Monday, November 14, 2011

Top Spanish Journalist Breaks Silence On Shock Liverpool Swoop For David Villa

Guillem Balague has responded to last week’s allegations that Barcelona’s David Villa could be in line for a Premiership move by conceding that the striker is finding it slightly tough to find his best form at the Nou Camp.

Balague explained that Villa, valued at close to €40 million by Pep Guardiola, is struggling to gel with the precociously talented Argentine Lionel Messi.

“It’s important we put David Villa’s circumstances at Barcelona into context,” wrote the Spanish journalist on his personal website. “First of all, yes, I do believe that there is most definitely something to the notion that the footballing relationship between Messi and Villa is not quite as good as it could be.

“David Villa hasn’t been finding the back of the net as frequently as he has done in recent years and it must be remembered that he signed for Barcelona from a Valencia side where he was the focal point of the attack.

“At his former club, when his team had the ball, they worked to find a way supply Villa. Every attack either went through or ended up with David Villa.

“At Barcelona, Lionel Messi is the fulcrum of the attack and his teammates instinctively look to get the ball to the Argentine. For any striker, no matter who you are, that is hard to take.”

Last week, radio station Cadena Ser has revealed that both Liverpool and Chelsea had approached the Catalan giants about their frontman, whose phenomenal international scoring record – 50 goals in 80 appearances for Spain – speaks for itself.

Having seen his side stutter to a 0-0 draw against Swansea last weekend, a match characterized by Liverpool’s inability to put together many penetrative attacks, Kenny Dalglish will have pondered a move for a high-profile goalscorer.

In January last year, the Scottish manager proved that he is not shy of splashing the cash in order to bolster his attacking options, bringing in both Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez into his squad at a combined weight of around £60 million.

Suarez Plays Down Back Concerns

Liverpool striker Luis Suarez has declared himself fit to face Italy in Uruguay's friendly on Tuesday - but admits he already has one eye on the weekend clash with Chelsea.

The 24-year-old scored all the goals in Friday's 4-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Chile in Montevideo but came off 13 minutes from the end with a minor back complaint.

Suarez is confident he is ready for a second match in four days - with a transatlantic flight in between - but has suggested it may be more important for him not to risk aggravating the problem

"I was a little scared by the pain I had in the game but treatment I had was just a precaution and it does not hurt," he told Uruguayan newspaper El Pais.

"There will be no problem but the decision is going to be the coach (Oscar Tabarez).

"I risk a lot to Liverpool. I have a very important game next weekend against Chelsea.

"I love to play every game for the national team but now they are several tough matches in the club and you have to give a little priority."

Liverpool has paid close attention to Suarez's fitness since the start of the season as he had a major role in Uruguay's Copa America triumph in the summer.

The Reds have a difficult spell coming up in the next few weeks and Suarez, as he has been all campaign, will be key to his team's success.

After travelling to Stamford Bridge on Sunday Liverpool host Manchester City the following week before heading back to Chelsea for a Carling Cup quarter-final two days later.

Manager Kenny Dalglish has already expressed his anger at the scheduling of the cup tie so close to such an important league match but will be more than happy if Suarez is rested on Tuesday.

The striker, Liverpool's top scorer this season, became the first Uruguay international to score four goals in a game for his country.

Glen Grateful After Tough Patch

Glen Johnson admits he is 'grateful' to be back in the England team following a difficult period in his career.

The Reds defender played 90 minutes in Saturday's 1-0 friendly victory over Spain after missing the start of 2011-12 through injury.

Some had called for in-form Manchester City right-back Micah Richards to get a call but Fabio Capello stuck with his regular and trusted No.2.

"I'm very grateful," said Johnson, who earned his 35th cap versus the world champions.

"I've had some disappointing times with the injuries but hopefully that is behind me now.

"All I want to do is play football. Some days you have good days and think 'I'm getting there' and the next day you'll have a bad day, so there's lots of up and downs. But hopefully the worst is behind me now.

"I wasn't thinking about anything to be honest. I was just thinking about the injury and myself. I'm confident in my ability and the main objective was to get back fit.

"In every position you are going to get people who want one person to play and others who want someone else to play. That's the industry we're in and there's nothing I can do about that but all I can do is worry about myself and take it from there."

Liverpool Searching For 'Next Reina'

Liverpool goalkeeper coach John Achterberg has revealed how the club is looking to replicate the skills of Pepe Reina in the juniors rising through the ranks at the academy.

The Spanish stopper has been an ever-present at Anfield since his arrival on Merseyside in 2005, with the 29-year-old a first choice under managers Rafa Benitez, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish.

