Rafa wants Mascherano and Neill deals done soon

Liverpool's board are due to meet today to discuss the possible transfer to Anfield of Lucas Neill and Javier Mascherano.

Liverpool's interest in Neill has been no secret, not since both the Reds and his current club Blackburn spoke about how a move to sign him failed in August due to Blackburn holding out for a fee much higher than the Reds were willing to pay. The move for Mascherano has only recently started being spoken about but according to the Liverpool Echo has been being worked on for some months.

According to the paper both players are willing to join the club, but the deals are far from complete. The board need to discuss the deals with the likely DIC takeover in mind – but Rafa doesn't want there to be any delays which could scupper the plans.

The paper also discusses Rafa's hopes of completing a deal for Hamilton Academicals' 16-year-old central midfielder James McCarthy for £100,000 this transfer window.

McCarthy is one for the future, but Rafa sees central midfielder Mascherano as an important addition to the squad. If the deal goes ahead he would be signed initially on loan with the Reds having an option to make the deal permanent after that. One of the biggest problems facing Liverpool in this deal is getting permission to play him. Reports that he's played for two clubs this season would be true if the South American season ran through the same time period as the European one. Mascherano played for Corinthians last season in South American terms, a season which officially ended on Sunday, so technically hasn't actually played for two clubs this season. Liverpool will no doubt ensure this definitely is the case before going ahead with the deal.

The Echo says Mascherano has "made it clear he wants to move to Liverpool, and a deal has been agreed with his representatives Media Sports Investments". Mascherano himself spoke to the press about how unhappy he was at West Ham, where he's rarely been played. He said: "I must get out of here. I cannot stay at West Ham any more like this, without playing. At my age my game will stagnate if I don't play. If I am not playing in the West Ham team I will have to leave to continue my career with another team."

Lucas Neill will be signed for a fee if he does arrive this month; the amount of that fee is what is causing the delays at the moment. He will be eligible for the Champions League too under new UEFA rules. Stephen Warnock's name keeps cropping up in the talks with Blackburn who think they should get the Reds left-back as part of the deal. With Neill available on a Bosman this summer it does seem that Blackburn are still putting too high a value on their player.

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Neill agent: Bids received for Lucas

Blackburn defender Lucas Neill is available on a Bosman in the summer but according to his agent there have been multiple bids to his club from clubs wanting to sign him now. Blackburn aren't obliged to accept the bids, but the player has made it clear he won't be signing a new deal at the club. Either he goes this transfer window and makes Blackburn a token amount of money, or he goes in the summer for free.

Neill's agent, Peter Harrison, told Sky that he knows Blackburn have received bids, although he didn't reveal how many had been received. He said: "We know there have been bids put in for him, there is a lot of interest from England and abroad."

Neill cost Blackburn £1m when he joined from Millwall in 2001 and Blackburn would have got that fee back had they let him go in August. Back then Liverpool were the team closest to signing him, getting the player's interest much more than Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur who also made bids at the time. Newcastle are said to have shown interest again, but they don't have Champions League football on offer, and as a club aren't any bigger than Blackburn, meaning Neill isn't so likely to be interested this time either. There are also reports claiming the likes of Barcelona and Milan are interested.

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Pennant: Bolton game one of my best

Liverpool's Jermaine Pennant probably breathed a huge sigh of relief at the end of New Year's Day. After having some problems settling in at Anfield and being criticised by many supporters he put a performance in he can be proud of, playing a very important part in Liverpool's 3-0 win on Monday against Bolton. It drew praise from both his captain and his manager after the game and he says it came as a real boost: "It was good to have the confidence booster of a performance like that against Bolton – maybe it was one of my best performances since joining Liverpool. It's good to get a game like that under my belt."

