can now look forward to clinching the title next weekend. Liverpool, though, have absolutely no idea where they are heading.

Rafael Benítez Blames American Owners For Liverpool's Lack Of Depth

The Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez has criticised the club's American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett for failing to invest heavily in the squad, leaving Liverpool short of depth in a season that has seen them miss out on the Champions League for the first time since 2002-03.

"Always in the past two years the manager here has been taking responsibility for everything. The reality is that, if you compare with other teams in terms of money, power and the option you have in the market, so you can analyse carefully and then you have answers," said Benítez.

"The fans are very clever, they know what is going on. It is very clear that things are like this now and still we have to carry on going forward.

"Next season we have to do almost everything perfect and, if we make one or two mistakes, we don't have the possibility to react so it is more difficult for us."

Benítez, who has been linked with a summer move to Juventus – who were also ruled out of a Champions League spot in Serie A after a 1-1 draw at Catania – once again refused to clarify his future.

"I have four years of a contract [left] so we will see," said Benítez when asked if he would be at Anfield next season. "I was talking about the speculation during the last two or three weeks and I cannot be talking about it all the time.

"We will prepare for the next game [at Hull] and then start thinking about things for the future. The fans want to know [whether Benítez will be in charge next season] but I want to know what is going on next week against Hull.

"Now we have to concentrate on another game and then prepare for the future."

When asked whether he had heard from the new chairman, Martin Broughton, brought in by the American owners to oversee the sale of the club, Benítez added: "Not yet. I will have a meeting with the chairman in a few days."

Benítez rejected the suggestion that the lacklustre post-match lap around Anfield was his farewell to the supporters.

"We have to say thank you to our fans, as always, because they have been very good," he said.

"We approached the game thinking about winning but we are very disappointed because it was a game that was equal and then we conceded the goal and things changed. When we conceded the second goal, against Chelsea that is normally the end."

Lucas: We Had Nothing

Lucas Leiva admits beating Chelsea was always going to be a tough ask following the exhausting 120-minute clash with Atletico Madrid on Thursday.

The Reds signed off their home campaign with a 2-0 defeat on Sunday - three days after crashing out of the Europa League.

Lucas told Liverpoolfc.tv: "It has been a disappointing few days for us because we wanted to win our final home game of the season for the fans.

"We tried to win it but unfortunately they were better in front of goal than us. I thought we started well but then we conceded a goal and it was difficult.

"When you play extra-time you always feel more tired and we were feeling a little jaded in the second half, but hopefully next season will be a lot better than this one.

"It was important to show our appreciation to the supporters at the end. They support us all of the time and give us confidence and I hope we can repay them next season."

Lucas is now targeting a victory at Hull next week in the final game of 2009-10.

"We owe it to our fans to put on a good performance next Sunday and win the game," he added.

"We are professionals and we have to give our all for the supporters who will be travelling to Hull to give us great backing as always.

"We need to finish as high in the table as we possibly can. We have already qualified for the Europa League so we need to play well in our final game."

Hodgson Cools Liverpool Link

Roy Hodgson insists he is happy at Fulham after speculation linking him with a move to Liverpool.

The Cottagers manager has been revered of late for the job he has done at Fulham, after guiding them to a Europa League final to be played against Atletico Madrid later this month.

His side have come on leaps and bounds since they narrowly avoided relegation in the 2007/08 campaign, and Hodgson has been tipped to succeed Fabio Capello as England manager in recent weeks.

With matters at Liverpool clouded in uncertainty and Rafa Benitez's position reportedly on a knife edge, the Fulham boss has now been linked with a move to Anfield.

However, the experienced tactician has dismissed such suggestions and insists he is happy at Craven Cottage.

"I am happy here at Fulham," he said. "I have got a contract here at Fulham. I am happy with the job I am doing.

"My name is sufficiently strong at the moment to be linked with other jobs and, of course, that is flattering and it is nice to hear.

"But as far as I am concerned it is speculation because I am at Fulham.

"We all prefer praise to criticism and love to hatred. It would be ludicrous to suggest I am not enjoying people saying and writing nice things about me and the team.

"But I am trying to keep a level head and keep things in perspective."

