Benitez: We are stronger than last year

Liverpool’s manager Rafael Benitez feels his Liverpool squad is better equipped than last year to deal with the pressures of the busy schedule of domestic and European games. Liverpool’s long-standing record of being unable to win after a European match was only broken recently, and Rafa was commenting on the chances of it starting again this weekend. Liverpool face Manchester City away tomorrow just a few days after securing qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League. Rafa feels that the better squad will enable Liverpool to always put a good side out for games: “It was hard last season to cope with Europe and the Premier League all at once. I hope we have learned and can use the squad in a way to approach each game with a different team but just as strong.” In fact Liverpool’s results after international breaks weren’t much to write home about, but again that seems to have improved: “We are improving after Champions League games and internationals, we are better equipped now for that.”

Liverpool’s schedule for this season has been increased all the more thanks to their participation in FIFA’s Club World Cup in December. This meant the Premiership fixture against Sunderland had to be rearranged, and this game now takes place on Wednesday. Liverpool are in the middle of a run of two games a week that started with the visit of Portsmouth on November 19th and ends on December 10th with the visit of Middlesbrough. Five days later Liverpool will be in Japan for the FIFA tournament, with games on December 15th and 18th. It’s only then that they get a bit of a break – after travelling home all that way they don’t play again until Boxing Day, when they face the infamous Christmas period of four games in a week. Rafa says that he’s confident his squad will be able to cope with these busy times: “Last year, if we had three games in eight days it was difficult. Now we have something similar in this spell. We have played Real Betis and now play Manchester City and then Sunderland in eight days. Let’s see how we cope with that, and then we will know if we have improved. I feel we have.”

Rafa says that psychology is important in getting his players through the fixture pile-up: “We have to be able to change our mindset and approach different games in quick succession. If we can do this now it will give the team a lot of confidence and it will be totally different in the future.”

Rafa’s improved squad still needs improving, something he’s already admitted, and as the January transfer window draws closer so the names being bandied about start to increase. Rafa was asked about whether he was likely to be signing the likes of Valencia’s Di Vaio or Fulham’s Malbranque at today’s press conference, and also whether Harry Kewell was likely to join up with former team-mate Milan Baros and former manager David O’Leary at Villa Park. Rafa said that it was all gossip and should be ignored: “It is just newspaper talk, they like to speculate and continue to come up with lots of names.”

Early last month Rafa was denying reports that he was about to sign Real Betis winger Joaquin. The players agent had been rumoured to be at Anfield as a guest of chief scout Paco Herrera as Liverpool lost against Chelsea. Now Joaquin is claiming interest from Newcastle United in his services. Last month’s comments from Rafa were that the agent-at-Anfield stories were made up: “These stories are false. I keep reading in the Spanish press that we are trying to take Joaquin to England. The agent did not come to the Chelsea game and we have never made any offer or suggested other players as part of a transfer deal.” The Spanish press had been trying to claim that Rafa was ready to part company with Morientes in order to get hold of the winger.

Now the Spanish papers are claiming the Geordies are looking to buy Joaquin, and the Spanish star confirmed the story – sort of. Speaking to Marca of the Newcastle interest, he said: “I cannot deny that these rumours are true.” So did this mean he’d be teaming up with his compatriot Albert Luque? Joaquin said, “It’s silly to talk about this because there is no offer”.

Joaquin says he’ll wait and see what Santa brings before saying much more: “A thousand things could happen at Christmas, but at the moment it’s not a good idea to talk about anything. In these difficult times it’s always nice when a mythical team from the Premier League such as Newcastle have their sights on you.”

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Sadness as Best passes away

George Best’s passing away in hospital earlier today after illness brought to an end the life of one of the few football players that could truly be described as a legend.

My own knowledge of Best’s playing career is limited to clips of his goals on television. The fact that there are so many of these clips, all showing brilliant goals tells you just how good a player he must have been. So many people who are old enough to remember him have praised him over the years there’s no doubting just how much people must have been enthralled by his skills.

Best was a scoring member of the first English team to win the European Cup – when Manchester United beat Benfica at Wembley in 1968. Ironically the next Manchester United fixture in the European Cup this season is also against Benfica – and it’s a must-win game for them.

It was after an earlier victory over Benfica in that competition that he earned a nickname – “The Fifth Beatle”. It was the Portuguese press that dubbed him that after their own side had been practically demolished single-handedly dismantled by a young Best. The fact that he was a serious follower of fashion and enjoyed the attention of the girls meant the title fitted him really well. He was at the peak of his footballing powers during the sixties.

