Shepherd blasts Liverpool over Owen

Just before Christmas Rafael Benitez attended a press-conference and was asked the inevitable questions about Michael Owen. It’s not much of a secret about how Owen wanted to come to Anfield, and would only consider a loan move to Newcastle, until the eleventh hour when Newcastle came up with the deal giving Owen a chance leave after one season on Tyneside – a four-year contract, but with a get-out clause. Some press have tried to put a spin on things by claiming Owen “snubbed” Liverpool, or that Benitez “messed up” the deal to bring him to Anfield. Neither is really true, and as Rafa said at the press conference there’s still room for Owen to make a comeback at Anfield: “Yes I could see him returning to Liverpool one day. That could happen – why not? He’s a top-class player, and you are always interested in players like that.”

Rafa explained how Liverpool are sill looking for a player like Owen, and although he’s already made it clear he won’t pay over the odds for any one player, Rafa says he’s not the only admire of Owen: “Everyone, every club, is on the look-out for a player like Michael, so why can’t he return to Liverpool? We tried to sign him right to the end in the summer.”

As well as the resolve by Liverpool not to be ripped off in the transfer market, Benitez says one other issue may have helped Owen make his mind up to spend the next season playing for the Geordies: “We did keep trying. I spoke to Michael a lot, and I said we would try right until the end, but he decided that he wanted to go to Newcastle because he wanted to play every week. I would never guarantee to any player that he would play every week.”

Those comments from Rafa have obviously caused the Newcastle chairman some indigestion from his Christmas Lunch as today he launched a blast at Rafa in the Daily Mirror. Freddy Shepherd told the newspaper Rafa must think the British public are “stupid”, and claims Owen is more than happy at Newcastle. “Does Rafa Benitez really think that the British public do not know the facts, and are stupid?”

Ignoring Liverpool’s refusal to be dragged into a bidding war and pay over-the-odds for Owen, Shepherd said: “We have a club that had just won the Champions League and was looking round Europe for a top striker. Now they want us to believe that they tried their best for Michael.”

Shepherd took a big chance on Owen being enough to prevent them from a disastrous season, and he seems to have helped so far. Owen had already agreed terms with Liverpool and was desperate to come back. Shepherd had to try hard to convince him to try Newcastle, and the inclusion of the get-out clause finally persuaded Owen a season in the North-East would be worthwhile. Perhaps this is what Shepherd meant when he said: “It was Newcastle United who did everything they could to sign Michael Owen. We are happy with what we have bought and Michael is more than happy to be here.”  

Shepherd also seems to have forgotten how pre-match press-conferences work. A manager speaks to the press, and unless something more major has just happened, will be asked questions about the opposition. Ex-Red Michael Owen returning to Anfield is likely to be a topic raised by the reporters, and Liverpool’s attempts to sign him in the summer were always going to be part of those questions. Shepherd tries to make what Rafa said in response to those questions sound more like a press-release deliberately released by the Anfield press-office: “I do not understand the motives of putting out this story before the two teams meet.”

For the Magpies skipper Alan Shearer there was no risk in paying so much above the odds for Owen. He said: “The chairman was prepared to blow everybody else out of the water with his £16m bid. He was willing to go that high because he knew exactly what he was getting.”

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Reds v Newcastle team news

Liverpool will have Momo Sissoko missing for today’s match with Newcastle United at Anfield – the Mali international is suspended after picking up five yellow cards over the course of the season. Didi Hamann is hoping to be available again for selection – he made a brief substitute appearance in Japan for the Reds but has continued to struggle with the injury caused by Michael Essien’s Champions League lunge.

Like all Premiership managers, Rafael Benitez has to consider how best to spread his resources over the next eight days. In defence he’s still looking for that extra centre-half to share the load on Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, and so the pair are likely to play all four games – injury permitting. Today they’ll be up against former Reds forward Michael Owen.

