Benitez confident ahead of semi

Rafa Benitez looked and sounded confident at the pre-match press conference today, ahead of tomorrow night’s match at Anfield. The second-leg of the Champions League Semi-Final probably doesn’t need much motivational talk from a manager, but Benitez will be talking that way anyway. Part one of his team talk went out to the "twelfth man" of Liverpool – the fans. The Spanish boss said: "We know how good our supporters will be and hearing them against Olympiacos, Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus we know they are very important to us. I hope to see an even better atmosphere than before. It’s going to be hard because we have the best supporters in the English league and it will be hard to beat the atmosphere we had against Juventus." We have the best supporters in England and in Europe and we have a clear idea about what to do. I am sure we can win."

Much talk has been about the value of an away goal to Chelsea tomorrow night – but Benitez simplified the situation: "We need to score one more goal than them and we need to have the right mentality. When you play to win in the home leg it’s always different, you cannot think about the other result now."

Liverpool are the underdogs – no doubt about it – but Benitez says he’s more than happy with the balance of the tie right now: "If you said to me before the competition that we could be in the final if we beat Chelsea, Juventus, Real Madrid or Barcelona at home than I would say, sure why not. The most important thing as a manager is to be calm and relaxed and focus on this game. We are thinking about 90 minutes and if we start with a high tempo then maybe we can score the first goal."

Chelsea’s manager and players have told the world they’re now through. Liverpool are a formality to Chelsea. Benitez thinks that the first leg performance brought Liverpool back into the tie to the surprise of many neutrals: "Before the first game at Stamford Bridge everybody was talking as though Chelsea were already through but after it maybe we have got more credit."

Benitez was asked whether he thought Mourinho was the best coach in the world. Rafa said that Mourinho was "one of the best, sure." He went on, "He has a good team and he is a good manager – if you get the two things together than you normally have winners. He works hard and he knows the game."

Then came a big jolt of confidence from Rafael Benitez: Again about Mourinho, Rafa said: "He is one of the best coaches, sure. He has one of the best teams, sure. But he will lose tomorrow."

When Benitez says it you feel it might just come true. He then said: "I offer my congratulations to the manager and the players of Chelsea on winning the Premiership title and then I say sorry about the next competition!"

Liverpool will be missing Xabi Alonso tomorrow, but Benitez knows they can manage without him: "We know we have good players, and it’s an opportunity for us to make the final and to make history. I think we have played a good game away, and made some good chances. At home I’m sure we will have more chances."

Steven Gerrard looks hungry again, scoring a goal that should be goal of the season at the weekend. Stevie will be playing a big part tomorrow if Benitez gets his way: "Chelsea are a very good team with a lot of possibilities and are strong but we have good players too and for me Steven Gerrard will be the key player. He can change a game, he showed against Middlesbrough the goals he can score."

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Kewell: I feel fine

Harry Kewell has shown occasional glimpses of his true ability at Anfield since he joined the Reds from Leeds, but Liverpool have not really had the same player that used to play across the Pennines.

Liverpool boss Benitez questioned publicly whether Kewell’s attitude was right – was he really injured or not? Rafa then suggested that Kewell go and see a specialist physio in Spain known to Benitez. The techniques used make Kewell feel so much better than he has for some time, and the Australian is talking about having the Spanish physio with him for the Confederations Cup in the summer. Kewell credits Benitez for sending him to the specialis, and he wants to pay his Spanish manager back.

Kewell tried to play with injuries, but in the end felt he wasn’t pulling his weight as he would have liked: "Players have been able to play with injuries and I gave it all I could do for the first six months. But it’s a team game and I don’t want to go and let my team-mates down by not playing to what I can do. If I was going out there and only playing at 60 per cent and not being able to produce then that looks bad on me. I had to make a choice, and I made a choice to pull out and get fit, which I did do, and now I’m on the mend hopefully I can go on from there."

Kewell has been criticised by many during his spell of playing with injury. He wasn’t 100% and many saw it as less than 100% commitment rather than less than 100% fitness, which then meant the vocal minority suggested Liverpool should get rid of him. Now’s the chance for Kewell to prove them wrong: "It has been hard work to get back into it especially when it’s coming near to the end of the season, but after being away for four months it’s just great to be out there again and you just run on adrenaline because it’s so great to be out there. I feel fine."