Pennant is a Liverpool fan himself and there was a suggestion that he was in awe of his surroundings for most of the first half of the season. That meant a lot of fans were unimpressed and couldn't work out why Rafa had paid so much for the player from Birmingham. The fans will need a lot more performances like the one against Bolton, but at least Pennant's proved just what his capable of: "I feel I'm winning more of the fans over now with performances like that. I think when I arrived everyone hoped I would kick straight into action, but sometimes it takes time to get used to playing in front of the crowd and the different players. Now I feel things are coming along better. It's a new year and I hope I'm now going to continue with those kinds of performance."

Speaking to the Echo, Pennant said he and his team-mates are looking back at the Blackburn defeat with huge regret. Liverpool squandered many chances to go ahead and ultimately lost 1-0, three points dropped when they shouldn't have been: "Things have gone quite well for the team lately, particularly in moving to third. We know some performances could have been better. That includes myself as much as other players, but we've all stuck in there and been grinding results out. If we continue to play as we are, I'm sure we'll stick around the top three. We look back at that Blackburn game now and know if we'd won that we would be right on the heels of Chelsea. That's frustrating because we were all over Blackburn on that day had enough attempts on goal."

Liverpool went on to beat Spurs 1-0 as well as that win over Bolton, a total of 9 points from 12 over Christmas.

Pennant also felt pleased that Liverpool had shown Bolton that they can be physical too if they need to be: "It was difficult at the start of the game, but we really got stuck in and showed them not only can we be a good passing team, we can be physical when we need to be as well. We stuck to passing and moving and that helped us to an important win."

With Momo Sissoko's return to action moving closer, and the possibility of Steven Gerrard being moved back out wide again, Pennant knows he's got to keep putting these performances in.

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Anelka: I should still be a Red

Former Liverpool striker Nicolas Anelka has spoken about his disappointment that he never got to stay at the club.

Liverpool fans were elated in December 2001 when the rumours were confirmed – Nicolas Anelka was joining Liverpool on loan until the end of the season, with a view to the move being made permanent.

He was handed Robbie Fowler's number nine shirt, still warm after the local lad had been effectively forced out by then boss Gerard Houllier. There were some worries that Anelka, nicknamed "Le Sulk" might not have the right temperament, but all those worries were dispelled as Anelka put in some good performances.

Before the season ended, PSG announced they agreed a fee with Liverpool for the player, so all that remained to arrange where the financial terms for Anelka himself. Then something happened that we've never had fully explained. Anelka's demands weren't too high, yet he was refused a deal. Liverpool's boss Gerard Houllier strung PSG along until the last possible moment then signed El Hadji Diouf instead. Anelka was devastated, and looking back later so were Liverpool's fans. Diouf was, to be frank, pathetic. On the field he was never able to perform the way he did in a couple of World Cup 2002 matches. He was an embarrassment to Fowler's number nine shirt, the shirt that had been worn by Ian Rush before Fowler got his hands on it. Even moved to the wings he was hopeless.

Now Anelka says if he'd been allowed to sign the deal that had almost been agreed he thinks he'd still have been here today: "Liverpool was a very important step, because when I left Arsenal I didn't really find the club that suited me. That was a club that really suited me. I believe if I had signed for three or four years at Liverpool, I would still be there now."

He says: "It was the club I got a kick out of, also it allowed me to play the role I love, just behind Owen and Heskey. Why didn't I stay? I don't know. You should ask Gerard Houllier."

That very same summer Gerard Houllier also signed Salif Diao, still costing Liverpool money every week on his huge contract (although Stoke have been paying part of his wages of late) and Bruno Cheyrou, described as "the next Zidane" for reasons we never did see justified. Something went badly wrong that summer, arguably the beginning of the end of Houllier's reign at the club.

It’s unlikely he’ll ever now get a chance to come back to Anfield; surely Benítez would have made a move for him before now if he had any interest, but don’t be surprised if Anelka’s quotes are brought into some silly-season story or other in the next four weeks of transfer window torment.

