Liverpool’s most famous fan slipping away

As the world watches the health of Pope John Paul II deteriorate this weekend, Liverpool’s goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek will be watching as closely as anyone.

It was in 2003 when Dudek, Poland’s national goalkeeper, heard that he  and Liverpool had a fan in the shape of the Holy Father. He’s probably the most famous fan Liverpool have.

The Pontiff was a goalkeeper himself in his youth, and it seems that this love for football had stayed with him, including becoming a fan of Liverpool as well as Dudek.

Dudek said back then: "I spoke to a couple of guys who are very close to the Pope and they told me that he is always watching our games and that he is always thinking of me when Liverpool play.  I was very surprised by this. They seemed to know everything about football, about me and about Liverpool."

Dudek was actually invited over to see the Pope, real name Karol Wojtyla, at the Vatican prior to an international between Italy and Poland.

At the time Dudek said: "It was a very emotional moment for me. He was a very keen sportsman in his younger days and when he played football he played in goal, so I suppose we have something in common."

Dudek will no doubt be feeling emotional again today., as the Pope’s life slowly comes to an end.

* Italy’s highest sporting authority, the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) decided to suspend all weekend sport events on Saturday as a sign of respect for the seriously ill Pope. The decision affects Serie A soccer matches along with other sports. The announcement came as thousands of people filled St. Peter’s Square to keep vigil as the pope neared death while all Italian media devoted full-time coverage and attention to reports from Vatican City.

Coaches of AC Milan and Juventus had called for the suspension of play in view of the Pope’s worsening condition. Former Chelsea star, now captain of Cagliari, Gianfranco Zola said, "It’s fair that the sport is stopped … there are more important things than soccer."

The top three teams Milan,Juventus and Inter were set to play crucial matches on Saturday in advance of their Champions League games next week. Milan and Inter are due to play the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final at San Siro on Wednesday, whilst Juventus are scheduled to travel to Anfield to face Liverpool on Tuesday night. There was no immediate word on whether these matches would be postponed.

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Morientes: Stevie’s our most important player

Last Saturday Liverpool didn’t have a game. Amongst many Liverpool players on International duty at the time was Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool captain had an interview released at that time in which he made clear that the much-talked-about move to Chelsea was complete "rubbish". Steven expressed frustration that no matter how he answers questions, everything he says is miscontrued one way or another. By saying he was planning to talk about the future in the summer with manager Benitez, it’s assumed that he’s still not committed to the Reds.

There’s no doubt that Liverpool want Steven Gerrard to stay. There’s also no doubt that Steven Gerrard wants to stay as captain of a successful Liverpool team. It’s that word "successful" that may prove to be a stumbling block, but Gerrard is not as ready to leave as some people would have it.

Fernando Morientes – declared fit for tomorrow’s clash with Bolton – has joined the "Gerrard must stay" campaign. Speaking to the official Liverpool FC web-site, Morientes said: "It is so vital that he stays with us. We know that if we do well, he will stay as a Liverpool player and that is what we all want. Gerrard is the most important player in the Liverpool side. It is difficult to imagine a Liverpool without Gerrard."

Liverpool have had another season of transition (a word that has been over-used in recent years at Anfield) and Morientes feels that Gerrard needs to allow more time for Rafael Benitez’s influence to come through: "The next season is vitally important to us and we need Steven to be here. All of the players at Anfield want to do well, not just for themselves but because they know a successful Liverpool team will help ensure that Gerrard stays with the club. If we do well, he stays."

Morientes joined Liverpool from Real Madrid, where he’d dropped down the pecking order due to the signing of ex-Liverpool player Michael Owen. "I speak a great deal with my old team-mates and the interest in how the Spanish players are doing at Liverpool isn’t the only thing they ask about."

No doubt to the delight of parts of the national press, Morientes brought up some Real Madrid interest in Gerrard – from the players: "They are always asking about Gerrard and how good he is. Whenever Liverpool are on television in Spain, players and fans alike can see just how important a player he is. I get calls from people like Raul. He asks about Gerrard every time he telephones me or I telephone him. Like everyone else, he knows that he is a very good player and sees him every week on television."

So to summarise, Morientes says Gerrard is an important player, one who Liverpool must really try and keep, and that even his ex-team-mates are impressed by him. Nowhere in what Morientes said is there anything about Real Madrid making an offer for Gerrard. Let’s see how the words are "interpreted" over the next few days.
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Rafa: We’re in for a tough game

Liverpool’s away fixture to Bolton back in August was one of Rafael Benitez’s first games in charge of his new team, and he says it opened his eyes to the differences betweeen the Premiership and La Liga. Liverpool had a Luis Garcia goal controversially ruled offside that day in a game Benitez remembers well.

He said their style of play was similar to Everton’s, the team Liverpool beat in their last fixture. Everton are in the place above Liverpool, Bolton are one place below. Benitez said of Bolton: "They always play with the same system and have their way of playing football. I learned a lot about their style when we played them earlier this season and lost 1-0. I remember the game and the different way FIFA’s rules are used.

"I learned a lot about the new rules and the throw-ins when a player has both feet on the line or just one foot in the air to give them ability to throw it further.

"When they take free-kicks and corner kicks they use two players in front of the goalkeeper but they are not offside.

"When the centre forward catches your defender with two hands around them and then the defender tries to clear the ball, you have to be careful because it’s then a free-kick against you.

"If you are a defender and you hit your nose into an attacker’s elbow it will be a free kick against you.

"I have learned a lot about English football since that day,"

Benitez has learned the differences in the interpretation of the rules, but is hoping that the referee has his eyes open for where the interpretion is being stretched too far: "The only thing is you want the referee to see the same thing you see this time."

Rafa will see his team come up against his own personal friend – the 37 year-old former Real Madrid Defender, Fernando Hierro. Hierro is now considering retiring at the end of the season, but on the day Alan Shearer announced he was postponing his retirement, Benitez thinks Hierro should do the same: "He can play more years if he wants to – with his quality and positioning it does not matter about his age."

He went on: "I am not surprised he has done well in England because he was one of the best players Real Madrid has ever had. I talked with him before he came to England and he choose Bolton because for him it was not about the money but the desire to play. He has so many good qualities. He is always in the right position, is good in the air and has a powerful shot."

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Allardyce: Champs League spot would be a dream

Over the last few years Liverpool have started every season off with fans hoping for the title. By this point in most of those seasons however the target has been a Champions’ League place. Thanks to the success of English clubs over recent years, there are four place to play for – although two of those require preliminary rounds to be played first.

Liverpool’s fans want the title. In the game of football as it stands now in England, titles cost money, the sort of money Liverpool no longer have.

Talks are continuing into funding at Anfield; changes to the shirt sponsors look likely, new partnerships with mobile phone companies have come into place this season, even the name of Liverpool’s planned new stadium could include a sponsor’s name. All of this makes the money from Champion’s League qualification all the more important. Important that is, for success.

If Champions League money helps Liverpool in their goal for ultimate success in the Premiership, for near neighbours Bolton it would bring something just as important to them – long term membership of England’s top flight.
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