Michael Owen’s return to Anfield moved a little closer yesterday when Rafa Benitez answered questions on the striker in a little more detail than he had before. The Reds boss has not denied the Reds interest in the player in press conferences over recent weeks, but has instead tried to deflect the questions, saying he’s looking for a centre-back and a striker. In return most journalists chose to report his comments as a denial of interest.
If pushed further, Benitez would claim that he had a lot of strikers already – and then loaned out Anthony Le Tallec to Sunderland, and prepared to sell Milan Baros. With Neil Mellor and Florent Sinama Pongolle both out injured for some time, and having both missed pre-season, there’s not actually a lot of available strikers at the club at the moment. Djibril Cisse and Fernando Morientes both played well in midweek in the Champions League, scoring one and two goals respectively, but other than Baros the Reds had no other strikers available – new signing Peter Crouch is also injured.
Owen has made it known privately for some time now that he’d like to come home. And by home he means not just his mansion in North Wales, but the club he grew up at – Liverpool. Although Owen never made it known publicly, his friends and family were aware that he hadn’t enjoyed his time in Spain, even before last season ended.
Rafa was talking yesterday about how his new signing this summer were designed to improve his team’s Premiership chances. Last season was the first time in the club’s history where they had no player in double figures for scoring league goals. Michael Owen was always in double figures as a Liverpool player from his first full season in the team.
Yesterday Rafa said: "I am aware that Michael would like to come back. I don’t know if we can do something because we are waiting for a good offer for Milan Baros. But he is a good player and I like him. I never had any problems with him. He is a nice boy, a good professional and a very good player."
Liverpool have been holding out for £7million for the Czech striker, and have not received an offer of that amount so far. A compromise is on the cards though – Aston Villa have reportedly had a £6.5million bid accepted for the player, and although he’s in the Reds squad for today’s league opener against Middlesborough, he will be able to move down to the Midlands next week. This assumes that the player can agree personal terms with David O’Leary. The main concern for Baros during his time at Anfield has never been about money – when he’s complained it’s always been about his lack of first team opportunities. Reports say that Baros met Aston Villa executives in a hotel in Liverpool on Thursday night. Lyon and Monaco will now need to up their offers – and quickly – if they want to continue their interest in the player.
Benitez still stressed the importance of signing a centre-back and a right-winger, but expects to get them in before the transfer window closes. And if Baros is sold, that gives him more money to spend: "We have 20 more days and we expect to get them in by then. I could say yes or no about Owen, but we must receive a good offer for Baros before we can proceed."
Liverpool are being cautious in what they say about Owen because they don’t want Madrid to try and up the price for the player. Owen was sold for £8million plus Antonio Nunez one year ago. Liverpool have already sold Nunez and Real haven’t paid the full £8million yet for Owen. Liverpool also negotiated a year ago that they would get the first option on Owen if Madrid decided to sell the player. Manchester United may be interested in Owen, but Owen only has eyes for Liverpool. United have denied their interest in the player, interest that Madrid claimed had been shown. Madrid will stop at nothing to try and increase the price they receive for Owen, but as long as Owen and Liverpool play the game correctly, the England star will be back in a Red shirt before the end of the month, at a fee of less than £10million.
Rafa Benitez is looking forward to the new league season, and believes that Liverpool will improve now that Rafa and his assistant Paco Ayesteran have had a year to get acustomed to the English game: "It will be easier because of last season’s experience. I know the systems and tactics each team favour. You can get this from reports and watching videos, but when you’ve played against a team you always learn more. Of course, it’s always difficult no matter who you play, but because of my experiences in my first year, I think it should be a bit easier for us."
The boss went on: "What happened against us a lot last season was teams started matches hitting lots of high passes and fighting for the second ball. They caused problems and we didn’t control the games away from home. This is why I’ve bought the players I have this summer. When I look at the players I have now, I’m confident."
