May 9 2007
by Ian Doyle, Liverpool Daily Post
Taken from Liverpool Echo
A cool blog on Liverpool FC with news, commentary, rumours and match predictions taken from all over the world.
May 9 2007
by Ian Doyle, Liverpool Daily Post
XABI ALONSO has been reassured he remains an integral part of Rafael Benitez’s plans.
Alonso was surprisingly dropped to the bench for the Champions League semi-final second leg victory over Chelsea at Anfield last week.
The 26-year-old, who had previously started all of Liverpool’s key games under Benitez when available, was usurped from central midfield by Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard.
It sparked fresh rumours of a move away from Anfield, with Barcelona known suitors of the Spain international.
While Alonso eventually played a part in helping Liverpool seal a place in the Athens final against AC Milan by scoring in the penalty shoot-out against Chelsea, a fit Momo Sissoko didn’t even feature among the substitutes.
But Benitez reckons both midfielders accept the competition for places and will play a part for Liverpool next season.
“I think Xabi understands,” said the Liverpool manager. “The players they know me.
“They know I can change one or two players but that doesn't mean I am disappointed with them.
“I was talking with Sissoko. The last two or three weeks he has had more problems because Mascherano was playing well and Gerrard was in the middle.
“I said to him it was not a problem because we will play 60 games next season and we need a lot of good players. We have injuries also.
“All the players must be a little bit disappointed if they don't play, but they need to have respect for their team-mates. Xabi is a good professional and it is not a problem.”
Both Alonso and Sissoko started last Saturday’s Premiership visit to Fulham, where a much-changed Liverpool were beaten 1-0.
Meanwhile, Liverpool have eased fears over Pepe Reina’s availability for the Champions League final on May 23.
The goalkeeper, the hero of last week’s semi-final win, sustained a shoulder injury at Craven Cottage on Saturday but will be fit for Sunday’s final Premiership game of the season at home to relegated Charlton Athletic.
May 9 2007
by Chris Bascombe, Liverpool Echo
LIVERPOOL will head to Spain for a five-day training camp in preparation for the Champions League final.
Rafa Benitez has shown he’s not been put off by the controversy which followed the last ‘bonding session’ in Portugal earlier this season.
That caused a furore when Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise clashed, but ultimately ended in triumph as it prepared the players for victory over Barcelona.
Benitez said at the time the week away did far more good than harm, which is why he’s given the go-ahead for another trip before the players head for Athens.
He’s especially concerned the players should acclimatise to potentially soaring temperatures in Greece on the evening of May 23.
“We still have to finalise the details, but it’s likely we’ll go away for five days to prepare after we play Charlton,” said Benitez today.
“When we did this before the Barcelona game it had a positive impact, although I know people talked about other things in the end. The most positive thing is we can work together in a climate and in conditions which will be more like those we’ll play in in the final.”
Benitez has brushed off the golfing incident which made the headlines prior to the trip to the Nou Camp.
He shrugged off any references to those events, saying: “I know people will mention that again, but it’s not an issue. We are thinking only about doing the right things to prepare the players for the final.”
Meanwhile, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are edging ever closer to new long-term Liverpool contracts.
Negotiations continued yesterday and there is a genuine likelihood the pair may sign up over the next 72 hours.
There is caution about making such a prediction until the final details of the contract are agreed, but it appears only formalities now stand in the way of the scouse duo putting pen to paper.
“I hope it may be done this week, but we are talking and we’re sure it will be done soon,” confirmed Benitez.
Liverpool have fitness concerns over Pepe Reina and Momo Sissoko ahead of the visit of Charlton this weekend.
Reina hasn’t trained because he’s nursing a shoulder injury, while Sissoko is definitely out with a knee problem.
The African should be fit for the Champions League final.
Xabi Alonso’s attacker Michael Brown of Fulham has been charged by the FA for the headbutt which went unnoticed in the 1-0 defeat on Saturday.
“It’s clear in this case people had to look at the video,” said Benitez.
“It means players may think twice before they do such things again.”
| DUDEK: I HAVE 40,000 GOODBYES TO SAY |
Jimmy Rice 08 May 2007
|When Liverpool walk back into the dressing room after the final home game of the season on Sunday, a lone figure will remain standing on Anfield's hallowed turf.|
| For the match is not only the fans' opportunity to wave goodbye to our Athens-bound heroes, it's also their last chance to bid farewell to an Anfield legend.|
It is with a heavy heart that Jerzy Dudek will leave the club in the summer, and the Pole has a little bit of unfinished business before he departs.
"I have 40,000 thank-yous to say, so it will take me a while," the 34-year-old told LFC Magazine.