Anelka was on the losing side on Monday as his current side Bolton were beaten 3-0 by the Reds. His team-mate Jussi Jaaskelainen, their Finnish goalkeeper, wasn’t pleased with the comments made by Reds boss Rafa Benítez in advance of the game. Rafa had criticised Bolton for the way they seem to bend the rules, and singled out Reds reject El Hadji Diouf in particular after he admitted he thought his diving was “clever”. Jaaskelainen seemed to either misunderstand what Rafa was complaining about, or feels having a smaller budget makes it acceptable for Bolton to cheat or push the rules to the limits: “It’s not nice the things that their manager has said. I think he should give us more respect because we have earned it. It’s easy for them because they can go out and spend millions and millions. We don’t. We’re trying to work hard and work for each other and we have earned a little more respect than they give us.”

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Rafa delighted with his “fantastic” team

Rafael Benítez didn’t hold back in his praise for his players after the 3-0 New Year’s Day massacre of Bolton Wanderers: “My team was fantastic and we scored three amazing goals and it's a great way to start the New Year.”

All the goals came in the second half, and although Bolton never troubled Liverpool at all, the Reds needed to step up a gear after the break: “We were waiting for a physical game and in the first half it was more difficult. In the first half I thought we were a little anxious but I told the players at half-time to keep passing and moving and we would get some chances. In the second half we scored the goals and opened the game, it was very good. Crouch scored an amazing goal and could have scored a couple more, it was nice for Gerrard to score after being awarded the MBE and Kuyt scored a deserved goal.

“We knew we were tired and they were tired. I was surprised with Kuyt because I thought he was tired. His work-rate was unbelievable. I'm really pleased with my players as their contribution today was fantastic and Pennant was important for us in the wide areas.”

Rafa made sure that the impressive Pennant’s fellow winger Mark Gonzalez also got a confidence-boosting mention: “Today, Pennant and Gonzalez were pretty important players, running behind defenders. We knew Gerrard and Xabi could be tired so the wingers and the strikers were the key in keeping the other team deep. We had, on both sides, players with ability and pace and with them going forward all the time their defenders cannot go forward if you know the winger is a threat.”

Liverpool managed nine points out of the twelve available from the Christmas programme, but Rafa is disappointed that they didn’t pick up the full twelve: “Overall I'm not happy with our form over Christmas because we should have beaten Blackburn. We had a lot of chances in that game and we need to take them when we create as we did today.”

Rafa had warned the referee Graham Poll before the game that he needed to be wary of the likely attempts by Bolton to be over-physical. In the end Liverpool stood up to all Bolton had to offer, although Poll did book three of their players and showed restraint in not sending off one of the players. The referee’s performance was fine by Rafa: “If it's the same for everybody, perfect.”

Liverpool are now third, their goal difference having improved substantially in recent weeks, and now there’s talk of second place even being in reach. For Rafa though that’s something to think about another time, because Liverpool are now back to Cup football for a couple of games, starting with the FA Cup game against Arsenal at the weekend, as he explained when asked about what Liverpool’s target was: “The next game, the FA Cup against Arsenal. I am not thinking about targets, I am just thinking of winning more games and more points, to try and keep the team playing well, scoring goals and try to win games. Our idea is to win the next three points each time.”

Bolton manager Sam Allardyce was unhappy at the accusations made before the game by Rafael Benítez, but must have regretted saying Liverpool were “lucky” to beat his side last time they met at Anfield. El Hadji-Diouf couldn’t do more than make some attempts to inflame the home fans with gestures towards the fans, but he couldn’t get away with any of the cheating he’s previously admitted he thinks makes him a clever player. He soon left the field. Nicolas Anelka was more warmly welcomed, which has always been the norm for returning Liverpool players, with only very few exceptions. Ex-Red and winner of many medals Sammy Lee is the assistant manager to Sam Allardyce, and he made a point of congratulating Steven Gerrard at the end. Add Liverpool-supporting local-lad Kevin Nolan’s name into the mix and there’s still a lot of good about Bolton, it’s just a pity that their manager seems intent on making them a modern-day Wimbledon.

Allardyce, still under investigation after allegations were made about him and his son by BBC’s Panorama, tried to act like he wasn’t too bothered at the defeat. Bolton managed only one shot all game, to Liverpool’s twenty, and Allardyce said that was all down to tiredness: “I'm surprised we had one shot on target. It was a game too many from our point of view.”