When Liverpool play Chelsea at Anfield tomorrow night they start as underdogs. The massive points difference between the two clubs in the league will count for nothing tomorrow night though as it’s knockout football. Kewell say: "I think we’ve got the ability to beat any team in the world, it’s as simple as that. Any team that comes here, they defend. We go on the attack and they defend. We’re just missing the target at the moment but eventually we’re going to start hitting the back of the net."

The confidence in the Chelsea camp gives the impression they already think they’ve won the game – but Kewell says Liverpool are going to do all they can to stop them: "If you don’t think you can beat any team then what’s the point of playing football? You’ve got to go out with the attitude that you’re going to go out there and win. You give 110 per cent and whatever happens, happens. But we’ve got the belief that we can do anything."

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Lampard says he knows Chelsea will beat Reds

Chelsea are on a high right now as English Champions. They’ve won the title but few friends on the way. The main reason for this is that the line between confidence and arrogance is pretty thin. Confidence increases with every bit of success – but so does arrogance.

Now Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard is happy to believe the hype to the point where he now believes beating Liverpool is just a formality. Lampard says: "We go to Anfield as champions and we believe in ourselves and know we can win at Anfield. The manager and some of the players have won things abroad but people like myself, John Terry and Eidur Gudjohnsen are not going to be happy with a second-rate performance at Anfield. We know that being champions here is the most important thing because you are the most consistent in the league. Now we’re in the semi-finals of the Champions League that’s the most important thing for us and we want to do well."

Bolton kept Chelsea at bay for 45 minutes on Saturday. They went ahead with a Lampard goal, but play should already have been stopped for a free-kick to Bolton. Bolton were chasing the game and a goal on the break then gave Chelsea a 2-0 cushion, and they picked up the title. Lampard was glad to get it over and done with: "This was the game we wanted to do it in and now we can really concentrate on going to Anfield with confidence before having the celebrations at home to Charlton next weekend."

So, does Lampard feel confident about the game at Anfield? "If going there as champions doesn’t fill you with confidence, then nothing will. So we’ll have to save our energy now, relax a bit and look forward to that game."

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Scaremongering over shirt sponsor

An article in the business section of the Independent today tried to show that Liverpool were going to be in a crisis soon due to a failure to find a sponsor.

The article was headlined "Liverpool faces replica relegation" and was written by Abigail Townsend. A careful read of the content shows that it may be making something out of nothing.

The article, in summary, says that Liverpool are unable to secure a sponsor for next season, and that in turn they’ll not be able to produce replica kits for next season, meaning they’ll have to pay Reebok a penalty charge as they’ll not be able to make kits to sell to fans.

Nobody has actually made public the current status of negotiations – the deal with Carlsberg ends at the end of this season. Liverpool have been with Carlsberg for 12 years, but the stories go that they don’t have any intentions to renew this again. The Independent reports this with a slightly different spin, saying the "12-year deal with the brewer is understood to be on the verge of collapse". It also says that Liverpool have, "so far failed to secure a replacement.
"

Liverpool have certainly not announced a new sponsor for next season – but that’s not necessarily a sign that the deal hasn’t already been signed. According to the Independent though, Liverpool now face problems.

The article goes on to quote "an insider at a rival Premiership club", who says that deals need to be signed by the end of March to get shirts ready in time for the new season. It then says that this deadline could actually be extended by a month to the end of April. This insider says, 

"They can’t push it much longer. It’s going to be difficult to get it out for the start of the season at this stage. It really is cutting it fine." 

Which Premiership club are they from? Chelsea and Everton both have reason to upset the apple-cart for Liverpool right now if they can. If the insider was from one of those clubs then we hope that the journalist checked with some other clubs for information.

Liverpool brought out a special shirt for the Champions League a few years back – an exercise they’ve not repeated since. Liverpool didn’t have a lot of time from playing their qualifier to playing their first group game. They obviously wouldn’t have been using their new shirt had they failed to win in the qualifier – so the time-frame then was really short. Chelsea only announced their new deal two weeks ago – so they were "cutting it fine" too then.

Next up, the article starts to throw more worry the way of Liverpool fans. Or tries to. With no kits to sell, Liverpool "may have to compensate kit supplier Reebok."  Who says so? A "sponsorship expert". We’ve not worked out what a sponsorship expert might be, but they know that, "If the team is wearing something that isn’t available in the shops, it’s a massive negative for Reebok. It could result in some sort of payment to Reebok and that would be a pill Liverpool would have to swallow."