Owen will be wondering what kind of reception he’ll get at Anfield today – in the main it’s likely to be a positive one, certainly before kick-off and after the match has ended. That won’t be the case for his manager though – Graeme Souness was a player Liverpool fans loved, but his decisions as manager saw the team start a rapid decline they are only now starting to recover from. Liverpool fans may have been prepared to forgive him for that, but his decision to sell his exclusive heart-operation story to the Sun newspaper will probably never be forgiven.

Souness himself seems to dislike Liverpool nowadays as much as the Reds fans dislike him. He’s not happy at still being criticised for what he sees as a small misjudgement. If he gets one victory over Christmas he wants it to be this one. His other striker, Alan Shearer, is hoping to get the one goal that gives him the record for goals at Newcastle.

Benitez is aware of the threat a side fired up by Souness and featuring two strikers on a mission poses to his side but they didn’t break the club record for clean sheets by being kind to opposition attackers. Djibril Cisse and Fernando Morientes will want to prove at the other end that Owen’s decision to try a season at Newcastle will not hurt Liverpool’s chances of success this season. With Owen’s infamous get-out clause meaning he could yet be back in a Red shirt next season, Cisse and Morientes would like to make sure it’s their names on the score sheet at the end of the game. It’s highly likely one of them will play today, alongside Peter Crouch – one of Owen’s likely team-mates in the World Cup in Germany for England.

Bolo Zenden is out for the season, Neil Mellor is getting nearer to a return to the first-team squad, but other than that Rafael Benitez has most of his squad available for selection. For Newcastle a suspension has ruled out midfielder Scott Parker, but there could be treturns to action for Carr, Babayaro, Emre, Taylor and N’Zogbia

Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise, Warnock, Traore, Luis Garcia, Xabi Alonso, Gerrard, Hamann, Kewell, Cisse, Morientes, Crouch, Josemi, Sinama-Pongolle, Carson.

Newcastle: Given, Harper, Carr, Ramage, Babayaro, Elliott, Boumsong, Bramble, Taylor, Faye, Emre, Solano, Luque, Ameobi, Bowyer, N’Zogbia, Clark, Brittain, Shearer, Owen, Chopra.

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Feels strange for all as Owen returns to Anfield

With Michael Owen making his first appearance as an away player at Anfield on Boxing Day, Rafa Benitez knew he’d be asked what he thought of the Reds’ former number 10.

Owen signed for Newcastle in the summer for a fee of around £16million after deciding he could no longer take a chance that Real Madrid would give in and accept Liverpool maximum bid of £12million. As Liverpool themselves have seen in the past with many signings that didn’t work out, there is nothing forcing a player under contract to leave his club before that contract runs out. Real would have been forced to continue paying his wages with him sitting on the bench had Owen turned down the move to the North East and not been allowed to move to Anfield. Owen did all he felt he could to get his move to his first choice club – Liverpool – but was not prepared to risk his World Cup hopes with England. Owen had previously said he would only join Newcastle on loan, something Graeme Sounnes would not accept. In the end Freddie Shepherd negotiated a deal that made most of the involved parties happy – he took Owen to Newcastle in a deal that was a loan in all but name. At the end of this season Owen is allowed to leave Newcastle if an offer of something in the region of £12million is made for him.
What happened in the summer is that Owen joined his second-choice club. He can leave them at the end of the season if he chooses – but if he enjoys his life up there as a first-choice striker week-in week-out, even with an outside possibility of playing in the UEFA Cup, then he may well stay. He ideally wants to be playing at the highest level – and Liverpool’s stuttering form in the years prior to his departure from Anfield is one reason why he stalled so long on signing a new deal. It’s not usually possible to get everything you want in life though, and by the end of this season Owen will need to have a good look at his options once again before deciding where to go.
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Kewell says he’s still not fit.