His love of fun, at any cost, was famously summed up in one of his most well-known quotes: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

Best was six months short of his sixtieth birthday when he passed away, but he certainly didn’t leave the football world empty-handed. His legacy to Manchester United was probably to ensure they continued to have such a large fan-base. So many of those going to watch Manchester United nowadays do so with the words of their fathers and uncles ringing in their ears of how good a talent Best was. Even Pele said that Best was the best player in the world ever – a tribute that Best said was his most treasured.

Even Liverpool’s manager, Rafael Benitez, could not fail to be impressed by the Northern Ireland star. Benitez was starting his playing career at around the time Best was ending his, but even in Spain the player was well-known. Rafa recalled his memories of the player today: “I remember him as a fantastic player. He was a different kind of player with talent. When I was in Spain you thought about the English style as long ball and fighting in the air but he was a player who could dribble and pass the ball, the player you like to see. I remember watching him on the television and he was a fantastic player.”

His mentor at Old Trafford was the former Liverpool player and United’s manager in the sixties, Matt Busby. It was after Busby left his job in 1969 that Best seemed to fall into his troubles. He walked out on United more than once after that, but in 1974 he left for one last time. Tommy Docherty was manager then, and he just ran out of patience with the Belfast lad. Best played for some other clubs after that, including a stint in the USA, but never really felt as happy as he had when playing for the Red Devils.

As Liverpool fans we have our own heroes, our own legends. Which is why I hope that those Reds attending tomorrow’s away match at United’s rivals City will respect the memory of the Manchester United legend during the minute’s silence.

George Best, Rest in Peace.

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Reports: Rafa makes bid for Vidic

Liverpool’s search for an extra centre-back may have moved a step closer if reports are to be believed today. According to the Liverpool Echo, the European Champions have made a £4.5million bid for Serbia’s Nemanja Vidic.

Although the transfer window is closed at the moment, there’s nothing stopping clubs and players from talking to each other – there’s just no way that the actual movement of the player can take place yet. Vidic plays for Spartak Moscow and is also wanted desperately by Italian side Fiorentina. According to the Echo, Benitez wants clear signs from the player that he’s interested in a move to Anfield if he’s to maintain an interest in signing him.

Vidic, 24, was the subject of rumours linking him to Aston Villa earlier in the month, something boss David O’Leary denied. Denying he’d been to Russia on a spying mission, O’Leary said at the time: “I’ve been to Moscow many times since my Leeds days and whenever I’m there I’m spotted by all and sundry so it would be impossible for me to ever go there on a scouting mission. I know about him, and he’s a good player but there’s no serious interest. He cost £3million a few years back and he wouldn’t come cheap. We’re looking at cheaper options.”

The Echo believes the player has a £4.5million clause in his contract which Liverpool have now met allowing them to talk to him. The player will be familiar to Rafa and his Spanish compatriates at the club as Vidic’s national side (Serbia and Montenegro) finished top of Spain World Cup qualifying group, with him a part of that success.

When Vidic was a 21-year-old with Red Star Belgrade he was strongly linked with a move to Manchester United, although a work permit may have been a problem at the time.

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Crouch is main topic once again

Peter Crouch’s infamous lack of a goal for Liverpool continued last night despite him being declared man-of-the-match by many, including his manager Rafael Benitez. The fact that Crouch is taller than just about any other Premiership player, and is Liverpool’s tallest-ever player, gives the headline-writers easy headlines. The fact that he’s a striker who’s not yet scored in his 16 appearances for the Reds gives them that little bit more ammunition. Those who like to have a go at Liverpool are enjoying the simple statistics showing his lack of goals, but Liverpool fans are enjoying the effort the player is putting into his performances.

Crouch is now an England player, and as such is part of the routine that the press in London engage in with England players. Some players are built up to be knocked down, others are just knocked down. If they are playing their football outside of the capital then there’s all the more reason to knock the player.

Thankfully though not all of the press are after Crouch’s blood. Oliver Kay, a Liverpool-supporting reporter from The Times wrote for the official Liverpool FC website earlier in the week. Speaking about Crouch, he said: “I would love to say that I don’t think there’s a media agenda against him, but in reality there is. It’s not one that I or any of the journalists that cover Liverpool on a regular basis have bought into, but it is there and it irritates me that people are trying to poke fun out of someone who is not only a very nice guy but also a very good footballer.”

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Whitbread joins Millwall on loan

Liverpool’s young defender Zak Whitbread has gone on loan to Millwall until January.