Obviously any compensation along those lines would already be written into the contract Liverpool have with Reebok. In fact if anything, if Liverpool went to Adidas or Umbro and asked them if they thought they could get a new kit out before next season I’m sure they’d say they could. The onus would be on Reebok to produce a kit at short notice – if not then Liverpool would probably be able to cancel the contract with Reebok.

The paper then says it knows who Liverpool will be signing up with. It says the Reds are "expected to eventually sign Korean electronics group LG." Various names have been mentioned elsewhere – including Orange – but LG have already joined Liverpool as a co-sponsor.

To put one more piece of doom alongside the gloom of the article, there comes a quick mention of a sharp drop in income from the new sponsorship deal. According to the deal, the Carlsberg deal is worth "around £6m a year". The new deal, according to "sources" will be much lower, with figures being discussed of "between £2.5m and £4m a year".

The final line in the article tells us about how Liverpool’s semi-final result on Tuesday is going to make a big difference to negotiations.

When Liverpool changed sponsors in the past, the home shirt remained unchanged apart from the sponsors name. The actual design of the shirt was the same. The way that football kits are produced, the sponsors name is added to the shirt as pretty much the final part of manufacture. The current red shirt still has another season to run. There’s every chance that Liverpool shirts without sponsors names on have already been produced – and the new name is all that needs to be added.

The away kits are generally released annually, but where they coincide with a new home kit they are released very late in the day. In fact it’s not at all unusual for Liverpool to be playing in away kits in pre-season that aren’t yet on sale to the public.

Overall, we feel that the journalist may have been fed a little mis-information in order to get a story into the papers. The journalist is not a sports reporter as far as we can tell. There are many reasons why a deal may not have been announced already – and a club like Liverpool will have a deal lined up – that’s certain.

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UEFA: We could let five in from England

We think it’s time the talk over who would get into the Champions League if Liverpool win the tournament but finish below fourth should be brought to an end until it matters. Liverpool could finish fourth anyway, but to win the Champions League outright they’ve still got to beat Chelsea on Tuesday and then win in Istanbul. Once the season’s over though it’s time UEFA reviewed the regulations. Perhaps the way to do this is to always award an extra Champions League place to the country of the winners. Better they review the situation than risk being the subject of legal action.

Lennart Johansson was speaking to Five Live today and showed that UEFA might be able to bend the rules a little for next season. Liverpool could still get in as winners: "If there is a possibility to make an exception for the winner of the Champions League then there could be an additional place. The door is always open. We are there to serve football, not just dictate."

UEFA are the type of organisation that always make contradictory statements – probably due to the size of the organisation more than anything else. UEFA has been announcing through spokesmen that it’s uninterested in the situation as the rules are clear. Whoever wins, it’s always up to their FA to nominate them for the next tournament. If they are nominated and that would increase the teams entered from one country to five, the fourth-placed team in the league is "relegated" to the UEFA Cup instead.

What Johansson has basically admitted is that this situation is unfortunate – and that UEFA are prepared to make an exception to the rules. He said, "Liverpool are welcome with their point of view. They can make any proposal and we will deal with it and we will give them a quick answer. It is for the executive committee to decide and anything can be granted if they decide to go to the member associations and ask for a change in the regulations."

Johansson also admitted: "It would be unfair on Everton who have played the whole season and qualified via fourth place to then exclude them."

Johansson says that this situation won’t arise again – the rules will be worded better by the time the next tournament kicks off: "We will make it more clear than we have before as to what is valid because it will happen again and again. In my opinion the rule is already there, but if there are exceptions to the rule then we have to clarify the situation and make a clear statement about it."

Certainly with Liverpool being members of the powerful G14 group of clubs, it would seem sensible for UEFA to make sure that an allowance is made this time. At the end of the day the rule is clear – it’s the FA’s decision what to do. It’s unfortunate that this is the rule, because it’s a no-win situation for the FA if they are forced to choose.

In all honesty, if it didn’t come down to the money involved, the Champions League wouldn’t feature Chelsea or Liverpool this season – it would only have Arsenal in from England. Neither Chelsea nor Liverpool were Champions going into this tournament. If Liverpool do win then they’d be Champions of Europe.

The trouble is that all of this talk will be for nothing unless Liverpool can do what they’re capable of – and lift that trophy in Istanbul.

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Gerrard: Biggest game of my life

We’d be disappointed if Steven Gerrard’s equaliser against Middlesborough yesterday wasn’t at least on the list of candidates for goal of the season. Looking at the goal in isolation you’d say it was hit with power and accuracy, excellent technique, impossible to save. No lucky deflections or mistakes made in positional play by the goalie. It’s just a pity that it wasn’t a winner – Liverpool didn’t add to it and dropped two points.

