Saturday, March 21, 2009

Rafa's Love Story With Liverpool Continues

"My heart is with Liverpool Football Club, so I'm delighted to sign this new deal. I love the club, the fans and the city and with a club like this and supporters like this, I could never say no to staying. I always made clear I wanted to be here for a long time and when I complete my new contract it will mean I have spent over a decade in Liverpool.”

These were the words that finally give the red half of Liverpool a good sleep tonight. After a ‘hard-to-get’ game played by Benitez and Liverpool, many Reds would’ve felt the uncertainty of the direction of the club.

At long last, we could all look past those doubts and fears, continue to build on this legacy and look forward into a bright red future.

Actually, I was stoked when I saw the news. I was beaming with joy when I finally saw him put pen to that precious contract. The least said about the other 129 rough drafts of the contract the better.

It had been a rollercoaster ride for the Liverpool fans, for the owners and for Rafa himself. There were times where it seems imminent that Benitez would leave the club after seemingly being in the same situation half a decade ago at Valencia.

“I want a sofa but they got me a lampshade.” Such was his hunger for control and a say in everything, including transfers.

Robbie Keane, a major signing in the summer, was probably that lampshade. Though it was disposed off as quickly as Ronaldo going to the ground, one have to wonder if Keane was really a Benitez signing.

The doubts brought tensions within the club. Papers talked about it. Fans questions it. With each passing week, the hopes of him signing the contract seem gloomier and less probable.

We all know Benitez is a meticulous man and wants to have a hand on everything within the club. From the top to the bottom, he wants to be in control and through Liverpool’s playing style, you could see that.

As owners, surely you’d be put off by that. You want someone who manages, not being a control freak and busybody.

Yet his tactical acumen, especially in Europe, probably made Tom Hicks overlooks all of that and accepts the he is the man for this job. After seeing Liverpool steamrolled past Real Madrid last week and demolished Man Utd over the weekends, there is probably no question to his ability.

Tom Hicks, probably read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and realized that only by retreating, you’ll gain the advantage in advancing forward. He removed Rick Parry from his post a few weeks back and it was seen as a victory for Benitez.

We don’t know for sure whether Parry and Benitez had a good working relations but it seems like with the removal of Parry, the Spanish manager would have more control and say in areas such as transfers.

It has been a wonderful 8 or so days for most Liverpool fans. A place in the quarter finals of the Champions League, still in contention for the Premier League title at this stage and some exciting up and coming stars, his signing will no doubt be the icing on the cake.

But it is still only the tip of the iceberg.

I was surprised by the length of contract. 5 years it is. I was pretty adamant that he would at most sign an extension of 2-3 years. But that is an indication that he is here to stay. He might move on anytime from now to 2014 but that definitely signals his intentions.

Of course looking forward, there’s still lot of work to be done. One or two top class players are still needed and of course, contract renewals to key players need to be addressed.

Benitez’s first challenge comes only a day after the joyous occasion and that is the quarter final draw of the Champions League. He obviously have the European Cup in mind, as we’ve already been dumped out of the domestic cups and Premier League is still Man Utd’s to lose.

On the transfer scene, he is surely looking to bolster the squad, with rumours claiming that he is targeting ‘an England international’. I know, I can hear the murmurs. It’s Wayne Rooney I bet (just kidding of course).

Upfront, we need a more consistent and able cover for Fernando Torres. With the departure of Robbie Keane, the frontline looked thin at times with only Ryan Babel and David N’Gog to look to.

Both of our flanks need to be further strengthened as well. Dirk Kuyt looks capable enough but is not the final solution. Albert Riera looks promising at first but his form dwindled towards the latter half perhaps due to his fitness level.

I’ve talked too much here of course. I’m going to let Rafa Benitez do his job. Well on, Rafa, we’ll be behind you!

