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Liverpool's Steven Gerrard faces civil action

Steven Gerrard and Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool - Premier League

Steven Gerrard. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Steven Gerrard may face further disruption to his season after the man he punched in a nightclub said he was considering launching a civil action against the player and six of his friends.

Gerrard was cleared of affray last month following the fracas with the businessman Marcus McGee, but six of the Liverpool midfielder's friends received suspended jail terms and community service.

McGee, 34, who lost a front tooth and suffered facial cuts in the fight last December, said he has told lawyers to begin civil action for compensation for the injuries he received. The father of two said: "I've got dental bills and legal fees arising from what happened. But, more importantly, I don't think justice was properly served.

"I still can't believe that they all walked free – that they effectively got away with beating me up."

A jury at Liverpool Crown Court acquitted Gerrard of unjustly attacking McGee in the Lounge Inn in Southport, Merseyside, on 29 December, hours after Liverpool had beaten Newcastle United 5-1.

Gerrard, of Formby, Merseyside, admitted hitting McGee but denied affray, saying it was in self-defence. Five of Gerrard's friends admitted affray and another pleaded guilty to threatening behaviour in a fight. They were handed sentences of 18 weeks' imprisonment, suspended for 12 months, and were also ordered to perform 150 hours of unpaid work.

Meanwhile, James Milner has urged his Aston Villa team-mates to "get out and show some determination" against Liverpool tomorrow night and kick-start a season that has already brought rumblings of discontent among supporters. Two defeats in the first week of the season, as well as a lack of transfer activity, has left Villa fans frustrated, but Milner maintains there is the ability within Martin O'Neill's squad to pick up their first points of the campaign at Anfield and lift the gloom.

"There's a lot of talent here," the England international said. "We've got a good mix. We could just do with a few more faces before the window closes. But it's all there for us. We showed last year what a good team we are. It's just about learning from the end of last year, when we struggled, and hopefully getting out of the blocks against Liverpool and kick-starting our season.

"Hopefully we can go to Liverpool and perform like we know we can, and with that effort get a result. You've got to be able to go to these sorts of places. We proved it last year, when we had a great away record."

Milner acknowledged that the 5-0 drubbing Villa suffered at the hands of Liverpool in March, when their season was beginning to unravel, should serve as further incentive. He described the defeat as "unacceptable" at the time and it has not been erased from his memory. "That should be an extra spur," he said. "It's always going to be a tough game there, but there's never an excuse to lose by that scoreline, especially with the quality that's in our squad.

If Liverpool are to win the title, the common perception is that everything depends on Fernando Torres and Gerrard. However, Rafael Benítez believes that in José Reina he has the goalkeeper to win championships, just as Peter Schmeichel once did for Manchester United.

"For me, he is the No1 goalkeeper in the Premier League," the Liverpool manager said. "Over the course of a season, he is the kind of goalkeeper who can win you titles. When you are at the top of the Premier League and attacking all the time, one save from your keeper can make all the difference, because defeat in one or two games can lose us the title.

"He was good when he first started for us [in 2005] but now he is more experienced in terms of how the Premier League is played and is more mature and relaxed than when he first joined Liverpool – he talks to the defenders all the time."

With Manchester United's Edwin van der Sar likely to be out of action with a broken hand until October and Petr Cech not quite the keeper he once was at Chelsea, Benítez's claim that Liverpool can field a better keeper than any other Premier League club holds water.

The Greece centre-half Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Liverpool's new signing from AEK Athens, is unlikely to feature against Villa. Martin Skrtel, who fractured his jaw in the defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, should line up alongside Jamie Carragher.


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Rafa backs Sotirios

Liverpool have completed the signing of Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Rafa Benitez has spoken of the qualities the former Rangers man will bring to Anfield.

“He is a tough defender who is strong and good in the air. He has a strong character and we were looking for these things,” Benitez said.

“He can score goals and will be a threat from corners and free-kicks. He’s very strong in defence but he will need time as always to settle into the Premier League.

“We knew the player when he was with Rangers and we’ve been watching videos of him at Frankfurt and the national team. Our scout department had a lot of information.

“We’ve talked about the things he’s done before and the things he’ll have to do for us. He knows what we want and he’s ready to work.”

Daniel Ayala impressed in his full debut against Stoke in mid-week, and with Agger’s back injury, Ayala and Martin Kelly would have been hoping to try and impress Benitez. The Liverpool boss insists the new signing will only help Liverpool’s young defenders – not hinder their progress.

“I was talking with Ayala about this.

“When the young players see someone with experience it is positive because they can learn from them.