And, whilst Achterberg admits it will be difficult to judge at such an early-stage if a player has the ability to match Reina's ability, it won't stop the Reds from trying to do just that.

"There are decent 'keepers in the Academy. It's difficult to say how they'll keep progressing, but at the moment there are a few who are progressing well, and we all try to work in the same way," he told the official Liverpool website.

"The first-team sessions are copied at every step down. We obviously change the speed but the rest, the movements and the way we train, is the same, because we're trying to create a 'Liverpool goalkeeper' to suit the way we play."

Achterberg is one of five specialist coaches in the position at the club, with the Dutchman ensuring every goalkeeper is assessed and reported on at every level.

Reina is at the top of the Liverpool tree, and his style-of-play is one that Achterberg believes is crucial to the way the defence can play in-front of the No.1.

"The way we play is with a high line with Pepe sweeping up. When balls get played into space, the goalkeeper can sweep up. That's the way we work with every goalkeeper to try and create a goalkeeper for the first team," he added.

"There isn’t too many who could play for Liverpool with the way we play. We expect him to be half a sweeper and there aren't too many 'keepers who could do that job. That's always the way Liverpool has played.

"There are some other teams around the world: Barcelona play like that, Real Madrid do, and Ajax used to play this kind of football. This is why we try to put the same training sessions through the whole of our system.

"It would be great if we could produce a goalkeeper who plays like Pepe. I'm a bit obsessed to try and improve everything and create the best atmosphere between the 'keepers and the staff, and also with the goalkeepers in the Academy."

Agger Happy With Progress

Liverpool defender Daniel Agger is enjoying playing for both club and country after getting his career back on course.

The centre-back has featured regularly for Kenny Dalglish's side in the early stages of the campaign and has also appeared twice for Denmark.

After being plagued by fitness problems in recent seasons, 26-year-old Agger is happy things are running more smoothly.

"I have especially enjoyed being on the pitch this season and just take one match at a time," Agger told

"I have noticed that I am more relaxed. I know where I am at the moment and that suits me perfectly.

"Football has always meant a lot to me but I enjoy it more today."

Agger is pleased to be fit after suffering with a succession of injury woes but admits he might never completely recover.

"It's going well right now," he added. "It's not perfect, but it will probably never be that.

"My body might not have been built to play football.

"You have to learn to live with it and I have done that. It has been necessary at times."

The defender insists there is nowhere he would rather be than at Anfield, adding: "There are no better options in the world than Liverpool. It is top in every area."

Suarez Downplays Messi Comparison

Liverpool forward Luis Suarez has laughed off comparisons with Barcelona forward and fellow South American Lionel Messi.

Suarez has been one of the best players in the Premier League since joining the Merseyside giants in January from Dutch giants Ajax and was also instrumental in winning the Copa America with Uruguay in the summer.

On Friday the 24-year-old scored all four goals in his nation's 4-0 home triumph over Chile in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, prompting some to compare him to Argentina international Messi.

The former Nacional and Groningen player, though, remains modest about his achievement and has dismissed suggestions that he is as good as the Barcelona star.

"Comparisons with Messi embarrass me," Suarez told El Pais.

"It also makes me smile but I feel that the comparisons are just the reaction from the Uruguay fans, as everything seems to be going well at the moment.

"I am happy but we have to look at the work of the whole team as it is not just about one player."

Uruguay are back in action on Tuesday when they travel to Rome to play Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in a friendly international.

Evra Faces Language Barrier In Proving Suarez Verbally Abused Him

Patrice Evra’s attempts to prove he was racially abused by Liverpool forward Luis Suárez rest on the Manchester United defender overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers to uphold his claims against the Uruguayan.

Despite a month-long investigation by the Football Association into the allegations made by Evra following the 1-1 draw between Manchester United and Liverpool at Anfield on Oct 15, both players and their clubs continue to wait for an outcome to the investigation.

While it has been widely reported that Evra’s claim is based on his insistence that Suárez abused him with a particularly offensive and racially-loaded term, the nuances of interpretation are understood to be at the heart of the investigation.Both players have now been interviewed by the FA’s disciplinary unit, with witnesses also spoken to by investigators.

The FA had been expected to reach a position on the matter prior to the international fixtures over the weekend, with Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish calling for the issue to be resolved quickly more than two weeks ago.

And although United have adhered to the FA’s request for the situation not to be discussed publicly, Suárez risked censure last week by speaking while on international duty with Uruguay about Evra’s allegations. Suárez said last week: “There is no evidence I said anything racist to him [Evra]. I said nothing of the sort.