Harry Kewell has been angrily defending himself for his early departure from the Champions League final. Kewell was forced off halfway through the first period as Liverpool were 1-0 down from AC Milan’s early goal and some fans booed him off the field. Some sections of the Anfield faithful felt that Kewell had failed to put enough effort in during his time at Anfield and to see him go off in that fashion at that stage of the game just confirmed their doubts.

What hadn’t been realised by many was that Kewell had spent most of his Anfield days with genuine injuries. When these injuries weren’t keeping him out games they were keeping him from showing his best form in the games he did play. Most Reds fans understand what Kewell says he’s been through and are now hoping he’ll show over the remainder of the season just what he’s capable of. Kewell has already shown signs that he’s going to be back to the form he showed in his Leeds days, but still wants to put his side of the story over to fans about what happened in Turkey: "Everybody thought I had thrown it in and I could not believe the reaction from some people. Even before the story was out properly they had diagnosed me and decided I had quit."

Kewell reveals his desire to be a part of that final included a plan that meant he could have been the one to take the penalty that led to Liverpool’s equaliser: "Do people know I was the number one penalty taker on the pitch that night in Istanbul? So why would I want to walk off in a game when I had a real chance of getting on the scoresheet?"
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Stevie ready to show what he can do this summer

Steven Gerrard is hoping to be big news in the English press again this summer – for the third year in a row – but for positive reasons this time. For the last two summers Chelsea’s advances for the Liverpool captain have been the subject of most headlines, but this summer Stevie wants the focus to be on his World Cup performances for England. Gerrard told the official website of the English FA about how eager he is to show what he can do on that particular stage: "Obviously the England players are focusing on our club football at the moment but, at the same time, you can’t help thinking about it. It’s so exciting."

Gerrard says that whenever he gets a break from training or playing, he’ll be trying to find out what he can about England’s opponents: "I think between now and the summer any chance we get we’ll be sticking the TV on and watching these counties play and studying them. We’ll see where they are strong and where they are weak. I’m sure the manager and coaching staff will be doing their homework too."

Gerrard is not pleased with how things have panned out in major tournaments for England. There’s no doubting he’s been an important member of squads that have got England into the tournaments, but he’s not had the best of times when the tournaments themselves have come around. In 2004 the Chelsea interference was hanging over him, in 2002 he stayed at home to undergo surgery, and as for the one before that: "The first tournament that I went to in 2000, I was just a young lad and it was about getting the experience. But I’m really looking forward to this one and I’m confident I can go there and do well. I still say the world hasn’t seen the best of me for England yet – although I have played some good games – but this is now a great stage for me to go there and do well."
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Owen says Anfield return will be strange

Michael Owen will be back in Liverpool on Boxing Day, playing at Anfield for the first time as a visitor. Other than appearances for England at Anfield, Owen has only ever played their in a Liverpool shirt and says it will be strange to be playing there in the black-and-white stripes of Newcastle. The 26-year-old said: "When I knew I was coming back to the Premiership, I always thought it would be strange to go back to Anfield."

Owen is still considered a hero by a lot of Reds fans – certainly not all – and still has a lot of friends at a club he arrived at fifteen years ago. Like most people over the next week or so, Owen will be seeing people he’s not seen for a while. Whether his renewing of acquaintances is as unpleasant and stressful as it can be for most of the nation remains to be seen: "It will be exciting seeing a lot of old friends, and it’s something I’m looking forward to. It will be a strange one as I never thought I would leave Liverpool. I’d been there since I was 11. I’ve got a picture in my head of what it will be like going back."
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Linesman’s boss “offended” by Rafa comments

The boss of the linesman that made Liverpool so angry at the Club World Cup final has defended his compatriate’s performance, going as far as calling Liverpool’s criticism "and insult".

Liverpool’s defeat included three disallowed goals, penalty appeals turned down, time wasting left unpunished and a yellow card for what should have been a red, according to the Reds after the match. Reds manager Rafa Benitez put an official complaint in about the refereeing, and said after the match: "You wouldn’t get a Mexican referee and a Canadian linesman in the final of the World Cup."