Whitbread was on the fringes of the first-team at the start of the season, as cover for Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, but Rafael Benitez has rarely used him even in the squad. Liverpool’s exit from the Carling Cup means that the player will get few chances in the Red shirt before the new year, so this short-term deal gives him a chance to gain experience.

On the same day Whitbread was joining up with the London side, former-Red Don Hutchison was leaving. Now 34, Hutchison had joined Millwall on a short-term deal in the summer but failed to get himself a regular first-team place, starting in just eight games. He announced his decision to leave was agreed with Milwall, saying: “I have left Millwall by mutual consent after agreeing to cancel my contract. I have left because of a lack of first-team football. At my age I need to be playing regularly.”

Hutchison was an extremely promising youngster during his days at Anfield, but earned a reputation for misbehaving and was eventually let go by the Reds. He’s still hoping for a chance to keep his playing days going though: “I am actively looking to join a club with ambition, and there are one or two in the pipeline.”

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Benitez: Cisse is learning

The latest from Rafa Benitez in response to press attempts to unsettle Djibril Cisse is to say that the French striker is learning more and more what his manager expects of him.

Speaking ahead of the Champions League fixture against Real Betis tonight, the Spaniard said: "All strikers are a little bit selfish. Sometimes they try to score and try to play for themselves, but sometimes you need to be more patient. When he was at Auxerre, he did not have responsibilities for the team. It’s difficult for a striker to go from being the star at one club to go to another club where there are four or five players who are at the same level or even better. If you want to win trophies, you need star players who can work for the team. I think he is learning that now."

A football manager’s job is to not only pick a team, or to buy and sell players, it is also to work with the players that are in the squad. There’s no doubt that Cisse is an excellent player, but Benitez would not be doing his job if he didn’t feel he could work with Cisse to improve his abilities. The press like a story though, and the relationship between the extrovert Frenchman and the quiet Spaniard is one that they can always make a story out of.

Rafa is determined to do well on all fronts this season, meaning rotation will be part and parcel of life at Anfield. Cisse is happy now, and wants to stay at Anfield. He knows what his true worth is at Anfield now, and has perhaps learned not to believe everything he reads. Cisse said: "My intention isn’t to leave the club. I’m happy here. I feel good here and I don’t want to leave. But it’s not just me who decides. The boss makes the choices." Cisse had earlier praised team-mate Peter Crouch, and doesn’t see that there different styles means Crouch would force Cisse out of the club: "We have two different styles, so it’s possible to have a good partnership. We’re not opposite, but different."

With every game the different strikers play together comes more and more understanding, and Rafa is well aware of how important that is for the team.
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Cisse: Crouch is a great lad

Team-spirit is high at Anfield, despite attempts earlier in the season to unsettle players at Liverpool. Djibril Cisse’s performance in the Super Cup in Monaco at the end of August meant Liverpool won their first trophy of the season, but post-match TV interviews were on another subject. Expecting to be congratulated on his performance, the French striker was instead asked if he was leaving. This was followed by media attention throughout the coming months on Cisse being forced out and having rows with manager Rafael Benitez.

Cisse was quoted in France at not being happy to be substituted, or to be a sub. He has also been quoted as not being happy to play on the wing. The problem is in how these comments are interpreted. With Cisse it’s not a complaint, it’s pure disappointment from a player that missed so much of last season thanks to a horrific broken leg. He wants to be first-choice centre-forward every game so that he can score goals and pay back the fans and staff that were behind him through his nightmare lay-off.

Now Cisse wants to try and show fellow-striker Peter Crouch some of that support. Crouch was bought in the summer for £7million and despite not yet scoring, he’s turned into a hero at Anfield, thanks to his attitude and work-rate, as well as his other abilities. Cisse says how important luck can be in football – he scored from a cross on Saturday whilst Crouch had a penalty saved – and he feels that it’s only a matter of time before Crouch is on that score-sheet. Cisse is the first-choice penalty-taker at the club but he’ll be happy to hand the ball to Crouch if another penalty is awarded tonight: "If Peter wants to take another penalty, that’s okay. I really want him to score, I know this position is hard. I do take penalties but if he wants it he can have it. But maybe the boss will have the final say on that."

Rafa hasn’t yet revealed what his team will be for tonight, and Crouch and Cisse are joined by Morientes and Sinama-Pongolle as available strikers for tonight’s game. Morientes, Crouch and Cisse played much of Saturday’s game together after an injury to Luis Garcia, and Cisse was put on the wing from that point. Cisse says he knows what it feels like to go a length of time without a goal: "I have had similar runs, maybe not 15, not that long, but eight or nine when I was with Auxerre. That was harder for me because the fans whistled and booed me. The fans at Liverpool are trying so much to help him, that makes it not as difficult to when the fans are against you." There’s no doubt that Crouch is still confident, and Cisse says that is the most important quality Crouch needs right now: "It is hard but you have to be strong and confident. You know you will score, never have a doubt, and it will happen."

