Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Clock Is Ticking For Dalglish

In times of adversity, Kenny Dalglish usually resembles the tougher types that populate John le Carré novels. The sort the Circus would happily send to Moscow, safe in the knowledge that, under interrogation, he would not even divulge his shoe size.

It made his post-match interview on ESPN on Saturday night all the more extraordinary. Dalglish is typically the master of evasion, one who turns questions back on the questioner. But after defeat to Bolton Wanderers he presented, unprompted, a comprehensive demolition of his own players' performance. "If anybody has aspirations of staying any length of time at this football club," he said, "they will not be here much longer if that's the way they are going to perform."

Most intriguing was his insight that, "it is all well and good saying they might have been distracted because there's another game on Wednesday and on Saturday." That sounded like the remnants of a conversation he had just had in the dressing room. Who, you had to wonder, had turned to Dalglish and told him that he was preoccupied with the Carling Cup semi-final second leg?

Dalglish's one-year anniversary as Liverpool manager passed earlier this month and it all feels a lot grimmer than it did on those sunny uplands of last season when, in March, the Kop sang "Happy Birthday" to their manager as his team defeated Manchester United, 3-1. That was an afternoon when the club at last emerged from under a dark cloud, most of it brewed up by the previous owners and then the acrimony of Roy Hodgson's brief reign.

Recently, the results have been less consistent and the problems conspicuous. The mishandling of the Luis Suarez affair. The problems Suarez's subsequent absence has left. The never-ending wait for Andy Carroll to come good. Stewart Downing's failure to score. The nagging fear that a net spend of around £48.5m in the summer on the likes of Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson has not paid dividends.

It was always going to take at least £50m to transform what remained of the Liverpool squad one year ago into something resembling a team capable of competing for a finish in the top four. This is the team's first season together and, by Wednesday night, they could be in their first domestic final in almost six years. As for a top-four finish, that still looks unrealistic.

Liverpool is not the first of the big dogs in the Premier League to teeter on the brink of some form of mini-crisis. Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all been there at some point this season. What changed on Saturday was that Dalglish was unwilling to lend anymore of the considerable well of goodwill that he has with the club's supporters to his underperforming players.

As Liverpool manager between 1985 and 1991, his patience with his team was rarely tested because, put simply, his team rarely lost. On Match Of The Day on Saturday night, Alan Hansen recalled a Dalglish team talk he had heard many times. "Effort, attitude and commitment was what he stressed," he said, but there was no mention of Dalglish having to remind his players in public what was expected of them.

The team beaten by Bolton included five players Dalglish brought to the club and Downing, a second-half substitute, was another of his signings. This is, by and large, Dalglish's team and their league form has not been good enough. This is his credibility on the line. His reaction on Saturday night told you that there is a limit to the lengths he will go to in order to protect them.

Taking your players on like that is a big step for any manager and is fraught with risk. You get the impression that Andre Villas-Boas, for all his confidence, is still a long way from telling the world that Fernando Torres has let the club down. Arsène Wenger never criticizes his players. Sir Alex Ferguson only rarely and only when the occasion demands, such as the 6-1 home defeat to Manchester City. Of all of them, Roberto Mancini can be the most publicly critical of his players.

Already this season, Dalglish has blamed referees for Liverpool's misfortune and he has, of course, sanctioned a pretty extraordinary broadside at the Football Association over the Suarez affair. The press are another regular target. Now that he has turned that critical gaze upon his own players, the excuses really are over. And about time too.

Starting with Manchester City in the second leg of that semi-final on Wednesday, Liverpool has a defining run of fixtures: Manchester United at home in the FA Cup, Wolves away, Tottenham at home, United away and then home games against Everton and Arsenal. It is a reasonable expectation that Dalglish should be judged at the end of the season, yet no one can be in any doubt this is a significant six weeks.

"If they think they can turn the clock on and off they will not be turning it on and off at this club," Dalglish said. The clock is a pertinent image at Liverpool. Of all the benchmarks in their wait for a 19th league title, the 2015-16 season looms as large as any other. If they have not won the title by the end of that season they will have gone longer without being champions than Manchester United did between 1967 and 1993.

There is much around the periphery of the business of a modern football club that can make a small difference, but in the end it still comes down to the players. There are times when there is a benefit in shielding them from their own shortcomings but it is not a position any manager, even Dalglish, can afford to adopt indefinitely.