The Canadian official who put his flag up too often for Rafa’s liking was Hector Vergara from Canada, who was assistant to Mexican referee Benito Armando Archundia.

The chief operating officer of the Canadian Soccer Association, Kevan Pipe, was fuming over what had been said, not just by Rafa Benitez but a good few Reds players too. It was Rafa’s World Cup dig that wound him up the most: "It is an insult. And in fact I was quite offended when I saw the comment. It’s a very unfortunate comment. And I don’t think in retrospect he would probably go forward and say that again. Hector has been called upon on multiple occasions to do World Cup qualifying throughout the continent."
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Parry confident but cautious about Reds future

Rick Parry arrived back from Japan full of hope for the Reds future. Champions League holders, runners up in the Club World Cup, recently breaking a club record for clean sheets – it all looks rosy right now for the club. "I’ve been optimistic about our future before, but not more optimistic than now," said the Reds’ chief executive today.

The last time he was optimistic he says was after Liverpool won the treble, and then on to win two more piece of silverware at the start of the following season, making it five trophies in all for 2001. So, like most Reds fans at the time, Parry had high hopes for the Reds as the year ticked over to 2002: "In 2002 it was also looking good. Just like then, the foundations are there for us and now it’s about kicking on and taking the next step. We’ve just got to keep on doing what we’re doing, keep on improving and make sure the players we acquire are of the right quality. That’s the key. Not to buy the wrong players and make rushed decisions."

What Parry said echoed what the Reds’ manager had said the day before. Rafa Benitez had a better way of putting it though: "I always say it’s like having a table with three legs and you need to get the other one to fit properly. You want a certain size and people may be saying, ‘Have this one, it’s cheaper and it’s better,’ but you have to make sure you get the right one. It’s the same in football. If you want to build a team, you have to get the one that fits in."

Parry is cautious that Liverpool and their supporters don’t get carried away with the good run, just like they didn’t need to get too worked up about a couple of poor results earlier in the season: "A lot of doubts about the team which were expressed around September and October were misplaced, although just as we said you don’t hand out trophies in October, you don’t hand them out in January either."
Parry also echoed the views expressed by Liverpool’s Norwegian international John Arne Riise. Riise pointed out that the dejection in Cardiff after losing in one final resulted ultimately in the glory in the much bigger prize of the European Cup. Parry agreed: "The disappointment of defeat to Chelsea in the Carling Cup final was the motivation for us to kick on last season. That’s the way to look at it. We’re already thinking of doing what we can to return to Japan next year. You have to take a lot of pride out of the performance of the boys. Sometimes it makes it harder to bear when you’re the better team."
Parry fancies the idea of making it six European Cups too – after all that’s the only way to qualify for the Japanese tournament: "We’ll just have to go back and win next year. We were very professional in our preparation and that was vindicated in the way we performed. Sometimes you have games like the final when you’re just not going to score."

Benitez says Liverpool’s improvement so far is something that will help them further improve by attracting the right players: "Always the quality of signings is important, but now we are in a good position it is even more important. It’s difficult to sign in January because the best players are playing in good teams, which makes it harder. But we want to grow and we want to improve."

Rafa also pointed out how important it is to help new players to bond with existing players: "What is important is that you must give the players confidence in their new team-mates. They must trust the new signings. It makes it much easier to build things."

Under Gerard Houllier a lot of money was spent on players who turned out to be worth much less than the money spent on them. The stories of rifts between different groups of players at Melwood are well-known, so it’s reassuring that Rafa is prepared to keep team spirit at the top-end of his priorities: "I don’t know what happened before I came, but always new signings are important, and now we are in a good position it is even more important to get it right. The key is to get players who will fit in. You have to be very careful to get the right ones."