Crouch is scoring happily in training, and Cisse says he’s a popular lad with the rest of the squad: "Peter is playing really well, the boys love him and he is a fantastic signing. He’s brilliant around the changing room and is a great lad, he is working really hard for the team and playing well. The only thing that is missing is a goal. We know if we keep giving him the service, the goals will come."
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Reds want three points but ready for battle

Holders Liverpool go into tonight’s Champions League match against Spanish side Real Betis needing just one point to ensure a place in the last 16 of the tournament. Despite only needing that one point though, the Reds are going to go out and aim for all three.

With Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia declared fit after some doubts going into the game, manager Rafael Benitez will be able to select a strong side against the team that beat Chelsea in the last night of games in the group.

According to Rafa, a fifth consecutive victory is what the Reds supporters packing Anfield tonight will be expecting, and that’s what he wants them to get: ""We have a big responsibilty to our supporters to win this game as we know how important this game is. I think it will be more dangerous for them as they need to come here and try and win. For us we are thinking only about winning in front of our supporters. The most important thing is to qualify for the next stage and we want to play well from the start right to the end and win this match."

Betis might be feeling fired up to take all the points from this game themselves – they had a bad weekend they need to make up for: "Real Betis have had some problems in the league and lost in the derby to Sevilla at the weekend but they have played better in the Champions League."  Betis have not won any of their last five league games and are second-bottom in the Spanish league. Rafa thinks this makes them hungry for the points: "They know they have to win and that will make them danagerous."

Striker Djibril Cisse confirmed that the European Champions are thinking only of a victory, but with all due respect to a dangerous side: "One point is needed, but we are not going to play for a draw. I know a point is enough but we want to win on our pitch and in front of our fans. It is a dangerous game for us, but if we do things right then I am confident we will get the three points." This confidence is balanced with a healthy respect for the Spanish side: "They are a better side than when we beat them. You only have to see how they got on against Chelsea in Spain. We have to be careful."

Cisse’s fellow striker Fernando Morientes is familiar with tonight’s opponents having played numerous games against them in the Spanish league as a player for Real Madrid. Again there’s a respect for their opponents but a desire to get all three points as Morientes spoke of the game: "The game against Betis is key for us. We cannot fail and must only think of winning in order to qualify for the knockout phase. Betis are not easy opponents. Anyone who thinks it will be a comfortable game on Wednesday is totally wrong."

Morientes goes into the game confident in his own abilities though – he scored on Saturday making it his fourth of the season, and Betis fans have seen him score past them plenty of times during his days in Madrid. He’s looking forward to tonight: "Playing against Betis I scored a lot of goals. I believe I have now found the necessary rhythm."
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Post: ‘Re-open Hillsborough inquest’ call

The following article appeared in today’s Daily Post. If you are London-based you may wish to go along to the service.

‘Re-open Hillsborough inquest’ call

The mother of a victim of the Hillsborough disaster was launching a legal bid to have an inquest into the tragedy reopened.

Anne Williams, whose 15-year-old son Kevin was killed in the disaster, will present a dossier to the Attorney General’s office arguing for a new inquest.

Mrs Williams, of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, disputes the original inquest ruling.

The inquest found that all those who died at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield on April 14 1989 were dead by 3.15pm after suffering "traumatic asphyxia".

But Mrs Williams claims her son was still alive at 4pm and was denied emergency medical attention.

Before the presentation of the dossier, a church service for Hillsborough victims will take place at St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, London,.

The service will be led by Bishop Tom Williams and is expected to attract hundreds of London-based supporters.

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Benitez: I am happy with Crouch

Peter Crouch seems to be getting better and better with every game – without yet hitting the back of the net. Yesterday at home to Portsmouth he even tried to get his first goal out of the way by stepping up to take a penalty. The penalty was saved (although Zenden scored from the rebound) and another game went by without a goal for the summer signing. Despite the criticism he may get from elsewhere in football, he knows he’s well supported by the Reds fans and staff.

Crouch causes trouble for opposition defences. He’s had a part to play in many of Liverpool’s goals this season one way or another. When he saw Portsmouth’s Jamie Ashdown saved his spot-kick yesterday he still didn’t let his head go down, still kept plugging away, and that is what will make him a hero at Anfield, more than even goals would. Reds fans want success, and want every player wearing that Red shirt to give 100%. Crouch certainly does, and when the goals start there’ll no doubt be a flood of them.