"It would be nice to play in the last game against Charlton. I would get to walk around the pitch and take it all in. I could hear the fans singing again. I don't know if it will be possible, it's up to the manager when he picks the team.
"I just want to say goodbye. If it is not possible then I will be the last person left on the pitch after the Charlton game."
Dudek's decision to leave is a result not of any personal differences, nor any ill-feeling towards the club.
In fact, he insists he would have been happy to remain at Melwood for the rest of his career had he been selected to represent Poland in last year's World Cup.
He explains: "I was watching TV at home, just with Sky Sports News on in the background while I was doing some things and waiting for something else to come on – as you do.
"I actually saw a breaking news story come along the bottom of the screen: Jerzy Dudek is not going to the World Cup. I froze.
"At first I thought it was a joke from the Polish manager, but then I saw that our star striker was not going, and two other senior players were already out. It wasn't a joke.
"Something changed in me after that snub. From being happy to play here and press Pepe, I knew I had to go somewhere to play every week."
It is a sign of Dudek's loyalty to the club that he postponed his decision to leave at the request of Rafa Benitez.
"The needs of the team were more important to me than my own needs. Scott Carson was going to Charlton and the manager could not get any cover, so I stayed.
"Now I am going this summer. I am out of contract and I need to play football. I am still hungry to play and put the disappointment of the World Cup behind me.
"I know I will not move somewhere and find a nicer club than Liverpool. I love this city and love this club. If I had gone to the World Cup then I would have stayed here forever. I told Rafa that too. I would have done everything I wanted to do in my career.
"I will not play with better players or make more friends than I have here. Wherever I go from here will be a definite step down in my career."
So, what's next for one of our heroes of 2005? Well, one thing's for sure: he won't ever be coming back to Anfield as an opposition keeper.
He said: "I just can't imagine walking into Anfield on matchday, walking out of the tunnel and going down to the Kop end – and then hoping to see Liverpool lose.
"This club has been my life for five years. I have become much more than an employee – I am a fan.
"I don't know how I will feel when I walk out of this place for the last time, but I imagine it will be very emotional and I can see tears in my eyes. I am not looking forward to it at all."
| HIGH STAKES, BIG STRESS |
Paul Tomkins 09 May 2007
|It's still sinking in: a second European Cup final in three seasons, when just three years back I'd given up hope of Liverpool ever again getting to one.|
| Firmly in self-preservation mode, I was preparing myself for defeat against Chelsea last week on the basis that at least it wouldn't mean meeting Manchester United in the final. But it all went out the window once the game started, and the Reds poured forward.|
I am a masochist. Clearly. I desperately wanted Liverpool to reach the final, even though I knew it could have meant the chance of an unbearable match against United, the stress of which would have landed me in intensive care, or perhaps even a mental asylum: with no hair to pull out, I'd have pulled my scalp off. And that would have just been from the warm up.
My scalp aside, what I seriously feared were the future implications for this current team, following a final against United.
Let's make no mistake. It would have been the biggest game in the history of club football; akin to Barcelona playing Read Madrid, or a Milan derby – the kind of games yet to be seen on the biggest possible stage. It would just be too huge to comprehend, and could come with a lot of negative aftershocks. It could have been a game that destabilised everything, and grew way out of proportion.
If it comes to pass, losing to AC Milan is something that, while disappointing, can be recovered from. The same would have been true of losing the shoot-out to Chelsea, especially having been the better team. But losing to United in the final would have been just too much to take. Keeping football in perspective is difficult at the best of times, so the hysteria that would have surrounded such a match is thankfully no longer a possibility.
Being beaten by United in Athens – and it would have been a 50-50 chance – could have done long-term harm to the progress of this fledgling team. United, with the league in the bag (and perhaps the FA Cup too), would have that notable success as recompense if they were beaten by Benítez's men, even though they'd still have their summer ruined.
The Reds would be less protected by such weighty shock-absorpbers. And as it's still a young team Benítez is shaping, you'd fear for such a symbolic setback when the future, otherwise, should prove ultra-bright.
Taking players' ages at the time of the final in two weeks' time, Liverpool's average age is far lower than both United and Chelsea's (when comparing each team's perceived strongest XI); an example of how Liverpool's team has more potential to mature the longer it stays together. And also an example of it's greater tenderness.
Everyone talks of Arsenal's young team, but the Reds' average is just 25.6 years – rather surprisingly, a full year younger than Arsenal's at 26.6.
It's Arsenal and Liverpool, adrift of the top two, who have teams that will develop most in the next two or three years, and who have the fewest players who will need replacing. How will United, in two years' time, cope without Giggs, Scholes, Neville and Van der Sar?
