Sunday, 29 November 2009

Luck Finally Changes For Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez could have been forgiven in recent weeks for wondering whether he had run over a black cat or two. Liverpool have had plenty of luck this season, and most of it has been bad.

But if the Spaniard has had just cause to bemoan his side's ill-fortune - their injury crisis, dubious red cards, beach-ball interventions - he can surely have no issue with Lady Luck this afternoon as the Reds overcame a spirited, but ultimately ill-fated, Everton side.

On a day when Henry Winkler - aka The Fonz - was in town, it was always likely to be cool heads which prevailed in the November wind and rain at Goodison Park, and in the end it proved the case. The Reds kept their shape, their composure, and their heads, but boy did they ride their luck.

That is not to say there was no marked improvement in the Reds' performance, there was. The defence picked up its first Premier League clean sheet on the road this season, with Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina in particular shining. Everton are a tough team to play against, and Liverpool coped admirably.

In midfield Lucas Leiva recovered from an inauspicious start to turn in a stellar display alongside the back-to-his-best Javier Mascherano, whilst Dirk Kuyt ended his eight-game scoring drought in the best possible manner, wrapping up the points late on with a poacher's effort. The relief in the Dutchman's celebration was transparent.

Mascherano's opener, deflected heftily off the boot of Joseph Yobo, was the first sign that Liverpool's luck was turning. The Argentine's speculative effort was heading well wide before striking the Nigerian, and David Moyes was left cursing two disallowed goals for Jo before half-time - although both decisions were correct.

Everton clearly had a game plan to bombard Liverpool aerially. The presence and power of Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini was exploited to the full, as blue shirts launched ball after ball into a crowded Reds box.

But despite the pressure, and it was constant, Carragher & Co stood firm. There were some lapses - a free header afforded to Cahill which forced Reina into a magnificent double-save from the Australian and Fellaini - but for a change Liverpool got away with them. It hasn't happened in recent weeks.

At the other end, the Reds always looked likely to grab a second, without ever applying any sort of concerted pressure. Steven Gerrard endured an off-day as Everton's fans went to town on the Liverpool captain, whilst David Ngog was well shackled by Yobo and Sylvain Distin.

But when your luck is in, it is really in. Albert Riera had been on the field for just two minutes when his skimming low strike was pushed out by Tim Howard straight to the lurking Kuyt, who made no mistake. It was tough on Everton, but Liverpool cared not.

The win, of course, has further ramifications for both sides. Everton now sit just three points, and two places, above the drop zone, and need a change in fortune quickly.

Liverpool meanwhile, kept their promise to bounce back from their Champions League exit in midweek. The win, coupled with draws for Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham, propels them firmly back into the race for a top-four position.

Rafa Benitez has already said this week that he is "one hundred per cent sure" that Liverpool can finish fourth this season. With Lady Luck back in her red shirt, it would be wise to listen to the Spaniard.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Exit leaves Benitez to beg, sell or borrow in January

After the elimination, the calculations. The timing for Liverpool of an exit from the tournament that has defined them during Rafael Benitez's tenure is dreadful, as the club prepare to step up efforts in the next six months to sell a 25 per cent share of the business in return for a £100m cash injection.

That process is under way – there are interested parties – but the "sell" to prospective investors is that Liverpool are among Europe's elite, the footballing equivalent to a FTSE blue-chip company. Europa League football doesn't do much for that particular brand image.

A run through to the latter stages of the Champions League would of course have brought huge riches, but the short-term financial consequences of Fiorentina's result in Stadio Artemio Franchi are actually quite bearable. Liverpool had budgeted only to progress as far as the last 16 in the Champions League this season, and the club calculated the lost earnings of not making it that far at around £2.6m. If Liverpool play three two-leg ties in the Europa League campaign next spring, they would expect to earn around £3m and therefore be £400,000 ahead of their budgeted European earnings for this season.

So the junior trophy does have its benefits, as Werder Bremen discovered last season, by earning more money by winning the Uefa Cup than Bayern Munich did in reaching the Champions League quarter-finals.

But last night's turn of events can only damage Benitez when it comes to the substantial investment in players he needs. With Liverpool carrying debts of £250m, and with the stalled stadium project in need of another £400m, there will be little transfer market activity around Anfield in January – loan deals to reinforce in defence and for a back-up striker are likely – and Benitez is probably looking at a zero net spend in the summer.