Fulham managed a 3-2 win over West Ham in the Premier League on Sunday but all eyes are geared towards that Hamburg final on 12th May.

Benayoun Unsure On Reds Future

Liverpool midfielder Yossi Benayoun is unsure whether he will still be at Anfield next season.

The Israel international has been a popular figure on Merseyside following his transfer from West Ham United and admits he would prefer to spend the rest of his career with the Reds.

However, Benayoun, who signed a new deal last July that ties him to the club until 2013, said: "It's very difficult to speak now about next season.

"We don't know what changes there will be - players, the staff, so I think it's too early to speak. I don't know personally even if I will be here or I will not be here. A lot of things can happen.

"It's nothing to do with (Rafa Benitez's future). I'm enjoying it here at this moment.

"If it depended on me, I would stay here and retire in Liverpool. The fans are the best in the world, but it depends on a lot of things. It will be very clear soon and we will just have to see in a few weeks."

Rafael Benítez Demands Answers Amid Uncertainty Over Liverpool's Future

Liverpool's manager, Rafael Benítez, has called on officials at the club to "answer a lot of questions" about the future direction things will take.

The Spaniard has a meeting scheduled this week with the chairman, Martin Broughton, in which he expects to be given detailed information about what plans are being put in place for next season and beyond.

Broughton, also the chairman of British Airways, has been brought in by the co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to oversee the sale of Liverpool but it has taken him nearly three weeks to schedule a meeting with Benítez.

That has not pleased the manager, who would like to stay at Anfield despite strong interest from Juventus.

Benítez, 14 months into a five-year contract, wants an enhanced transfer budget in order to bring in the five players he feels they need to get back into Champions League contention, never mind a title challenge.

"We have plenty of time in this season, I still have four years of my contract left and I still I have to talk to the new chairman," said the Spaniard. "It [the meeting] is to talk about the future. Everyone is asking about my future but the future of the club is more important.

"Still I do not know what is going on in the club. I don't know if we will have any investors so there are a lot of questions – not just, for me, one question. For me the club has to answer a lot of questions. It is very clear: we have to wait and see what is going on. The future is maybe tomorrow or maybe one week; at this moment it is something we don't know."

Benítez refused to clarify his future plans after Sunday's 2-0 home defeat to Chelsea, which ended their hopes of Champions League football for next season. But he expressed his frustration at the campaign which appears to be going on around him concerning his future. He is unhappy about the way Juventus have publicly targeted him but also hinted there were may be factors at work within Liverpool to try to force his hand.

"If I have a conversation with him [Broughton] we will try to keep it private," said Benítez in his now-familiar cryptic style. "At this point we have to concentrate on next Sunday's game at Hull. There are too many rumours in the press and I know some people are just trying to create a mess.

"To be fair we were trying our best last week, signing [Charlton's two-footed midfielder] Jonjo Shelvey because still we have the same mentality – to improve the club and do the best for the club. I try to do my best every day."

Liverpool FC Get A History Lesson From Chelsea Fans

Away supporters never miss a chance to mock fans in the grounds they visit and the Chelsea followers who crammed into the Anfield Road end yesterday were no exception.

But while most of their singing was typically banal, turgid and witless, one chant which started just before the end of possibly the most soul destroying 90 minutes of the season summed up the direction in which Liverpool are headed.

“You’re ancient history,” they crowed, over and over again. In many ways, they are right. While folk dressed in Blue celebrated the victory that effectively clinched their third Premier League title, all those in Red had nothing to console them.

The days when Liverpool ruled the roost, collected trophies at will and dwarfed their rivals are long gone, nothing but a distant memory; today they stand as far away from being crowned champions of England as they have ever been since 1990.

Liverpool, you see, is a club on its knees. Torn apart by internal civil war – step forward, for starters, Mr Hicks and Mr Gillett – crippled by debt and possessing too many players who are not good enough to help drag it off the canvas, they are headed in one direction.

Such words do not come easy to compose but, then again, watching Liverpool has been anything but a walk in the park during the past nine months and, astonishingly, a new nadir was reached here against Chelsea.