The only Liverpool player in their age bracket is Sami Hyypia, and Benítez has already found a wonderful replacement in Agger, who this season usurped the great Finn (even if Hyypia still has much to offer in the short-term). Steve Finnan, recently turned 31, is the only other one who comes close, and Arbeloa already looks an able young deputy.
I talk a lot about the average age of a team because almost every successful side I can think of has an average somewhere between 27-29, i.e. what are seen as an individual's peak years. It's that mix of youthful gusto and canny experience that makes teams tick.
A lot is also made of United's star younger players, Rooney and Ronaldo, but the average age of their team is 28, fractionally higher than Chelsea's (27.2). One of the main reasons United improved to win the league this season is because, with the barest of changes to their squad, the team is now one year older.
What I found interesting is that in the wake of their semi-final humiliation, Alex Ferguson said his team lacked experience. "We have to keep the team together and grow the team like Milan have done," he noted.
While it's the right principle, how does he expect to keep that team together for much longer, when so many of its key elements are in the twilight of their careers? He may well beat the odds and do so, but it's obvious that you can't rely on older players in the long-term. It's in stark contrast to Liverpool's situation, where all of its key elements can theoretically be in place in five years' time.
Of course, it's not as simple as throwing together eleven players with an average age of 28 or 29; they need time to gel as a unit, and it's no good if that happens when they're all over the hill. Benítez has started building a top-class outfit significantly younger than that peak, and now needs to let it mature while adding the right ingredients to perfect the blend. With this is mind, it's perhaps no surprise that the league title was out of reach this time around.
The manager also needs to avoid the trap Gerard Houllier fell into of continually lowering the average age. Having said that, it's one thing buying a 22-year-old like Javier Mascherano and another buying a 22-year-old like El Hadji Diouf. The former, like Alonso, Agger and Reina when they arrived as 21/22-year-olds, is mature beyond his years; the latter was like a teenage tearaway.
It's also ludicrously expensive to buy fully established top-class players; Liverpool have had to look to players like Alonso and Agger, who were rising stars at the time they signed. AC Milan's Kaká, on current form the best player in the world, only cost in the region of £5m. Nineteen at the time, he was bought when his class was evident, but when not yet a household name. Contrast this with how Chelsea bought Milan's Shevchenko, aged 30, for £31m.
So it's worth bearing in mind how young this Liverpool side still is. That has to be cause for long-term optimism.
I'm not 100% sure of what Milan would consider their best side, but the XI that beat United averages out at a whopping 29.7, and that's not including Cafu, at 36, and Maldini, at 38. Their concern would be that perhaps they're too old, but their experience is vast.
The Rossoneri clearly want revenge for Istanbul, but then so too did Chelsea, and that didn't exactly help them. Unlike two years ago, when it was a rearguard action, the Reds were the better team over the two legs.
Both finalists have beaten top-quality opposition to get to Athens. Milan have to be favourites, given their experience. While I believe the Reds are capable of winning, this team is not at their overall level just yet. Milan ooze top-level nous. Paulo Maldini played in his first big final while still in nappies, and this will be his 73rd European Cup final, one behind Clarence Seedorf. Or something.
While Istanbul will serve as a calming influence on Gerrard, Carragher, Alonso, Riise, Finnan, and Hyypia (if selected), it remains to be seen how the rest of the side will react to what will be a new experience; after all, this is a squad that has been extensively rebuilt since 2005.
Two other outfield players remain, but Luis Garcia is definitely out, and Harry Kewell, while on the verge of a return, has missed the entire season. Thankfully one newcomer, Mascherano, has a wealth of big-game experience for one so young, so there's no sense that he'll be overawed.
It's also worth remembering that Milan will have a psychological fear of Liverpool; after all, they will not feel 'safe' even if they get a 3-0 lead. Just as Wimbledon and Leicester could always trouble Liverpool in the '80s and '90s, despite a massively inferior sides, a mixture of hard work and a perceived hoodoo can make a real difference.
Click here to visit Paul Tomkins' official website>>
My personal perspective
This is M.E. Awareness Week in the UK, and it would be remiss of me, as a sufferer, to not mention it. It's a condition I've had for many years, but recently worsened enough to stop me writing about the club on a professional basis.
M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis) is a chronic, fluctuating illness. Fatigue is just one of many symptoms of M.E.; others include muscle weakness, exhaustion after any form of exertion, disrupted sleep, pain, and neurological and cognitive problems.
Seeing as it primarily affects the nervous system, stress makes it worse. Football and stress go hand in hand, for fans, players and managers alike. Once the players are on the pitch it's unlikely that they feel stress, as the body's 'fight or flight' chemicals take over and they get engrossed in proceedings, but off the pitch, especially in the build-up to big games, or following a bad performance, it can be a stressful occupation. I get grief from disgruntled fans after a bad result, and I only write about the club.