It also leaves him to face what always looked like the real battle once Liverpool's draw in Lyons left the Spaniard needing a "miracle": a top-four finish to restore Liverpool's credibility and their place in the continental elite. Though the conservative business model being put before prospective investors is understood to budget for a fifth place for Liverpool in the Premier League, even the baseline estimate of not making the Champions League for the first time since the 2003-04 season is put at £8m-10m by the club. And then there is the symbolic significance of, say, Manchester City, eclipsing them.

Liverpool's slide has come at a time of genuine optimism around Anfield that a solution to the fundamental source of the club's brittle financial state – the global financial crisis and its effect on Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who had to pay back a further £60m to their lenders last summer – is at hand. The new managing director Christian Purslow has also helped cease the civil war between Hicks and George Gillett and is leading the search for one or more equity holders, which the Americans signed up to as part of the refinancing of their loans last summer.

If investors do arrive, then Liverpool will be in a position to kickstart plans to get the stadium built. The vastly improved match-day revenues would mean Liverpool could then compete financially.

But the nightmare scenario is no deal being struck with new partners. Everton's unsuccessful search for a new owner has revealed that the "middle market" is not buoyant, which is why Liverpool know they must remain blue chip. It is also why the battle for fourth place, which recommences at Goodison on Sunday is the real one. Little wonder Jamie Carragher said that the significance of Liverpool's evening here was to "get confidence and get the team playing well again because we've got a big game at the weekend against Everton". Carragher might not be a financier but, not for the first time where his beloved club is concerned, he's the one who knows the score.

European returns: What Reds could win

The prize money for reaching:

Last 16 Champions League £2.7m, Europa League £270,000.

Quarter-finals Champions League £2.9m, Europa League £319,000.

Semi-finals Champions League £3.6m, Europa League £558,000.

Final Champions League £4.6m, Europa League £1.77m.

Winners Champions League £8m, Europa League £2.65m.

This list does not include television revenue

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Kaka: Real Madrid was the right choice

Kaka has admitted that he has no regrets about not joining Manchester City after going on to secure a transfer to Spanish giants Real Madrid in the summer.

The Brazilian star was the subject of a €100 million bid from the Premier League's nouveau riche side, but rejected the chance to move to Eastlands in January.

While reports suggested that AC Milan's willingness to listen to City's offer hurt their relationship with Kaka, the Brazilian is now delighted to be plying his trade in Spain.

Real Madrid paid €67 million to land their man after Florentino Perez resumed control at the Santiago Bernabeu and the player is happy with his choice.

"Do I regret not moving to Manchester City? No. I am happy with what I have chosen in my life," he told reporters after Brazil's win against England.

"I've spoken a lot to Robinho and he is very happy there and Manchester City have bought a lot of quality players.

"But now I am with Real Madrid and very happy with the choice I made. I have no regrets with my decision."

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Rafa Benitez is victim of a witch-hunt against foreign managers

Last autumn it was the turn of Juande Ramos to be burnt at the stake.

Well, Avram Grant's corpse had been licked clean, so we needed a new heretic. By Christmas Phil Scolari was sitting on the ducking school. Come the summer, when Arsene Wenger sold two stars to Manchester City, he was dragged into the stocks. And now Rafa Benitez lays on the rack, flames licking around his tootsies.

That's a recent history of managerial witch-hunts at the top of the Premier League, and few would shed a tear for the highly-paid men involved.

But spot the link. They're all foreign. A co-incidence? Maybe. But did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Welshman?

Let me fill you in. Harry Redknapp, Martin O'Neill and Mark Hughes spent the summer flashing the cash at big clubs and went into the season as the men most likely to break into the top four.

Things started well and plaudits and flattery flowed. But then mediocrity set in as they fell behind Stoke, Burnley and Bolton in the form table.

Taken over the last six Premier League games the top four are the same top four these three men were supposed to be breaking up (Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool). Hughes's Manchester City are 11th with seven points, Redknapp's Spurs are 13th with seven points and O'Neill's Aston Villa lie a lamentable 16th on six points. Yet the calls for burning stakes and ducking stools are not audible. Not a peep of criticism is in the air.