Rafa has also made big changes with the club scouts as well since he arrived – another detail he feels is vital: "It depends on the scouting department as well. You can have information about players but might need to talk to the scouts to find out that little bit more. You may know someone is a good player, but need to find out about them as a person and a professional as well."

Of course the presence of scouts at various clubs around Europe will help fuel the rumours that will be dominating the sports pages for the next five or six weeks.
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Moores: I’m proud of Rafa

Liverpool chairman David Moores set off home from Japan as a man extremely proud of his club and the man that become manager 18 months ago. Speaking to the Liverpool Echo, Moores told of his pride in Rafael Benitez, who lost his father Francisco whilst away with Liverpool during the Club World Cup tournament.

Although we are bound to be biased towards the Reds, there has been universal agreement that Liverpool deserved to win yesterday – and that they would have done were it not for some dubious decisions by the officials. Liverpool’s defeat yesterday brought to an end a long unbeaten run, which included eleven clean sheets, a new club record. The club are starting to be feared again, and Moores says it’s all down to Rafa: "I wouldn’t swop Rafa for any manager in the world. If I had to go back and make the appointment again, I know there couldn’t be anyone better. I really believe he’s going to lead this club back to greatness, I really do."

Moores was all the more impressed with Rafa after he stayed to look after the team despite the sad loss and tremendous amount of grief he must have been feeling: "The team is progressing so well and that’s down to Rafa. Look at what he’s had to deal with in Japan because of what happened to his father. He has shown he is an unbelievable man. For something like that to happen and Rafa to stay with his team is absolutely amazing."

Moores made it clear how he felt about the Spaniard: "I’m very proud of him."

The chairman hinted at how unhappy he was with the officials at the game, but didn’t feel it was appropriate to dwell on it: "After everything that’s happened and the way we played, we didn’t deserve to leave Japan without that trophy. I’m also extremely proud of the players and all the staff. I’ve told Steven Gerrard I thought all the players were magnificent in the competition. We couldn’t have done any more other than score in the final. Obviously Flo’s goal should have stood, but I don’t want to talk too much about that. It shouldn’t take away how well we’ve played."

Liverpool are not in control of their own destiny in terms of winning the league this season. They are fifteen points behind Chelsea, but with two games in hand they could cut that gap to nine points regardless of what Chelsea do. If they beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the league then the gap could theoretically be as small as six points – but even with all of that, they still need Chelsea to slip up before they could win the league. Manchester United are six points ahead of the Reds right now, although they’ve also played two more games than the Reds.

The key now for the Reds is to concentrate on all of the positives from the trip to Japan, and get back to winning ways on Boxing Day. Moores feels that the Reds are being helped a great deal by the confidence their recent run has given them: "The way we’re playing at the moment is showing how much confidence there is throughout the team. The football is great. Everything has been going fantastically well, apart from this result. We’ll give it a good fight for the title this year. Maybe it’s too late for this season, we’ll have to wait and see. But we’ll go all the way and hopefully there will be a few slip-ups from Chelsea."

Rafa Benitez has talked often about how other sides are starting to show the Reds a lot of respect, and Moores agrees. He said: "I’m sure the others are watching Liverpool a lot closer now. I’m more optimistic about us winning the title now than I’ve ever been, even though we should have won it the season we came second."

Paco Ayesteran said during the tournament that he was surprised at how quickly Liverpool had progressed this season. It was all part of what Rafa and he had been planning, but they never expected to happen as fast as it did. Perhaps Moores was allowing for a longer transitional period before the Spanish connection started to reap rewards, but he’s not complaining: "Things have developed very quickly. Rafa has settled and the players he’s brought in have settled, which has made a big difference. We’ve quickly established a relationship where he understands us and we understand him."

Liverpool will arrive home later this evening, and Rafa will be heading for Spain as soon as he can to be with his mother and the rest of his family.