Gerrard himself was pleased with the goal, if not the result: "It was a nice strike, I enjoyed it, but it would have been nice to have gone home with three points today. So it doesn’t mean as much as it would if we’d won the game. Knowing that Everton were getting beaten it was a great chance to get closer but we’re frustrated that we didn’t get the three points."
 
Benitez was extremely unhappy after the game yesterday – looking as hurt by the result as many of the fans would be. Gerrard felt that Liverpool played well, which wasn’t quite what his manager thought: "We controlled most of the game, but they defended well. Southgate was magnificent. We piled a lot of pressure on them but never created many clear cut chances but thought we deserved to nick the three points today."

If a draw in the league was a disappointment, the draw on Wednesday in the Champions League has been considered a good result. Gerrard, speaking to the official site, explained why Liverpool are pleased to go into the second leg all-square: "Nil-nil at Stamford Bridge was a fantastic result. If it had been a Premiership game then coming back with a goalless draw against the league leaders would be looked upon as a great achievement. But because of this away goal rule I don’t think people have given us the credit we deserve. We would have taken that result before the game if someone had offered us this scenario before the start of the season – where we only had to beat Chelsea at home to reach the final of the European Cup then we’d have snatched their hands off. It’s a great opportunity."

Gerrard has been linked all season with leaving the club. Last summer, his disappointment at another season of failure under Gerard Houllier was plain for all to see. He nearly moved to Chelsea, if you believe what was said back then. Whether he set the ball rolling on this possible move or whether he was approached (illegally) has never been confirmed – but Chelsea have been charged for an illegal approach to Arsenal’s Ashley Cole.

Does Gerrard still want to move to Chelsea? During the week Chelsea claimed they weren’t interested any more. Talk now is that he’s about to start discussions on a new five-year deal. One of the reasons Gerrard had for possibly leaving was because he wanted to win things. He didn’t want to be playing for a club happy with fourth place. Now he looks like he’s staying, and he thinks that the gap between the Reds and those above them doesn’t show the true story: "Everyone here knows the gap between ourselves and Chelsea, and also Arsenal and Manchester United come to mention it, is not as great as people make out. It’s just this inconsistency in the league that we have to sort out."
 
Gerrard gave more praise to his midfield team-mate, Xabi Alonso, who’s going to miss out on Tuesday because of a "foul" against Chelsea. Gerrard said: "It’s a massive blow for the team. He’s a great team player and one of the best passers of a ball in Europe. Any side would miss him. Fortunately we’ve got Didi Hamann back fit and that gives the manager another option.Everyone is sad for Xabi though and hopefully we can beat Chelsea and give him the opportunity to play in the final."

In a further sign of how much Gerrard loves Liverpool he once again underlined just how good it is to be in a Red shirt at Anfield on a European night: "It’s going to be massive and everyone has done nothing but talk about it since last Wednesday. The atmosphere is going to be special. There is no doubt that it is the biggest game of my life and I’m sure it’s the same for every other player here at Liverpool Football Club. I said after the first leg that I hope the fans can play the role of twelfth man and that the Kop can suck a few goals in for us. Against Olympiacos and Juventus you could really feel the support of the fans. It really does help a lot, when you’re piling the pressure on and you can hear the noise coming from the stands it really gives the team a lift."

Another score-draw on like yesterday on Tuesday would see Liverpool go out. The simple fact is that Liverpool have to win. Every goal Chelsea score, Liverpool need one more. Gerrard knows Rafa is well aware of how to play tactically in Europe: "The manager will no doubt have this in mind and we will have to be very careful. Chelsea are going to come here, be very strong defensively and try to hit us on the counter-attack. That’s what they did in the Premiership match earlier in the season. Hopefully we can get the first goal. I think the first goal is going to be very important in this tie. Fingers crossed it will fall to us and we get that bit of luck that we never got in the game on New Years Day."

More praise for his team-mates and the supporters: "I think at the beginning of the tournament we were underdogs and everyone expected us to go out in the first round. The fact that we are now so close to the final goes to show just how well the manager and all the boys have done. The fans have played their part too. I think it’s surprised everyone but we’re not in it just to make the numbers up. We are in it to win it so we’re going to keep fighting."

If Liverpool go through they’ll be playing in the final in Istanbul at the end of the month. Asked what it would mean he made it clear: "It would be the biggest day of my life, simple as that."

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