In the past three transfer windows Hughes has spent almost £200 million. Harry Redknapp's bench is littered with £10 million-plus signings. And Martin O'Neill is now into his fourth season at a very well-funded Aston Villa, but has made as much impression on English football as a wet bottom-belch in a tornado.

Yet the Englishman, the Irishman and the Welshman, escape any censure for a dismal slump in form. Were they foreigners, you can guarantee that by now, the usual suspects would be asking questions about their suitability to hack it in the cut-and-thrust of English football.

I'm not saying all three deserve to be pilloried. Hughes earns a wide berth because he's been ordered to assimilate too many big talents too quickly and Redknapp because he's only a year into his job.

But O'Neill? Aston Villa's league form throughout this year has been pitiful, yet he remains the Harry Houdini of criticism.

He's had as many seasons at Villa as Claudio Ranieri had at Chelsea. A foreigner ridiculed as a flawed, under-performing Tinkerman. But Ranieri's record of wining 53% of his games, finishing Premier League runners-up, reaching an FA Cup Final and Champions League semi-final, trounces O'Neill's record of winning only 40% of his games and achieving nothing.

The point is, we are far more critical of foreign managers than our own. We dislike them for taking our own men's jobs, are suspicious of their pedigree and methods, give far more scrutiny to any foreign players they sign, and far less credit for their achievements. In short we want them to fail.

And when the pressure is on, unlike the 'Arrys and Martins they don't have the loyalty of ex-pros to fall back on, or the protection of pundits they've shared TV couches with.

The motto is, if you want a manager who escapes a depressing and destabilising witch-hunt, get yourself a Brit or an Irishman.

The rider being, that unless his name is Alex Ferguson, chances are, he'll win you sod all.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Antonio Valencia emerging from Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow at Man United

Three down, 23 to go. That may be a harsh challenge for Antonio Valencia at Manchester United, but having walked through the door at Old Trafford just as Cristiano Ronaldo was heading the other way, the Ecuadorian will never escape the comparisons.

Sixteen games into his United career and the £17m summer signing from Wigan took his goals tally to three with the injury-time equaliser against CSKA Moscow on Tuesday.

The more impressive statistic is that the goal was Valencia’s third in five games. It shows he is beginning to adjust to life at United, despite the shadow cast by Ronaldo.

Sir Alex Ferguson has insisted often enough that Ronaldo is, and will continue to be, irreplaceable. Sixty-eight goals in his final two seasons at the club – the second of which was delayed for almost two months by an ankle injury – just underlines the impossible task facing whichever poor soul is asked to fill Ronaldo’s old right-wing spot at United.

Nani has tried and failed, Ji-sung Park offers ninety minutes of energy, but little attacking threat, while Gabriel Obertan is no more than three games into his United career.

Just try for a minute to erase the Ronaldo era and imagine it never happened. Who would Valencia then be measured against in terms of his progress?

David Beckham perhaps? Andrei Kanchelskis? Whoever you choose as the yardstick, the challenge is not quite so great as matching Ronaldo.

Beckham’s work-rate, peerless crossing and ability from set-pieces put ‘Goldenballs’ in a league of his own before Real Madrid came calling in 2003.

Kanchelskis was a lethal winger with blistering pace and an incredible ability to convert chances in front of goal. His hat-trick in a 5-0 demolition of Manchester City in 1994 encapsulated his quality and his controversial departure for Everton in 1995 was mourned by thousands of United supporters.

One thing that is obvious is that Valencia has a list of illustrious predecessors at United. But having initially appeared cowed and inhibited during his early outings for Ferguson’s team, Valencia is now growing into the role.

He is forming an understanding with full-backs Gary Neville and John O’Shea down the right and his crossing has improved markedly in the space of three months.

Valencia is brave, he has genuine strength and the confidence generated by his first goal for United – against Bolton last month – has lifted him onto another level.

The 24-year-old managed just seven goals in three seasons with Wigan, but he is almost halfway to that total at United. He even ‘did a Ronaldo’ by rescuing United with a spectacular late equaliser against CSKA.

But don’t compare him to Ronaldo. Don’t compare him to Beckham or Kanchelskis either. He is developing quickly in a United shirt and there is a sense that he is well on the way to making his own name at Old Trafford.