It’s an interesting point – Liverpool have played as many games this season (if not more) than Bolton, and both sides had the same number of games over Christmas. Rafa’s rotation policy is designed to make sure he’s got a full set of fully-fit players for as many games as possible, throughout the season; perhaps this was one of the first chances for outsiders to see this in action.

Allardyce admitted his side just weren’t anywhere near fit enough to deal with the Reds: “I don't think we've got anything like the sort of energy that was needed to continue to keep Liverpool out and finally we cracked. In possession we never posed any threat and because of that they finally wore us down.”

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Support a highly-rated LFC author as he takes a deserved break

Liverpool fan and author Paul Tomkins has received rave reviews for all four of his books about Liverpool FC, and deservedly so. A true Liverpool supporter, Paul has written every word from the heart, as he has done in his many articles for sites like the official Liverpool FC website.

It's no secret that Paul has been writing these books against a background of ill health. Paul suffers from a very much misunderstood condition called Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or ME for short. This isn't the place to get into a detailed discussion of how bad an illness it is, or the controversy surrounding the belief by some that it's "all in the mind". ME is a debilitating illness which takes away people's lives without actually killing them, and it is not "all in the mind".

Paul has worked hard to write the books, to keep the articles coming and of course to get to the games so that he can write about the club we all love. Unfortunately this has started to become more and more difficult, as he explained on his website recently. Paul has taken the decision to take a long break from "full-scale" football writing. He's selling off the remaining stocks he has of his four books – "Golden Past, Red Future", "Red Revival", "The Red Review" and "An Anfield Anthology" – at cut prices. All books are priced at £6.99, plus £2 worldwide P&P.

This only applies if you buy directly from his site – www.paultomkins.com. Paul makes virtually no money from sales of his books from Amazon and other outlets, so you'll be helping him out much more if you buy directly from him.

The message on his site explains in his own words why he's decided to scale things down. I'm sure many of you will join me in wishing Paul the best of luck with the illness, and will share the hope that it soon relapses and gives him his life back. Here's what Paul says on his site:

News: "Closing Down" Sale

This is a note to inform people that due to ill-health I am taking an extended break from full-scale football writing. While I hope to not disappear completely (up my own arse or otherwise), I have cancelled plans to write any more books, and will not be selling any of my books online after the end of March 2007, or sooner if the stock runs out.

The aim is to sell off, at sale prices, the remaining copies of all four books, and then shut everything down at the end of the financial year. So all books are now priced at £6.99 at www.paultomkins.com, plus just £2 packing and postage to anywhere in the world.

I've been reluctant to slow/scale down, having worked hard to build up a reputation and a niche, but at present I'm finding even walking fairly difficult, and that's starting to really concern me, obviously. Research into M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) has come on leaps and bounds over the last few years, with key discoveries as to how it affects the body, but it's still a difficult and unpredictable condition, with a cure a fair few years away. My own condition has got gradually worse over a number of years, but in the last two months it's been dramatically worse than ever before. When I have good days/weeks I commit to things that I then later struggle with when suffering with a bad patch. It's a vicious circle as the more I do the worse I feel, but the more I do the more commitments I then have to make to follow through with to make them pay off. But it's time to break that cycle.

As selling the books has been my only form of income (none of the website writing I undertake is paid), writing articles has been about raising awareness of the books. If people don't buy my books, I can't pay the bills. A lot of people seem to resent what they see as self-promotion, and it's not something I feel entirely comfortable with, either; but there have been no alternatives open to me. Ideally selling lots of books would be a bonus, rather than something I have to rely on. It also doesn't help that when Liverpool are struggling people aren't in the mood for buying books relating to the current team. It's a crazy pressure, needing the team to do well in order to make a living. It's bad enough just wanting the Reds to win as a fan, without the worry additional that defeat makes the bills harder to pay.