So does this confidence extend to the Reds bringing home their 19th league title? Rafa says: "People must dream. That’s what’s good about football. As a manager you cannot say ‘We can’t win the title’. We can. I won trophies with Valencia and that’s why I am not afraid."
Chelsea were losers in the Champions League semi-final between the two clubs, and Jose Mourinho’s team proved that night that they aren’t as invincible as they’d like to think. Rafa agrees: "Chelsea are beatable. When you go out there it’s only 11 on 11 and we are confident. "
The gap between Liverpool, in fifth, and champions Chelsea was massive, but Rafa points out that Liverpool still got a decent position in the league when you see how badly they played on their travels: "Look at last season, my first in the Premiership. We finished three points off fourth place playing as badly as we did away from home. With new, good, hungry players we should be able to fight for better things this year.”
Liverpool’s problems last season were that they could not handle the so-called lesser teams in the top-flight. Southampton and Crystal Palace were both relegated yet Liverpool were beaten by both. This is something new to Rafa: "When you see the results in the Premiership you know a team at the bottom of the table is capable of beating a team in the top four. That’s the difficulty in England. No game is easy. That’s one of the differences between here and Spain. In Spain, the bigger teams can control the game easier because the style of football is more technical and there are less long balls."
Without revealing everything he learned about the English game in his first season, Rafa pointed out one of the big problems his teams faced: "What happened against us a lot last season was teams started matches hitting lots of high passes and fighting for the second ball. They caused problems and we didn’t control the games away from home. This happens at every level in England. It’s interesting to see that Crystal Palace and Southampton lost in their league this week, yet they beat us last season. This underlines what I’m saying: You have to be careful and be prepared for every game in England. Maybe you’re a better team with better players, but it’s always very difficult to get results. There were times last season when we didn’t fight hard enough."
New signings were selected by Rafa with the problems of last season in mind: "This is why I’ve bought the players I have this summer. When I look at the players I have now, I’m confident. Look at Sissoko. Look at the energy he will give us. He is someone who will work hard and fight for us every time he plays. Crouch is a player who is good in the air and will keep the ball in attack for us. When you think of the games we lost away last season, maybe it’s easy to understand why it’s going to be helpful to have players like this available to us. There are far more options for me with the team now, but I still want to improve the side. We are trying to bring in at least two more players if it’s possible. If we do that, I will have two good players for each position and we will always have a strong side."
Liverpool’s pre-season preparations looked like they wouldn’t be ideal after the UEFA decision to make the European Champions begin their Champions League defence from the first qualifiers. Liverpool had to cancel a trip to the Far East and a game in Germany to enable them to play the European fixtures, but the results have all been good. This will help Liverpool says the manager: "Because we’ve won a lot of games, we’ll go into this season with a lot of confidence. We are scoring goals and winning matches, but we know how difficult the Premiership is. My message to the players is always the same. Our objective is to win the next game. If we keep doing this, you will see a stronger Liverpool and we can start to think about other goals."
Liverpool’s European success means more games for the club this season. As well as Champions League action (or UEFA Cup action should CSKA Sofia overcome Liverpool’s 3-1 lead in the second leg) Liverpool are playing in the Super Cup final at the end of this month, and also are entered for the World Club Championships in December. League form is important to Rafa though: "We intend to have a better season than last year in the league. That means overall improvements are needed, particularly away from home. I’m not going to say we’ll come first, second or third. I will say we intend to win a lot of games and then we’ll see if this team has the power to fight with those good teams at the top. What I want is for us to score more goals and prove we are more consistent. In the Premiership we didn’t do this, but I’m sure this year we will be better. Last year we could win two games and then lose two. Now I expect the team to play at the same level all the time."
Finally, a word on Liverpool’s captain: "In my opinion, Steven Gerrard is a new signing. I’m glad I’m not going to have to waste my time in every press conference talking about the future of Steven. Now he is happy, he is scoring goals, playing well and focused solely on his team."