All talk, of course, before Carlo Ancelotti brought his team to Merseyside centred around the number ‘19’, a reference to the fact that Manchester United are within an ace of overtaking Liverpool as the most successful club in the country.

Fittingly, all talk after Ancelotti and Co had departed also centred around the number ‘19’ but that was only because Chelsea had won to inflict Liverpool’s nineteenth defeat of the campaign without coming out of a hack canter.

Truly, truly demoralising. While Rafa Benitez’s men made a bright start to this contest, the highlight being Albert Aquilani skimming the bar with a 25-yard drive, by the final whistle they had been contemptuously swept aside.

Unable to conjure a shot on target or a tackle in anger, the only defiance showed was when Jamie Carragher’s son, James, waved an arm at the away section on the players’ lap of gratitude – some would call it a lap of dishonour – as if to say ‘We are Liverpool!’

That was, perhaps, the only heart warming sight of a miserable afternoon, one that exposed Liverpool’s myriad problems in gory detail; no wonder many were wondering how or from where a Red revival will come.

On the evidence that was presented yesterday, it might be more pertinent to ask ‘if’ recovery is possible; with little money for signings, the manager’s future under a cloud and players perhaps contemplating moves away, the situation is exceptionally fraught.

Mind you, it says everything about the farcical state of the club at present that the current Liverpool chairman could not attend a Liverpool game because of his lifelong allegiances to Chelsea.

Martin Broughton, it must be stressed, is blameless for all the current ills but on a day when a show of unity was needed, his failure to attend – and his quotes ahead of the match – did not send out the right message, in any shape or form.

Yes, some players had done their best to make the right noises in the build up – most notably Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger and Steven Gerrard – promising there would be no surrender but their words ultimately fell on deaf ears.

Haunted by everything that has happened since last August, Anfield – the visiting section apart – was like a morgue during the opening half hour, with many numb from so many chastening experiences. Others, evidently, were completely.

How has it come to this? Games with Chelsea in recent years have guaranteed a fabulous atmosphere, the mutual apathy between the clubs ensuring there was always a buzz inside this famous old ground at the prospect of a bitter scrap for three points.

It made the tone here all the more unpalatable. No matter how bad things are, never should a logical Red turn up to a game and want their team to lose; the ‘spirit of Shankly’ has been much spoken lately, so we ask – is wanting to lose a Shankly ideology?

You all know the answer to that. Yet the fact that subject has even been debated is another, painful indictment on this lamentable campaign; wanting to lose to the side that has been barracked for years about having no history? Come on.

True, a title triumph for Chelsea is absolutely the lesser of two evils but you get the point; emotions yesterday were borne of frustration, the fact that Liverpool were again forced to watch others fight for the ultimate prize too much to handle.

We can only speculate quite what would have happened if Liverpool’s bright start had yielded a goal – Chelsea hardly showed themselves to be a side of the highest calibre – but once Gerrard’s stray back-pass was seized upon by Didier Drogba, the game was up.

Frank Lampard put the gloss on the victory for Chelsea early in the second half and from that point the action resembled a training match, with both sides desperate to hear the final whistle for wildly differing reasons.

Chelsea’s players, predictably, revelled in their success, Liverpool’s players skulked off, disappearing down the tunnel before emerging shortly after with their families, to walk around the pitch, some appearing almost embarrassed by the ordeal.

Were some waving apologies? Were others waving goodbye? You get the impression that when the time comes to do something similar in 12 months, the squad will have a different look to it.

Will Benitez be at the helm? Again, that is to be decided. Clearly some fans will be happy for him to go to Juventus or wherever, fearing that his project has gone stale, others – the majority – still believe he is the man to take Liverpool forward.

Whatever happens, there is an enormous job to be done over the summer, the most important being to sort the financial mess out; this is something Broughton and Christian Purslow dare not get wrong

If they do, crowing fans in the corner of Anfield will become commonplace – and the notion of Liverpool being a successful club will be ancient history.

Alan Hansen: Liverpool Are Facing An Uncertain Future And Need An Overhaul

A title race may never be over until it is mathematically decided, but Chelsea can certainly head into the final game of the season knowing they have done all of the hard work.

Carlo Ancelotti's side have faced the toughest test of their run-in and emerged as convincing winners.