But the trouble is in being stressed before a match, and using up too much nervous energy, and end up with no gas in the tank. I believe Liverpool's players did this in Istanbul (although were able to recover after half-time, before tiring markedly in extra-time). And in many ways it's reminiscent of my illness.
When I go to a match, it's thoroughly exhausting. In recent years it has become a quasi-military operation. But it's not just the journey from the midlands to Anfield (or elsewhere), which causes ill affects, but also the game itself, and all the nervous energy I expend.
In recent years I've come close to passing out on a number of occasions. It takes me several days to get back to what are my 'normal' levels of being unwell, and with a young son whose spends part of the week with me, and who obviously needs me to be as well as possible, that's a sacrifice I only wish to make in exceptional circumstances.
If that makes me a glory hunter in some people's eyes, so be it. I did enough of the winter mid-week away games at places like Stoke in the far-from-glorious League Cup to feel I've earned the right to pick and choose the occasions; and ideally, of course, I'd be in perfect health and able to go every week, even if Liverpool were mid-table also-rans.
If my health remains relatively stable I will taking up my option of going to Athens (albeit in the neutral Uefa section), and hope to be writing about a great occasion, and a sixth success. But with each passing year it becomes harder and harder.
One thing being ill does do is help me keep things in perspective as far as the football itself is concerned. I have good weeks and bad weeks, good months and bad months.
So I know bad periods can be temporary, and recovered from, just as success does not last forever – and with that in mind, you have to savour each great moment as if it's your last.
I savoured Istanbul as if it would be the last European Cup final for a long time, given it had taken a wait of 20 years to reach that one. But then another has come along, just 24 months later. Even in difficult times, life can throw up a sensational surprise or two.
For more information on M.E. visit www.afme.org.uk
May 8 2007
by Ian Rush, Liverpool Echo
HARRY Kewell’s timing could not have been better. To return just before the Champions League final might be the first bit of good luck he’s had since moving to Liverpool.
I know Harry from my spell at Leeds towards the end of my playing career, and I’ve felt so sorry for him as a series of injuries have prevented him establishing himself at Anfield.
He’s taken a lot of stick, some of it very unfair.
Even I’ve joked with a few people his finals per game ratio is probably the highest in football history, but on a serious point it’s no fun facing one setback after another when you’re desperate to be on the pitch, showing what you can do.
No-one likes to be injured on cup final day. It’s your worst nightmare as a player to go through all the build-up, only to break down just a few minutes into the match.
For it to happen twice in two years is bound to make you the butt of jokes, but it deserves more sympathy than criticism, and the fact Harry has been out all season until this point shows how serious the problems have been.
His recovery may be too late to force his way into Rafa Benitez’ squad for the European Cup final. It may even be too late to prevent him moving on this summer.
What I do know for a fact is this: Harry Kewell is still the best left midfielder at Anfield.
In the last eight months plenty of players have had an opportunity to stake their claim. None have done so.
Fulham on Saturday was another opportunity for someone to give the manager food for thought.
But since the opening day of the season, no-one has been able to claim a regular spot.
If Fabio Aurelio or Luis Garcia were fit, Benitez would probably have an easier decision to make in Athens. As it is, I’d be surprised if he’s made his mind up yet about what to do on the left of midfield against AC Milan.
Many were shocked he used Bolo Zenden in both legs against Chelsea, but when you look at his options, what else could he do?
That’s why, unbelievable as it may sound, I think Kewell has a genuine chance of being involved on May 23.
He’s looking trim, he’s hopefully feeling fitter than ever, and if he can show the class I know he has, he could yet write one of those fairytale stories you always seem to get in cup finals. How better to banish the sore memories of his last two appearances?
There are a few who may question if he deserves the chance in such a big game.
I’d say that’s a load of rubbish.
If he’s fit, he feels sharp and he’s mentally ready to play, of course he’s worth a place, at least on the bench.
Liverpool have been paying his wages for a whole season, and if the reward for that is just one great game in Athens which contributes to winning the European Cup, they may say it was worth it.
Benitez is shrewd enough to recognise he must use all the best options at his disposal. He did the same with Djibril Cisse in Istanbul, you’ll remember, because he needed a player with his pace on the bench, even though he’d only just recovered from a broken leg.
I suspect Benitez will want to see Kewell play against Charlton on Sunday, just to see if he’s in the right condition to step up a level.
No matter how many problems he’s had, I know if he’s anywhere near good form, I’d feel a lot more confident with him on the left than some others who might be under consideration.
In 2005, the European Cup final included many examples of Liverpool players like Smicer putting disappointments behind them to end their Anfield career in triumph. Harry may be someone who can take inspiration from those events.