Hamman Highlights Cup Importance

Former Liverpool midfielder Dietmar Hamann believes winning the Carling Cup would represent a major step forward for the club and put the Reds "back on the map".

Kenny Dalglish's team takes a 1-0 lead into Wednesday's semi-final second leg at Anfield against Manchester City, another of the ex-Germany international's sides.

The Merseysiders have not won a trophy since their FA Cup final victory of 2006 and a draw in midweek would secure their first appearance at Wembley for 16 years.

Hamann knows how significant winning the league cup can be as he was part of the side which beat Birmingham in Cardiff in 2001 on the way to a famous treble as they also lifted the UEFA Cup and FA Cup.

"I think it is very important for them because the club has not won a trophy for six years now and we all know what an impact it can have," the German, speaking about the Carling Cup at an event at Football League headquarters, said.

"In 2001 we got off on our way to a memorable season with the league cup and I'm not sure whether we would have won the UEFA Cup or FA Cup finals had we not beaten Birmingham on penalties.

"To go to the final and win would be a major step forward for Liverpool.

"It puts them back on the map. We all know the longer you don't win the harder it gets the next year.

"A victory is very important because if breeds confidence and belief and faith in the other players and I think it gives them a better chance of finishing in the top four.

"They won't win the league this year because there are stronger teams but in cup competitions you only have to win six or seven games so that is why Dalglish has played strong sides.

"But other managers have identified that as well because if you look at the winners of the Carling Cup in the last few years apart from Birmingham they are all big teams.

"It is all about winning trophies and the Carling Cup was seen as the fourth cup a few seasons ago but has grown in importance the last few years."

A 3-1 defeat at Bolton at the weekend was the worst possible preparation for Dalglish's side but they will have drawn some comfort from seeing City let slip a two-goal lead against Tottenham, even if they did snatch a late 3-2 win.

Roberto Mancini's side was poor in the first leg but Hamann does not expect to see a repeat performance and believes Liverpool cannot afford to sit back and defend their lead.

"They (Liverpool) have had six years to get a monkey off their back and they have a golden opportunity this year," added Hamann.

"They have put themselves in a great position with a 1-0 win in the first leg and they have every chance.

"It is a big game for Liverpool on Wednesday because I am not sure whether they can shut them (City) out again.

"If Liverpool want to go through they have to score and this is where the problem lies because they find goals hard to come by at the moment.

"It will be a tight and interesting game but Liverpool is probably just marginal favourites because they won the first leg.

"And if they were to get to the final you would fancy them against a Championship side (Crystal Palace and Cardiff contest the other semi-final).

"It would do their confidence the world of good because it makes them believe more and if you have come out of a final successful it gives everyone an extra boost."

He accepts the Carling Cup may not be top of Mancini's priorities but expects to see City come out fighting on Wednesday.

"The league and the Carling Cup are their best two chances of winning trophies," he said.

"Last season they tasted success (winning the FA Cup) and once you have won one you want to win another and they will do everything they can to put another trophy in the cabinet.

"They are missing the Toures (Yaya and Kolo) and Vincent Kompany but I expect a strong team and performance.

"I was disappointed with them in the first leg but I don't think we will see as disappointing a performance as that again."

Luis Suarez Reflects On Bolton Defeat

Liverpool forward Luis Suarez has insisted that, although he trusts his teammates, he can't wait to get back playing again after seeing the Reds slump to a 3-1 defeat to Bolton.

The Uruguayan, who is currently serving an eight-match ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra, watched on as Kenny Dalglish's side were well beaten at the Reebok Stadium but the 24-year-old is adamant he is still very much behind his teammates.

Suarez posted on his official website, "We couldn't win but I trust a lot on my teammates, I can't wait to play again!!!!!"

Manchester United striker Michael Owen, meanwhile, believes the Reds "have another side to them" when they face teams he suggests they are expected to beat, and claims his former side are "hard to work out."

Owen said, via Twitter, "Hard to work Liverpool out. They look top class at home against the big teams but have another side to them when you expect them to win."

Liverpool Eyeing £10m Udinese Defender

Liverpool is leading the chase to sign Udinese defender Mauricio Isla.