Match Preview: Liverpool vs Aston Villa

By Gareth Freeman

Winning the league may still be a long-shot but this is now a massive game. Had the game been a draw the race would have been all but over but for Liverpool to win so emphatically gave at least a glimmer of hope the trophy could be heading to Anfield. The win may have been a historic one but it will count for very little if they don’t follow it up with a win over Aston Villa.

Based on recent performances I would expect Liverpool to beat Villa at Anfield. They were fairly poor against Spurs last weekend but there could be a reaction from their players to that performance. They’ve also just dropped out of the top-four for the first time this season and no doubt they’ll want to get back into those much-coveted Champions League places.

Villa have impressed me a lot this season. They muscled their way into perhaps even challenging for the title at one point and played some pretty impressive stuff along the way. In Emile Heskey they have an excellent target man and he is always a danger. He can really bully defenders and is one of the best in the game at holding the ball up. There is also the ‘ex-player’ syndrome and I wouldn’t be surprised if Heskey upped his game at Liverpool. Personally I never thought he was quite good enough to be in a top side but he’s got the chance to prove me wrong now he is at Villa, who despite their recent drop are fast becoming a ‘top side.’

Ashley Young had a good game against Tottenham last week and ran Didier Zokora ragged in the first half. Redknapp took Zokora off and replaced him with Corluka just over half and hour into the game because he just couldn’t deal with the nippy winger. One criticism of Young this season is that he hasn’t performed as well against the bigger teams and hopefully whoever is marking him will be able to cope. James Milner is maybe overshadowed by some of his team-mates but the ex-Leeds and Newcastle midfielder has been outstanding all season. He delivers some excellent crosses and has created plenty of chances for Villa this season and has really improved under O’Neill’s guidance.

One area where Villa look less convincing is their defence. I just don’t really rate their central defenders but their full-backs look fairly decent. Torres will almost certainly find space to exploit against the Villa defence and it could be a profitable afternoon for the Spaniard.

Villa are obviously quite close to Liverpool in terms of points but I think Rafa’s men will emerge victorious. Villa have been on a bad run and won’t be looking forward to a trip to Anfield. There should be no under-estimating the importance of the win over United. The manner of the victory should give the players the belief and drive to push United all the way even though I can’t see United slipping up in enough games to let anyone else in. Because of the way both sides play and Villa’s questionable defence my advice on this game if you fancy betting would be to have a soccer bet on over 2.5 goals.

The odds won’t be great on Liverpool winning but I think both teams have the ability to get a few goals and the Reds have been in free scoring mode at the moment. If they can score four against Real Madrid and Manchester United I reckon they can put at least two past Villa, if not more, and Villa are more than capable of nicking a goal even against Liverpool’s generally solid defence.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

First Real, Then United

Manchester United 1 (Ronaldo pen 23);
Liverpool 4 (Torres 28, Gerrard pen 44, Aurelio 77, Dossena 90);

“This has to be the best week since 2001”, harped Sami Hyypia, the veteran Liverpool defender who was hailed as one of the heroes at the Theatre of Dreams (or Nightmare, depending on which side you support).

The Finnish defender put the 4-1 win over Man Utd and 4-0 over Real on par with Liverpool’s 2001 Treble season where they won the League Cup, FA Cup and the UEFA Cup.

It was a whirlwind week for Rafa Benitez’s Reds as they scored 8 goals in 2 games. Seems like no big deal but it was against the might of Real Madrid and the champions of Europe and the world (depending if you believe the Club World Championship is an accurate portrayal or not), Man Utd.

As a Liverpool fan, it was to my dismay that I missed out (I had to watch a replay) on probably the result of the decade. I love to see Liverpool dominating in Europe, which has became a norm. But to see us so comprehensively defeat Man Utd at their backyard is something else.

It was Rafa Benitez’s 100th win and how sweet it must’ve been to gain it at Old Trafford. The manager’s call for respect came with two huge results. I would go on my knees now and beg the Liverpool owners to make him sign the contract. There’s no other manager I would want at helm.