“There were two parts of the discussion, one in Spanish, one in English. I did not insult him. It was just a way of expressing myself. I called him something his team-mates at Manchester call him, and even they were surprised by his reaction.”

Slum Dreams: Mumbai To LFC

Deep within the confines of the Ambedkar Nagar slum in Mumbai, there's a shack, no bigger than a typical garden shed, that 13-year-old Montesh Bankar is proud to call home

It's a home that houses not just Montesh, one of 2,700 students at the nearby Colaba Municipal School, but also his mother and father, who have lived there for 20 years, his sister, two brothers and uncle. There is no bed or seat of any kind in the shack, just a stone floor on which the family sleeps. It's on this floor, as he lies awake at night, that he dares to daydream about one day emulating his idol Steven Gerrard and playing for Liverpool.

If it's a dream that sounds outlandish - that this little kid from a slum in Mumbai, over 4,500 miles from Merseyside could escape from the poverty that engulfs over eight million people in this city and one day pull on the red shirt of Liverpool - that's probably because it is. But, football is nothing if not a sport where miracles happen and this week Montesh's dream of making it as a professional footballer moved a tiny step closer to becoming more than just another pipedream from the slum, a story so far-fetched that even the giant Bollywood studios that dominate the city would struggle to sell.

Locating Montesh's home is no easy task. It's hidden away in the heart of the slum, down endless tight alleyways, past the water-filling stations, the barbers, the laundrette and just yards away from a swamp that seems to house the entire community's sewerage. Fortunately, Montesh is on hand to guide us. When we first meet him, he's stood at the entrance to the aredkar Agar slum with six friends. He's wearing a red t-shirt with the Standard Chartered logo across the front. It's the same logo that appears on the front of his friends' shirts; fake LFC replica tops bought for 200 rupees from a stall on 'Fashion Street'. The number 8 and name Gerrard appear on the back of the counterfeit shirts but on the back of Montesh's, it's different. Instead of the captain's name, it's two words: Go Forward.

Launched to much fanfare back in September when former captain Phil Thompson travelled to Mumbai to kick-start the joint initiative between LFC and Standard Chartered, Go Forward was set up as a six-month project to give poor children from Mumbai a unique opportunity to not just receive expert football tuition - something many of them just can't get at school - but also the once-in-a-lifetime chance to showcase their skills in an exhibition match against the city's rich kids in front of talent scouts from the Indian Premier League and, hopefully, those from the English Barclays Premier League. It's a project that started with 2,200 kids from over 80 different municipal state schools in Mumbai competing for just 40 places - 32 for the boys and eight for the girls. The initial trials - an elimination process administered by the state of Maharashtra football coaches and made up of a mixture of skills tests, ball drills and matches - saw the number of contestants cut from 2,200 to 650. The second set of trials - which took place over one weekend in October - got the numbers down again to the final 40. Fortunately for Montesh, he made the cut.

It's because of Go Forward - and his involvement in the four-month final stage - that Montesh now finds himself leading a camera crew from LFC TV through his slum. If the Go Forward t-shirt he proudly wears didn't single himself out amongst his peers within this community then the man with the TV camera filming his every move certainly does. In Ambedkar Agar, Montesh is flirting dangerously close to being famous - for today at least. A crowd of children - not just his friends flanked in their Liverpool shirts but also countless other kids off school because of the holidays - follow Montesh and the LFC TV cameraman towards his home. When we finally arrive at our destination and set up for the interview in the tiny room, there must be 30-40 people stood outside, straining to look in. Montesh might still be a million miles away from fulfilling his dream but just to have made it this far - with a chance of being spotted by a Premier League scout, any Premier League scout - is already seen as a big achievement in Ambedkar Agar.

"It's such a big thing for Montesh to be involved in Go Forward that even just having this t-shirt is a cause for celebration," admits his excited mother Saudu. "His friends beg him to let them wear it just for half an hour, so they all take turns walking around in it. We never even dreamed that our son would get this opportunity to be coached by Liverpool Football Club. This sort of thing doesn't happen for boys like Montesh. When he attended the first trial, we never imagined he would make it through to the end but he's done it and we're so proud. He's completely crazy about football. He never wants to eat, he just wants to play. He'll get up at 4am and go out training on his own. He's already won two trophies with his team and even though there were times when we couldn't really afford the 30 rupees (about 40p) to pay for the bus fare for him to go and play, we paid the money. In my soul, I really believe he'll make it."