Manager Rafael Benitez is well aware of the importance of having the supporters behind the players, and speaking after the game he spoke of how he himself has the same opinion on Crouch – as long as he working hard he’ll do for us. Rafa said: "He knows that the supporters are with him, he will continue working and trying. The problem will be if he starts saying ‘it’s difficult’ or ‘it’s impossible’ and then stops working hard. If he continues playing like this then it is okay by me, I do not worry while he is playing as well as this. It is only important to continue winning and playing well. And we are doing that."

It’s now four victories in a row for the Reds, three league and one Champions League win – putting the nightmare days behind them when the knee-jerk reaction to the two London defeats (including elimination from the Carling Cup) made it sound like their season was over. Now Liverpool are six points behind second-placed Wigan, with a game-in-hand. On Wednesday they host Real Betis in the Champions League needing just one point to qualify for the last 16 as they continue their defence of that title.

Rafa feels that the goals for Crouch are on their way, thanks to the quality of hard work the striker is putting in: "It is a pity that this keeps going on because everything else he does is fine, and he is doing all I ask of him. He had good movement, he did a lot of excellent work for the team in the air and on the ground. But I hope to soon see the first goal for him and we will then see a more relaxed, more confident player."

Whether Rafa would be as happy with Crouch not scoring if Liverpool were losing is another question, but the contribution of the player is helping to ensure this good run of form for the Reds. Rafa continued: "In terms of the game I have no problems with him. If we play like we are now, creating so many chances, he will score. The question is when. For me it is not important who scores, Carra or Crouch, only that we do score and we win. I am happy with him."

Another of Crouch’s endearing qualities is his honesty. He comes across in interviews as a genuinely nice guy, although that is something Rafa wants him to lose on the pitch. Most strikers who’d gone through such a barren spell would by now be heading for councelling sessions at some clinic or other, but not Crouch. He’s still confident in his abilities, and decided himself he was going to have a go at the penalty – even though two other succesful penalty takers from this season (Gerrard and Cisse) were also available to take it. After the game Crouch said: "I made the decision to take the penalty. I am so desperate to score I will take any chance I can that comes along. I am certainly not going to hide. I picked up the ball and felt confident. But it was a fine save and I was just happy Bolo was there to finish it off. Maybe the lads won’t let me take another one now but I will always be confident and always want the opportunity."

Crouch said that he feels his last-minute change of mind on where to hit meant the goalkeeper got his save: "I wanted it, and I have taken a few before and put it in that corner, but this time I changed my mind at the last minute over what I was going to do. But I have contributed to a good win and that is what is most important, but obviously I am desperate to score at the moment."

Maybe Crouch can be grateful for good words on his behalf from previous Reds strikers. There’s no doubting that Ian Rush and John Aldridge are Anfield legends, their contributions during Liverpool’s glorious eighties will mean they’ll always be so. Crouch has it in his power to be a legend himself as soon as the goals start coming. Rafa Benitez says he has regular chats with the likes of Rush and Aldridge, and he says he’s happy to listen to their points of view. Says Rafa: "Many of the players who comment on Liverpool are legends and they deserve to be listened to. You can’t always be thinking about their reaction, because you can’t change things. But it is better to hear things from them and maybe to learn things from them too."

Rafa still doesn’t seem to be fully confident in his own English abilities (he sounds OK to us), but he does try and take in what the legends say when he gets a chance to listen to them: "I like to talk with them. Sometimes my English is not the best but I like to speak to them. After the Crystal Palace game, for instance, I spoke to John Aldridge and we talked about the game and the future. Players like him, or Ian Rush, they have experience of this club, of the Premiership, or playing in other countries. Ian can talk about the differences when he was playing for Juventus and John can talk about Real Sociedad. This helps you learn about how different things can be in other countries."

Former boss Gerard Houllier reportedly banned various ex-Reds from Anfield because they publicly criticised his tactics, the likes of Ian St John and Alan Kennedy amongst others. Benitez takes on board what is said to him, accepting it for what it is – somebody’s opinion and constructive criticism or advice. He says of the former numbers eight and nine: "People like that are really positive and they try to support me. If it was someone else they would try to do the same for him because they are legends and want the best for the club."

Anyone who heard John Aldridge’s commentary work for local radio during the Champions League final can’t be in any doubt about Aldo’s love of the club, and his playing record speaks for itself. That’s exactly why Rafa is prepared to give them his ear: "They like Liverpool, but sometimes they say things because they think they need to be said and I am fine with that."
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