He too, proved that his theory right. He mentioned about the fact that if Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres started more games together, Liverpool would’ve been even closer to United than they are now.

The dynamic partnership was formed last season and it was definitely fruitful thus far. It was as if they’re match-made in heaven. All credit to Benitez, whom dovetailed them into one of the most potent strike force in the football world. The annihilation at Old Trafford was the byproduct of it all.

The duo gave a master-class performance and showed the world that the 4-0 win over Real Madrid on Wednesday was no fluke. It wasn’t a one-off performance.

What they did to former World Player of the Year, Fabio Cannavaro, and Portugese defender, Pepe, they inflicted it on Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand as well.

For Torres, a seemingly frail figure, it is beyond imagination that he outpaced and out-muscled Vidic with such ease. The boy is on fire. He tormented the acclaimed ‘best defender in the Premiership’ to the point that the Serbian thought that an early shower was the best way to exit the match (He was sent off).

And what a celebration too, for the Spanish striker. Raising up 5 fingers, a reminisce of Robbie Fowler’s taunt at United fans during his time at Man Citeh.

For Steven Gerrard, it’s probably more personal. For all the disappointments at Old Trafford and seeing them almost equaling his beloved team’s English league title record, he yearns to see his team be over and above their rivals.

Indeed, he showed his desire when he led by example and was nerveless when he dispatched his penalty with ease. The large frame of van der Saar and the barisan crowd in Old Trafford didn’t put him off.

Pre-match, Wayne Rooney stoked fire the proportion of the Australian forest fire by stating how much he hated Liverpool. Well, that came as a surprise. Nobody saw that coming from a Evertonian Scouser (Sense my sarcasm).

How much it must have amused the Reds as they saw him throwing tantrums and hands on his head on more than one occasion. The camera never fails to pan his direction after each of the 4 goals.

Yet we should continue to focus on Liverpool. After the heroics of Gerrard and Torres were followed up the up and rising of two unlikely heroes.

Fabio Aurelio, so often named a sicknote, put on a fabulous performance in continuation of his midweek contributions. He’s pretty injury prone but one could see his ability once he is able to consistently feature in the side and how important he is to Rafa’s plan.

With Vidic sent off with a rugby tackle, Aurelio was given a chance to further punish United. And he did with his wonderful left foot. It arced above the wall and whistled into van der Saar’s net. The Dutch goalkeeper totally rooted to the spot.

Just when you thought 3-1 was an exceptional result, Andrea Dossena puts the icing on the most magnificent cake any Liverpool fan could’ve imagined with a fourth, right on the 90th minute mark.

Once again, a long ball was not dealt with and all the Italian defender needed was a touch before the ball was lobbed over van der Saar (rooted again) and into an empty net. He definitely didn’t impress anyone with his performances all season, considering he cost 7 million pounds. But in the last two matches, he probably has attained a cult hero status at Anfield.

‘Robbie Keane who? We have Dossena!’ - One of the fans said with delight.

Indeed it seems like a dream. The results have definitely given Liverpool a breath of life and a dose of confidence. It didn’t, of course, blow the title race wide open in any account but Liverpool and Chelsea must’ve sensed blood. United is still with a game in hand and 4 points ahead.

Barring a catastrophic and calamitous self-destruction of United, the title is still theirs to lose. But the 4-1 result must have been like a mortal wound inflicted and doubts of their invincibility must have crept in.

Now, we’ll have to see how Alex Ferguson’s men react to it. Will they come out stronger like before or would they shun away responsibilities like how Ferguson dodged BBC/Sky Sports reporters after the defeat?

Whatever it is, the result definitely brought about a breath of fresh air into the Premiership. This could go down the wire!

We might not win it this season but I feel that we’re much closer now and this season could very well be a springboard for next season, where I feel a few players of the right caliber could bring us to higher level.