Reds manager Rafael Benitez has been busy answering questions again on the future of players at Anfield, the possibility of future players at Anfield, and the Reds participation in the World Championships.
First up for praise was Stephen Warnock. Warnock, a left-side player that was used in defence and midfield last season, is a product of the Reds’ academy and was preferred to John Arne Riise as left-back in Liverpool’s opening Premiership fixture. Warnock has a reputation of being a fighter – his graduation from the academy was delayed after suffering serious injuries – and he will be delighted that his perseverence seems to be paying off. Benitez said yesterday: "Warnock is playing very well. I have spoken to him about his role in the team and he’s responded. His form is one of the reasons we’ve improved our performances."
Warnock was bitterly disappointed to miss out on a Champions League medal last May, and to miss out on the bus-tour of the city. A victim of circumstance more than anything as Rafa Benitez suddenly had more players available to him than he had all season for the final. Rafa chose Josemi as one of his (unused) substitutes to balance out the number of players he had for the right side. When the players who hadn’t been in the matchday squad flew home from Istanbul, it was on a separate flight and this was delayed – they missed the open-top bus by minutes. Despite being disappointed, Warnock is professional, and his attitude has impressed Rafa: "He brings a high level of competitiveness to the side. You must remember although he has been at the club a long time, like a lot of players it was Warnock’s first season in the Premiership last year. He has more confidence now and I think he will be more consistent. I’ve told him I’m happy with him and he’s a player who wants to learn every time he plays."
Warnock will be hoping to get a Super Cup medal when Liverpool play CSKA Moscow in the final on August 26th.
Despite newspaper gossip linking Djibril Cisse with a move to Lyon to play for Gerard Houllier, Benitez says the French international is going nowhere: "Cisse is happy here. We are not thinking about him not being here. We need to use all our players and Cisse is working well and scoring goals. I’ve told him that we don’t have any offers for him, so he must work as normal."
Rafa’s advice to Cisse is to give the newsagents of Frodsham a wide berth and avoid the papers: "It’s not easy for him or any player to read newspapers and hear stories about new players or players in their positions. I said to him, don’t read the newspapers, that will be the best thing for him. We have six strikers here now, but even if we have five it will be the same. Sometimes you play with only one striker and you do that and have four more, really you don’t need a centre forward. We need players in other positions."
Benitez also deflected the questions once again on a return to Anfield for Michael Owen – but once again avoided a straightforward denial: "I am not doing anything about Michael at the moment, I am waiting and talking to my scouts about centre backs, but I am not talking about Michael or centre forwards. We need a right winger and a centre back. "
He said he wants to work with his existing attacking players: "I need to improve the strikers I have at the club at the moment, I cannot control the positions of players not at the club. If you’re always thinking about players at other clubs, you wouldn’t be able to sleep. I must be focused on my team, working with my players."
Benitez went on to say that the Reds will always try and sign players that will improve the squad if there’s a possibility, but claimed that he’s not expecting to lose two strikers by the end of the month: "If we can sign players good enough for us, okay we will try, but at the moment it is the same answer, we have six strikers. I do not expect us to have sold two strikers before the transfer deadline."
He also admitted that with Liverpool entered for so many competitions this season that the Reds will need plenty of options: "We will be in contention for six trophies, so we need a lot of strikers and a lot of players in all the positions, but we have Mellor, Sinama-Pongolle, Crouch, Morientes, Cisse, Baros, as well as Luis Garcia and Kewell, who are two options as second strikers."
Despite Rafa’s attempts to deflect the press away from the Owen rumours, the comments were more for the benefit of Real Madrid – Liverpool will not be held to ransom for Owen’s signature, and if both Owen and Liverpool hold their nerve then Real will be selling Owen to Liverpool in a deal that suits the Reds.
Liverpool have played two home games already this season, in the Champions League qualifiers, but today sees the return of Premiership action to Anfield. Rafa says that he’s looking forward to the game and to the atmosphere – and that the Reds are planning to win for the fans: "I am looking forward to our first Premiership home match of the season and it should be a good atmosphere and we want to win to make our fans happy. I was delighted with our second half performance at Middlesbrough and I am expecting our next game to be exciting for our supporters for our first home league game of the season."
Liverpool were unlucky not to beat Middlesborough on one of those days where the ball just would not go into the goal. Rather than dwelling on the disappointment of not getting the three points, the Reds are full of confidence and self-belief: "Our fans will now see better players, more confidence and a better team from last season. I have seen a couple of Sunderland games from last season, they are good on the counter-attack and are compact in defence. But we must control the ball and the match."
Despite the confidence, Rafa is well aware of the potential upsets that can be caused by teams newly-promoted and has warned his players: "New clubs in the division are always a worry, you must be careful but we accept that it is always difficult for a new club in the Premiership. They have players with experience, but we know what our job is when we are at Anfield. We are confident now, though, we have played a lot of games in Champions League qualification already. That will surely help us. But you never find an easy game, every club is difficult."
When Rafa spoke of six competitions that Liverpool would be involved in, he included the FIFA World Club Championships in Japan as one of those competitions. Recently Rick Parry said that Liverpool were still undecided on whether to accept their place in the competition, but Benitez feels it is important the Champions of Europe enter the tournament. The Reds are seeded and as such go straight into the semi-finals, where they will play either Sydney FC or Deportivo Saprissa from Costa Rica. The game will take place on December 15th on Yokahama. Benitez explained that the ill-effects of adding to the Reds fixure congestion were outweighed by the honour of being involved in the tournament: "We feel we must go to Japan. Looking at the Premiership fixtures, we will have to rearrange only one league game. Because we are European champions, I think it’s good for us to be there. The problem has always been the number of games for us this season, not because we don’t want to go. For the club and the players, it will be a great experience to play against teams from other continents.
Liverpool had to cancel a pre-season tour to Japan because of UEFA’s decision to put them into the Champions League so early, so this will be a big consolation for Liverpool’s huge fan base on that side of the world: "Obviously when you have a lot of fixtures, it’s not easy, but we’ll be positive about it. There was once a time when the European Cup wasn’t as big as it is now. Maybe in years to come, this competition will have grown. It will be good for us if in years to come people see Liverpool has won the World Championship."