Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Xabi Alonso

654 days since his emotional leaving of Liverpool - and six years on from the glory of Istanbul, Xabi Alonso has a story to tell.

Alonso's Liverpool story is one of Champions League and FA Cup success, ridiculous long-range goals, defence splitting passes and general midfield mastery.

But the way it all came to an end left something of a bad taste in the mouth.

Fans all over the world were left devastated when the deal to take Alonso to Madrid - a deal which had been on the cards for 12 months after then manager Rafael Benitez confirmed his interest in pursuing the signing of Gareth Barry in the transfer market - finally went through in the summer of 2009.

Suddenly the club's midfield play-maker had gone; the man who made it all happen in the centre of the field and the man who had driven Liverpool to within touching distance of the league title with a record number of points.

Surely he would want to stay and help the Reds take that next, big, elusive step? We had gone so close - why did he have to end his Liverpool love affair now?

The truth can be found by rewinding 12 months when the manager dropped an end of season bombshell on his Spanish star.

Xabi Alonso has revealed he had no choice but to leave L
iverpool once Rafael Benitez made it clear he was planning to sign a replacement in midfield and he no longer had the full confidence of the manager.

Alonso left Anfield for Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, after Liverpool had finished second in the Premier League within four points of champions Manchester United, and the Spain international has now lifted the lid on the reasons for his departure.

After 12 months of speculation over Liverpool's interest in Aston Villa midfielder Gareth Barry, Alonso ran out of patience and decided to leave Merseyside.

Benitez never managed to adequately replace Alonso, despite telling the player he would be one of the first out of the door. Alberto Aquilani arrived from Roma in a £20 million deal, but his time at Anfield was dogged by injuries and he was loaned to Juventus shortly after Benitez was sacked 12 months ago.

Alonso may now wear the white of Real Madrid but throughout our chat it's clear the red of Liverpool still has an extra special place in his heart.

Before the camera started rolling on our interview, he was keen to hear about the latest news from Anfield and Melwood, about what the atmosphere is like at the training ground and about the general feeling around the club at the end of another season.

His last visit to Anfield was for a game in December during the closing weeks of Roy Hodgson's reign and he remarked of getting a strong sense that all was not well. He was clearly pleased when reassured the club today is vastly different to how it was just a few short months ago.

While talking through the ups and downs of his five years on Merseyside it's clear one date and one night in particular still brings out a bigger smile than any other.

May 25, 2005. Istanbul. The Champions League final. It may have been six years ago today but for Xabi, and most probably for everyone else glued to their TV sets or inside the Ataturk Stadium on that famous night, the memories come flooding back as though it all happened yesterday.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Carragher on/off the pitch

Liverpool vice-captain Jamie Carragher admits he will have to modify his ultra-competitive on-field attitude if he eventually decides to go into management.

The 33-year-old still has more than a year left on his current deal at Anfield but has long been linked with a move into coaching.

Carragher, the club's second highest appearance-maker with 667, is playing under his fifth Liverpool manager in Kenny Dalglish and accepts he has learned much from all of them.

He does not know what sort of boss he would make should he decide to take the plunge when he eventually does retire from playing, only that he will have to be a lot calmer.

Recently Carragher has been focused more on helping teenage defenders John Flanagan and Jack Robinson settle into the first team after injuries forced them to be fast-tracked from the reserves.

It has been an easier job than he could have expected as both, particularly Flanagan who has featured in the past six matches, have not looked out of place.

That points to a healthier future not only for the first team but the academy, from where Carragher himself graduated.

Houllier might return

Gerard Houllier could make a surprise appearance for Aston Villa's final match of the season at home to Liverpool next Sunday.

Villa manager Houllier was admitted to Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth hospital on April 20 suffering with a heart problem, and discharged nine days later.

However, given Houllier's health history as he underwent open-heart surgery nine and a half years ago, there has been speculation over whether he will return to the helm at all.

Assistant manager Gary McAllister, who has served as caretaker for Villa's last three matches and will do so again for Sunday's trip to Arsenal, today confirmed Houllier was on the mend and could be at Villa Park for the game with his former club.

This week defender Luke Young voiced his concerns regarding the prospect of a summer of uncertainty at Villa Park should Houllier's absence be indefinite. McAllister has confirmed Houllier is under "no pressure in terms of time'' as to when he will be back in his office.

One of the players Houllier and McAllister are looking to retain is veteran goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who turns 40 next Wednesday. American Friedel has played every league game since joining Villa in July 2008 from Blackburn for £2 million.

McAllister heads to the Emirates Stadium without defender Ciaran Clark due to a niggly hamstring problem, but with midfielder Jean Makoun available after missing the last two games with a dead leg.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Reina see prospect

Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina has been convinced he still has a future at the club by the turnaround effected by Kenny Dalglish, who signed a three-year contract to become permanent manager on Thursday.

Pepe Reina has revealed how he is relishing the prospect of being a part of a bright future at Liverpool Football Club under the management of Kenny Dalglish.

Reina is convinced the club are heading in the right direction with the Scot at the helm - and he's determined to assist in bringing major honours back to Anfield over the coming years.

News of Dalglish's deal broke shortly before 1.30pm on Thursday afternoon. Reina revealed he found out by watching television, but was left overjoyed upon hearing details of how the 60-year-old will remain at Anfield until 2014.

When Dalglish was brought in on an initial temporary basis on January 8 to replace the sacked Roy Hodgson the situation at Anfield looked bleak. The team were 12th in the Premier League, four points off the relegation zone having already spent time in the bottom three, with disaffection stretching from the team to the terraces.