Now 13, Montesh's love affair with football began six years ago. He'd play on the waste ground near his slum and, later, in the tiny concrete playground that he shares with over 2,000 students at his school. In most state schools in Mumbai, sport just doesn't figure on the curriculum. When many classrooms don't even have a desk for each child, sport is viewed as a luxury. In a city bursting at the seams with over 20 million inhabitants and hundreds more arriving each day, space is at a premium and, as such, there's no such thing as a school playing field. Not in the schools kids like Montesh attend anyway. What his school does have however - and without it he'd probably never have made it this far - is a headmaster who understands the importance of football.

Sat in his office inside this depressing-looking grey concrete block that passes for a school, Mr Ambasing Magar talks passionately about Rakesh Sakpal, a Colaba Municipal School student, who was recently spotted by scouts from Queens Park Rangers. Along with another local boy, Praful Kumar, from Navy Children School, Rakesh has been invited to go to England for an extended trial with the London club after Christmas.

On Ambaring's desk sits a trophy that one of the school's football teams won recently. To hear him talk, it's obvious that he's as proud of the footballing achievements of his students as he is about their academic success.

"It's very difficult to keep kids from the poor areas in school," he says, "but through football, we are giving lots of them a reason to turn up every day. We say if you don't study or come to school, you can't play in our football team. Lots of kids from the slums are almost encouraged by their parents to drop out of school and start earning money to support their families - particularly girls - but we work really hard to keep them here. Our children in this school are the sons and daughters of drivers, maids, construction workers and fishermen. Their families have very little money so the children have to contribute, so we'll have some boys who'll turn up for school in the morning having been up working with their fishermen fathers at 4am. In the slums, clean water is only available for a few hours each day and some parents will want their kids around to help fetch it while it's available - which means they can't come to school. We'll lose some kids for two years before we can persuade their parents that they need to come back and get an education. The kids who do come though are so passionate about football it puts the rich kids to shame. These kids are hungry, the rich kids aren't."

For those who don't know Mumbai, it's a city of extreme contrasts. The western image of slums and chawls, as depicted by the opening scenes of the film 'Slumdog Millionaire' only tells half the story. Mumbai has more millionaires than Manhattan and is currently the third most expensive city in the world to buy property in. Driving from the airport, you'll see whole families of pavement dwellers - people who can't even afford to live in a slum - asleep on the floor outside Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin showrooms. There's plenty of money here - it's just that only a small section of the population gets to enjoy it.

"A lot of the rich kids from the Ivy League schools are more interested in hanging around the malls or going to the multiplexes than playing football," claims Rajiv Daryanani, the team manager of the Colaba Municipal School. "It's amazing because they have all the facilities but they waste them. The private schools will only have 25 students in an air-conditioned classroom while we'll have 60 boys and girls in a small room with not enough desks. They have their own football and cricket pitches while our playground is too small for the 2,700 boys and girls. The kids here will play anywhere - they'll be playing football in the corridors or out on the road in front of the school, emulating their heroes like Steven Gerrard who they watch on the television. That's why, given the opportunity, our boys can compete with the best schools in Mumbai on a football pitch. When the Go Forward project was launched, every state school jumped at the chance to get involved. The Ivy League schools couldn't understand why Liverpool and Standard Chartered were more interested in helping the poor schools than the rich ones with Go Forward but that's the whole point of it - to provide an opportunity for these kids that didn't exist before. With the right coaching, these kids can grow up and put Indian football on the world map."

That India, a country with over 1.2 billion people, has never produced a single player to grace the English Barclays Premier League, is down to one thing: cricket. Cricket is not just a sport in India; it's an obsession and the cricketing authorities actually have a vested interest in suffocating coverage of all over sports in the country's media. Things seem to be changing however.

"In 15 years, cricket will be over in India," that's the outrageously bold claim of Arshad Hussain, a qualified football coach for the state of Maharashtra, within which the city of Mumbai falls. A Go Forward coach, he's here today at the Western Railway Sports Ground in Lower Parel to observe and learn from the LFC coaches as they train the youngsters. "The kids in India aren't interested in cricket anymore. It's tedious, it lasts too long and it's no longer exciting. The last football World Cup attracted far more interest than the last Cricket World Cup and we won that. Football is particularly popular amongst the poor kids because all you need to play it is a ball. Kids will play football barefoot if needs be and they can practice on their own in a tiny space. It's not like that with cricket - you need more than one of you, you need space and on top of that, you need all the paraphernalia - the bat, the ball, the gloves, the stumps - and lots of kids can't afford that. What football in India needs though is a proper structure, a proper long-term plan. The kids here today are not at the level of the kids Liverpool will train back home in England and the reason for that is they've never had the proper coaching they need. Can you believe that in our entire country, there's maybe only 20 to 30 coaches with the A Licence? We need more qualified coaches to train the kids otherwise they can't progress. Just being able to spend time talking with Ian Rush today was so important to me because I got to discuss youth development in football with him. He understands what we are lacking and what we need to do to improve things. That's why this football clinic has been so useful to us coaches because we've had sessions called 'train the trainer' where the Liverpool coaches will train the Go Forward coaches. We're learning so much from them and these sessions will leave a lasting impact on football here in India. If we become better coaches than we can help other coaches improve and if they improve, the kids improve."