Sales have remained very good through retail outlets, but as these are through a third party (wholesaler), by the time they've taken their cut, and the shops/online stores theirs, it leaves virtually no profit once I've paid the printers for producing the book. As soon as any book of mine has an ISBN number, Amazon list the price as around 30-40% cheaper, which drives sales away from www.paultomkins.com. It's a weird situation, but is of course their right to sell at any price.

Hopefully I will return to writing books at some stage, but it is highly unlikely that this will happen unless there is a cure for the condition, or, against the odds, I make a significant improvement. In the meantime I've dropped down from writing a weekly column for liverpoolfc.tv – I will now be doing so on an as-and-when basis, to fit in around how I'm feeling. I will look to continue with this, health permitting, and hopefully chronicle some good times. But it's unlikely the frequency will be anywhere like it was in the previous 18 months. I also hope to write the occasional piece for squarefootball.com.

All that remains is to thank everyone for the support I've had since 2000, and for buying my books in the last couple of years. I get a lot of stick for what I do, but I also have a loyal readership that I have always felt a lot of obligation and responsibility towards. I'd also like to thank all of the independent LFC websites for publishing my work over the years.

Warm regards,

Paul Tomkins

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Gerrard delighted with start to 2007

Liverpool’s well-deserved 3-0 win over Bolton this morning saw the Reds go up to third place in the table, leapfrogging Bolton in the process. Rafael Benítez had been criticised by some for his comments ahead of the game on how the Trotters usually play in a way that stretches the rules, with some saying this would play into Sam Allardyce’s hands. In the end it was probably Allardyce who was left regretting what he’d said – his claims that Liverpool’s victory over them last season was “lucky” quite possibly played a big part in the Liverpool performance today.

Captain Steven Gerrard was delighted with the way 2007 got underway: “It was the perfect start – a home win, three points and a clean sheet and we played some really good football against a decent side.” Gerrard’s goal capped a great week for him, and after scoring he made a cheeky bow to the Main Stand as part of his goal celebration, a reference to the MBE he was awarded as part of the New Year Honours. He’s happy with the week he’d had, but wanted to make sure that the team got the credit, not just him: “My goal was really nice. I was really quiet second half but I was pleased with the goal. It's been a great week for me personally but personal things are put to one side when you go onto the pitch. It was a great team performance and there should be a special mention for Jermaine Pennant. He's been criticised this season but today he was fantastic, his crossing from the right was superb.”

Gerrard’s words will be important to Pennant, the encouragement from his captain will help him to build on the confidence that so improves his game. The confidence for the whole team nearly took a big hit against Blackburn, but the Reds seem to have stopped that unlucky defeat from being too much of a set-back: “We've had a decent run of late and it was important to keep that going today. We were disappointed to lose at Blackburn because we've been playing well, but the idea now is to keep going and keep trying to close the gap on the top teams every week.”

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Rafa hopes ref is ready to deal with self-confessed cheat

Straight after Liverpool’s 1-0 victory over Spurs at White Hart Lane on Saturday Rafael Benítez was thinking about the next game. And the next game was against the side Rafael Benítez clearly dislikes most out of all the teams in this country, Bolton Wanderers. Tottenham had tried to get back into the game using tactics that Rafael Benítez said reminded him of the Trotters: “They pushed us a lot with long balls; in fact the way they played should prepare us quite well for the Bolton game on Monday.”

And so it begins. Bolton – both the club and its supporters – love the fact that their physical style and tendency to bend the rules upsets other teams and fans. They love to see Rafa bite and launch his criticisms of them. They don’t really care that they are turning into a new version of Wimbledon, without the bit of love Wimbledon used to get from those who love the underdog.

Rafa is most concerned that today’s referee, Graham Poll, is on the ball and aware from the start of how Bolton will be playing: “Bolton have their style, they have played it for years and they know what they are doing,” says Rafa. Each player or team has an idea of how they want to win, but the rules are the same for everyone. It is up to my players to show character. We have players who can deal with it but a lot depends on the experience of the referee.”

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