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Reds angry at sub-standard refereeing

Liverpool’s third attempt at winning the Club World Cup ended in disappointment yesterday, but it wasn’t through lack of trying. The current Liverpool side has a lot to live up to if it wants to emulate the great sides of the sixties through to the eighties, and none of those sides ever won this competition. The one thing they did win, regularly, is the one trophy Liverpool fans want as much as that European cup they won in May. After yesterday’s heroics, Liverpool fans must surely feel that League title number 19 is not as far away as it might have been.

At half-time in May it looked like Liverpool were in a false position by being in the Champions League final. They were three-nil down, and although that scoreline flattered AC Milan, it just seemed that the big final had come around a little too soon for them. The response in the second half that resulted in them getting the score back to 3-3, and going on to win on penalties, was brought about by determination and self-belief. Memories of that day will stay forever in the minds of those involved, on the pitch, in the stands, at home watching on television. Memories of yesterday’s poor decisions and that feeling of injustice will fade however, which is just as well. Right now the Liverpool players are angry and hurt, and have every right to be.

One of those lingering memories of May is of Jamie Carragher throwing his body on the line to help Liverpool take the silverware. He felt he was living a dream that night, but yesterday it felt more like a nightmare. It wasn’t real: "We played quite well and we deserved to get something out of the game. I just cannot believe we didn’t score. We were the better team, there’s no doubt about that and I’m disappointed." Sao Paulo come from a part of the world where gamesmanship is as important as skill in getting a result. They wasted a lot of time with fake injuries, got away with things that perhaps they shouldn’t, but they did still do what they needed to get a trophy. Carra is not bitter towards the Brazilians as such, just unhappy that luck and officials were against them that day: "Good luck to Sao Paulo, you can see by their celebrations at the end how much it meant to them to win it, but I don’t think anyone can say they were the better team. On another day we probably would have won. It was just one of those games."

Rafa Benitez says that the poor standard of refereeing undermines the competition. Liverpool have taken the tournament seriously, you can tell by the reactions of the players, but Rafa says that FIFA need to make changes otherwise the next European side to take part may be less serious in their approach. "I spoke to Sepp Blatter afterwards, but it was a private conversation. Something has to change if you want to give importance to this competition. To play one game before the final and not water the pitch is not the most competent. And you would not get a Mexican referee and a Canadian linesman in the World Cup final, so why in the World Club Championship final? I feel the referee controlled the whole situation."

Some may argue that Liverpool’s finishing could have been better, but to have the ball in the net three times, to have a penalty turned down and to see a player get a yellow card when it perhaps should have been red says a lot about how well the Reds played. Certainly if this had happened in the World Cup finals there would be an outcry, which is why Rafa feels Fifa need to work hard over the next 12 months to get this sorted: "Everyone has seen we have scored three goals in the final, and yet we have lost 1-0. It is a good competition we wanted to win, but to make it an important competition, they have to take it more seriously."

Xabi Alonso was asked what he thought of the incidents, he made it clear: "Just a joke." He’ll be hoping for better refereeing in Germany for the World Cup this summer, as will his team-mate for club and country, Luis Garcia: "We feel cheated. We feel as though we have won the match by scoring three goals only to have it taken away from us. They were losing time all the way through the game, and the referee did nothing about it. It was wrong."

Sao Paulo coach Paulo Autuori wasn’t bothered – his team had done what they needed, worked within the parameters the referee set them, and got the result. He tried to blame Liverpool’s defeat on their five changes: "In Brazil you would never get that many changes, and we couldn’t understand it, but it worked for us, because we knew how Liverpool would play, and we kept them quiet." Maybe he was watching a different game.

Steven Gerrard said before the game that Liverpool didn’t feel afraid of any team any more, that they were capable of beating anyone. He didn’t say they were unbeatable, just that they were confident of beating any team. This subtle difference was lost in the translation it seems though, and it fired Sao Paolo up, as Rogerio Ceni said: "Gerrard thought Liverpool were invincible. We never thought we were invincible. But in the end we won."
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