Away from the main pitch, where the 32 boys are being coached, the eight girls who progressed through the Go Forward trials are being put through their paces by Rishi Jain and Mark Bygroves, Liverpool's Social Inclusion Officer and Respect 4 All Co-ordinator respectively. The most talented of the group, according to Rishi, is a tiny 12-year-old called Lucky Sandhu. When we first met her yesterday, she was at home in the Backbay Depot slum, a few miles from where Montesh lives. Like the first slum we visited in Ambedkar Nagar, it was a hive of activity. A huge rubbish tip, 100 yards from the tiny one room, one-bed cabin that the family of five share, seemed to be the only open space for the kids to play in. There's cricket games, football matches and makeshift kites being flown by kids as young as four. A few older children, carrying large white sacks, sift through the rubbish to see if there was anything that could be recycled or sold, even for just a few rupees.

This is Lucky's playground; the playground where she learnt to play football. Like Montesh, she considers herself a striker and talks about her hero Steven Gerrard. He seems far and away the most recognisable Liverpool player amongst the kids from the slums. She's been playing football for two years and would like to play for Liverpool when she is older. Only 11 girls from her school currently play football but that number seems to be growing every week. Girls in India, particularly poor girls, aren't encouraged to play sport but it's something the local school authorities and charities here in Mumbai are keen to change. That's why it was so important that the Go Forward project wasn't exclusively for boys.

"When Lucky came home from the trial where she was selected to be one of the final eight girls, she was so excited to tell us her news," recalls her father Bhaskar Sandhu. "She got off the bus and ran all the way home to tell us she'd been picked. Everyone is so proud of her. This is such an amazing opportunity for her."

Kalyani Subramanyam, who heads up Standard Chartered's 'Goal' girls project in Mumbai, an initiative designed to use netball to get girls involved in sport and teach them important social messages, is delighted that Lucky is doing so well at football. "Lots of girls never experience sport in Mumbai," she says. "There's pressure on them from their parents to drop out of school and start helping around the home, whether that's looking after their younger brothers or sisters or earning money for the family. There's also pressure on the girls to get married early and have babies but these girls have rights too. They're children and if Lucky want to play football for Liverpool, why shouldn't that be her dream?"

"It's an exceptionally humbling experience to watch these young children being trained by Ian Rush and the LFC coaches and to know that we've helped make this happen," insists Sumeet Singla, Standard Chartered's Regional Head of Corporate Affairs for India and South Asia. "When we teamed up with Liverpool to launch Go Forward, our number one objective was to provide an opportunity to a section of society here in Mumbai that otherwise would never get an experience like this. We wanted to help identify the football talent in a place where no one has ever looked before and give these boys and girls the platform to not only learn from great coaches but also showcase their skills in front of scouts from big clubs that otherwise would never have found them.

"Football really resonates with the youth in India and the fact that Liverpool FC are here taking an interest in young kids from Mumbai can only be a good thing for helping grow the sport here. If together we can make a small difference to these children's' lives and help make their dreams come true then Go Forward will have been a success."

If India is to develop into a nation that is as famous for football as it is for cricket then it needs its own hero. That's the view of Ian Rush, who has spent the last three days taking a keen interest in not just the Go Forward project but also Indian football in general. "It's great that the kids we've met have Steven Gerrard on the back of their shirts but they need their own Steven Gerrard," he says. "They need their own idols just like they have in cricket. They need someone of their own to look up to and aspire to be like. Look at Korea, they have Park ji Sung. He's their hero. If they can emulate him first then they can try and move up to the Steven Gerrards of this world."

Whether Montesh Bankar or Lucky Sandhu grow up to be the first real heroes of Indian men's and women's football respectively remains to be seen. The odds might be stacked against them but the kids from the slums of Mumbai are nothing if not ambitious.

"No one from a slum has ever played football for India," Montesh tells me before heading back to Ambedkar Nagar after his first coaching session with Liverpool, "but I'm going to do it and when I've done that, I'm going to play for Liverpool like Steven Gerrard."