Isla, 23, has been impressive for the Italian club and has caught the eye of Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish, who is looking to strengthen his squad in January.

The Chile international has also been linked with several big clubs in Italy but reports in South America suggest that Liverpool is winning the race to clinch his signature.

Isla can operate as a wing-back and can also playing across the midfield and his versatility will appeal to the Liverpool boss.

Udinese will be keen to keep their star defender at the club but would consider offers in the region of £10m.

Danes Would Let Starlet Leave

FC Norsjaelland has confirmed they would not stand in the way of starlet Jores Okore leaving the club.

The 19-year-old is being linked with a host of teams across Europe and a number of Premier League sides are reportedly keen.

Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Newcastle are all understood to have been watching the Danish teenager.

The Ivorian-born defender has also attracted interest from the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk.

And his club Norsjaelland admits they would not prevent a big move for Okore.

"There is on-going interest in several players, and it is no wonder that Jores is one of those players," Norsjaelland sports director Jan Laursen confirmed to Tipsbladet.

"There are undoubtedly many very strong clubs that follow him.

"We have a principle that we always look at the offers that might come. We want to help our players on."

Lyon Star Ends Liverpool Speculation

Liverpool target Dejan Lovren is not interested in a move to Anfield and has extended his contract at Lyon.

The central defender was on Kenny Dalglish's radar in the summer and the Scot, whose side was trounced by Bolton at the weekend, is keeping his eye on him.

But Croatia international Lovren does not fancy moving to Anfield and is eager to remain at a club playing in the Champions League.

The 22-year-old has committed his future to Lyon, having penned a new contract that expires in June 2016.

Lucas Returns To Liverpool

Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva has returned to the club to continue his rehabilitation from a season-ending knee injury and hopes to begin gym work in four weeks' time.

The 25-year-old has spent the past six weeks in his native Brazil, where he underwent surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament damage suffered in the Carling Cup quarter-final win at Chelsea in November.

Lucas, who is walking with the aid of crutches, will still miss the remainder of the season, but believes his recovery is on course.

He told the club's official website: "I am still a long way away, but the knee is getting better and the rehab is going well.

"I have to make sure I complete a perfect rehab and be back as soon as possible.

"The next stage is to get the knee moving and in the next few weeks I'll start to walk again.

"Hopefully in a month's time I'll start in the gym on my program and be able to work with weights.

"When you're on crutches you cannot do too much, so I can't wait to start my program and get in the swimming pool and things like that.

"The physios and the doctors have told me the rehab is going well and progressing well. I am doing everything I can to help my knee recover."

Back To School With Jose And Seb

Liverpool stars Jose Enrique and Sebastian Coates went back to school as they took part in some fantastic community department led initiatives.

The duo, who were joined by Liverpool FC Ladies skipper Vicky Jones, visited St. Silas Primary School in Toxteth for the LFC Equality 4 All Scheme, and then Shorefields Community College in Dingle Vale for the LFC Premier League 4 Sport event.

One of the highlights of the day was Enrique, Coates and Jones taking part in a Q and A session with the kids in Spanish. A Spanish teacher was present as the pair were quizzed on their LFC career so far.

The 11-year-olds at St. Silas Primary also took part in a football session under the watchful eye of Enrique and Coates.

Liverpool FC Social Inclusion Officer Rishi Jain said: "To have Jose Enrique and Sebastian Coates come down, meet the kids, join in a session and answer their questions was absolutely brilliant.

"It was really good for both of the players to take part in the Q and A session in Spanish. The school does a lot of work on different languages to reward the kids this way, so to help them practice their Spanish was an absolute pleasure for the club."

"The LFC Equality 4 All Project continues to go from strength to strength. We do 18 hours coaching a week with kids from different areas and ethnic minorities and bring them all together through football."

At Shorefields Community College Enrique and Coates demonstrated their table tennis skills when they took part in the LFC Premier League 4 Sport event, alongside 15 children aged 11 to 13.

The Premier League 4 Sport scheme aims to introduce four different Olympic sports to youngsters in the region - volleyball, table tennis, badminton and netball.

The initiative hopes to curb the drop-off in young people's participation in sports after leaving secondary school, as well as offering five hours of activities to youngsters as part of the government's 2012 legacy plans.