The question, in reality, was never likely to be whether Liverpool had the right attitude to beat Chelsea, but whether they had the right attributes.

In the end, they offered as bad a performance as they have produced this season.

That should not detract from the fact that Chelsea played extremely well at Anfield, inspired by the two players who have added to their squad most this season, Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou. Both excelled on Sunday. Malouda has had an excellent season and Kalou has had a great four or five weeks as the campaign reaches its climax.

There was a stage when neither looked like they would be a Premier League player, when you assumed both would be shipped out, judged to be of insufficient quality. Malouda, though, has blossomed this year, and Kalou's recent contribution towards Chelsea's title push has been hugely important.

Manchester United had a similar situation at the start of their run of three league championships in as many years with Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic.

They struggled to impose themselves on the side when they arrived, but with time they have developed into great players. Both were awesome at Sunderland, as Sir Alex Ferguson's team secured the win which takes the title race to the final weekend.

Whatever happens next week, the differences between Chelsea and Manchester United are not vast by any means. While it has been a terrific campaign in terms of the interest and intrigue across the league, it has not been a great one for quality, as has been proved in the performance of the English teams in the Champions League.

United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all been a lot easier to beat this season than in previous years, as their defeat tallies show. It is among Europe's elite that such a weakness is truly exposed, though. If you are easy to beat in the Champions League, then you will get beaten.

That is why, regardless of whether Chelsea maintain their lead on Sunday to win the title or United manage to overhaul them, both need a considerable revamp in the summer.

Chelsea will no doubt look to strengthen their midfield, but it is their squad that has been weakened most noticeably over the years.

Under Jose Mourinho, it was always said that Chelsea's second string would finish in the top six in the Premier League, but that is simply not the case any more. They require four or five players to return them to that sort of level. Winning titles and, particularly, winning the Champions League is not about 11 players, it is about 20, and there is no question both sides need new personnel if they are to continue to be successful.

At least Ancelotti and Ferguson will only have to look to buy a handful of players this summer. Liverpool, on the other hand, may need to go into double figures before they have a squad worthy of returning them to where everyone at the club feels they deserve to be.

The worry now that their exclusion from next season's Champions League has been confirmed is whether they will be able to attract the right players to help rebuild the club.

Liverpool's supporters are the best in the world, but players do not join clubs because of the fans. They come first for money, and then for what is on offer. Without the lure of the world's biggest club competition, Liverpool simply cannot compete.

The only solace is that Liverpool are still Liverpool; they still have the history and tradition to attract players. That will only last so long, though. Should they go three or four seasons without Champions League football, even that lustre will fade.

That is why this is the most crucial period in the club's history. At the end of last season, it would have seemed impossible that they would be in the position they are now. That is the nature of football, though. It is easy to fall from grace, but extremely difficult to rise to prominence again.

Sir Alex Ferguson Disappointed With Steven Gerrard Mistake That "Gifted" Chelsea A Goal

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has bemoaned Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard “gifting” Chelsea a goal in the Blues 2-0 victory at Anfield on Sunday.

A poor back pass from Gerrard gave Chelsea striker Didier Drogba the opportunity to score the first goal in the critical Premier League battle at Anfield.

The Blues just need to defeat Wigan Athletic at home on Sunday to end United’s run for a record 19th Premier League title, and Ferguson knows that his side’s chances to win the title are very slim.

"I just saw it after the game. It was a great gift, Ferguson told The Sun.

"There is nothing you can do about it. You just have to get on with it."

After defeating Sunderland on Sunday, United remain a single point behind Chelsea in the standings, but there is only one game remaining in the season for the Red Devils to overtake the Blues for the title.

United must defeat Stoke City at Old Trafford and hope that Wigan can beat or draw Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next Sunday, and Ferguson knows that it is unlikely, but believes that in football anything is possible.

"You never know what can happen. Football is a crazy game.

"Manchester City did us a great turn by beating Chelsea twice and Wigan are another neighbour, but listen; we know we are clutching at straws a little bit."

"All we can do is win our game against Stoke.

"Obviously, I would not insult Wigan in any shape or form because they are a really good football team and they will have a go. But the important thing is for us to win our game and enjoy it."