Unhappy star striker Fernando Torres was angling for a move - which he eventually got with his £50million transfer to Chelsea - and it appeared Spain team-mate Reina would be next out of the door.

But in just over four months the 28-year-old goalkeeper has been persuaded purely by results on the pitch and a change in atmosphere he can still fulfil his ambitions at Anfield.

While confident of an exciting future for Liverpool, Reina's short-term aim will be overcoming Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield on Sunday and securing European qualification for 2011-12.

Liverpool are now fifth in the table and victory over Tottenham on Sunday at Anfield will secure Europa League football. Their current five-match unbeaten run has seen them pick up 13 points and go on a goalscoring spree with 17 for and only three against.

It is form which has prompted premature talk of Liverpool being able to mount a title challenge next season - a scenario which would have been met with ridicule at the turn of the year. Reina is confident they will improve but will not get carried away.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Maxi and Suarez worth the price

Liverpool may be about to be knocked off their perch by Manchester United but they showed they might just mount a serious challenge for a 19th league title of their own next season by destroying Fulham 5-2.

The Reds made it 13 goals in their last three games and Maxi Rodriguez completed his second hat-trick over the same period, with Dirk Kuyt scoring his 12th in 13 matches for club and country and Luis Suarez wrapping up the rout.

The win moved Liverpool back above Tottenham into fifth place in the Premier League and left Fulham stunned as they paid the price for a horrible first 16 minutes which saw them 3-0 down.

Carragher, who made his 666th appearance for the Reds to move second on their all-time list, was especially delighted with the manner of the victory.

Despite scoring 13 goals in their last three games, there does not appear to be enough matches left for Liverpool to secure a Champions League place, with Dalglish refusing to speculate on where they might finish the season.

For Liverpool to stand any chance of a Champions League spot, they would need Manchester City to suffer a late collapse, starting tomorrow against Tottenham.

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has confirmed he is on track to return at the start of next season after missing the past two months with a groin injury. He required surgery on the problem and has not featured since the Reds' 3-1 victory over Manchester United in March.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Dalglish happy with progress

KENNY DALGLISH believes shared responsibility has been the key to Liverpool's late season charge for Europa League qualification ahead of tonight's clash at Fulham. Liverpool have proved in recent weeks that they were never a two-man team that relied on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.

Torres left the club in January, joining Chelsea in a £50 million deal, while Gerrard has struggled with injury problems at times this season. Nevertheless, the Reds have enjoyed a distinct upturn in fortunes since Dalglish took the reins as manager - and the Scot believes the players deserve great credit for improving the team spirit and showing they have never relied on one or two key players.

Midfielders Raul Meireles and Maxi Rodriguez have made vital goal scoring contributions along with Dirk Kuyt, Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. Players have fed off each other's individual success and Dalglish says even those who haven't been involved in the matches have contributed to the feelgood factor around the squad.

Dalglish also praised those players who have struggled to get into his first team for recent matches - saying their positive attitude in training has still played a major role in the club's current rise to sixth in the Premier League table.

Liverpool face Fulham at Anfield on Monday evening, hoping to move above Tottenham into fifth with a draw or win but Dalglish insists his players won't need any added motivation.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Jay Spearing pens new deal

Jay Spearing has become the latest Liverpool player to commit to the club, signing an undisclosed contract extension at Anfield.

Spearing, 22, has shot to prominence this season, producing a host of fine performances during his eight appearances for the first team under Kenny Dalglish this term. .

Dalglish admits he's been delighted with Spearing's progression since he returned to the Anfield helm in Janaury.

After earning a regular run in the first team, the former FA Cup youth winner has followed in the footsteps of Lucas Leiva and Dirk Kuyt in penning new deals.

Director of football Damien Comolli told the club's website: "He won his place in the team on merit and has showed in the last games that he can raise his game to what we need."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Maxi's future

Maxi Rodriguez has revealed his determination to remain at Liverpool and help the club enjoy a successful European campaign next season. The Argentine midfielder has been in fine form of late, netting four times in his last two outing.

His goals have been crucial in helping Kenny Dalglish's side assume fifth spot in the Barclays Premier League and he insists he remains committed to fighting the Reds cause beyond the end of the season.

A hat-trick in the 5-0 demolition of Birmingham City followed by another strike in the 3-0 triumph over Newcastle has inevitably propelled Maxi into the spotlight. However, he is adamant personal accolades are irrelevant when compared to the overall success of the team.

"I am really happy here," said Maxi. "The people have treated us really well. The type of life we have here, the way of life, is very different to what we were used to after nine years in Spain but I am enjoying everything.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hyypia retires at the end of the season

Hyypia, 37, has been a regular for Leverkusen for the past two seasons since joining the club from Liverpool in 2009, where he spent ten successful years.

The Finland centre-back won the Champions League, UEFA Cup, League Cup and FA Cup (twice) in his time on Merseyside and in 2006 was recognised by the club's fans as the 38th best Reds player of all time.

Hyypia announced that he intends to hang up his boots at a press conference on Monday, though he will continue to work at Leverkusen as an assistant coach and will also become No. 2 to Finland boss Mixu Paatelainen.

Leverkusen general manager Michael Reschke praised the defender's contribution to the team and the dressing room and said he was delighted to be holding on to the Finn.

Hyypia has been crowned Finnish Player of the Year nine times in his career, including the past three years in a row and only Jari Litmanen can boast more than the defender's 103 caps for the national team.