“It also means they have more time. If they have to play some games they can but they are not under pressure.”

Daniel Agger faces surgery next week to attempt to solve a long-standing back injury and Martin Skrtel is still a doubt for the visit of Aston Villa on Monday night.


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Souleymane Bamba?

Souleymane Bamba? Hibernian defender Souleymane Bamba claims Liverpool are monitoring his progress in the SPL, along with French duo Lorient and Grenoble. Rafael Benitez has already aquired the services of full back Glen Johnson, while Greek defender Sotiris Kyrgiakos has recently just put pen to paper on a 2 year contract, arriving from Greek club AEK Athens. However with injuries to Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, aswell as the departures of Alvaro Arbeloa and Sami Hypia, Rafa has been left short of cover in the defensive area. Throughout the summer many defenders have been linked with Anfield to help fill the void and Ivorian International Souleymane Bamba is the latest name to be mentioned. Bamba has previously played for PSG aswell as Dunfermline before joining his current club Hibernian in 2008 where he has established himself as a key member in John Hughes' side. If Rafa does opt to move for the 24 year old Ivorian is still remain to be seen as at this monent in time no firm offer has come to fruition.

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Glen Johnson gives thanks to team-mates

GLEN JOHNSON believes he has his Liverpool team-mates to thank for the flying start to his Anfield career.

The £17million right-back enjoyed a dream home debut in Wednesday night's 4-0 victory over Stoke as he capped a fine performance with his first goal for the club.

Johnson also impressed in last Sunday's defeat at Spurs when his surging run into the box won a spot-kick.

“It’s been absolutely brilliant since I arrived here," he said.

"The lads and everyone at the club have been fantastic.

“It’s been great for me to settle in here quickly and I think that has shown in my performances already so I’m delighted.”

Johnson admits he had been relishing his Anfield debut ever since he left Portsmouth for Merseyside earlier this summer and it did not disappoint.

“It was all I expected and more," he said.

"When the fans are signing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and to hear them singing it for you is very special.

"It was great to run out at Anfield. To get the three points, score in front of the fans and keep a clean sheet made it a perfect night.

"Obviously it was brilliant to score my first for Liverpool and to do it on my home debut was amazing, but the win was more important to get us out of the starting blocks.

"At a club like Liverpool you don’t want to lose any match, so to lose the first game of the season was disappointing.

“But the lads showed great character to put that behind us and hopefully we can go on a good run now."

Defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos will complete his £1.5million move from AEK Athens to Liverpool if he passes his medical today.

With Martin Skrtel suffering from a cracked jaw and Daniel Agger still out with a back problem, the 30-year-old Greek international could go straight into the squad for Monday's showdown with Aston Villa at Anfield.

Meanwhile, Reds assistant manager Sammy Lee has been charged by the Football Association with improper conduct following his clash with fourth official Stuart Attwell during last Sunday's defeat to Tottenham.

Lee, who has until August 26 to respond, was incensed when the Reds were denied a late penalty and his protests led to him being sent from the dugout by referee Phil Dowd.


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2009/10 Squad Review is excited to be publishing Paul Tomkins' blogs from now on. He's the best columnist there is on all matters concerning Liverpool FC and has written quite a number of books on the club. Have a look at his website.

Over to Paul....

I'm delighted to share my work through LFC History – a site built on knowledge and integrity – whom I have handed permission to reproduce my blogs, as and when they see fit.

So, it’s less than a week away. Hope and dread return in equal measure. Two players of undoubted quality (Johnson and Aquilani) have arrived to bolster the strongest XI, but one (Alonso) has left. Also gone are Hyypia and Arbeloa, both of whom would have only been back-up players going into the new campaign, but very good ones at that. Hyypia’s perennial fitness and professionalism already looks a great loss, with injuries mounting. Some young players will be a year older and wiser (particularly Insua and N’Gog), and no-one is in danger of disappearing off the other end of the age spectrum, now that Hyypia has moved on. The oldest player in the squad is only 31 (Carragher), and no-one else will be in his 30s when the season starts, bar Voronin, who has only just recently had his 30th birthday. The average age of the strongest XI is a near-perfect 27.3 (the average of the previous 17 Premiership champions is 27.5), and the squad overall averages out at a very healthy 26, excluding those youngsters who may force their way into Rafa’s plans. Pre-season form hasn’t been great on the whole, but the players do so much intensive training at this time of year under Rafa it’s hard to know how much energy they have left come kick-off; often they’ll have trained hard the day of a game, and fitness is the main concern. More confidence gained from impressive wins would have been nice, but pre-season can be so distorting – not least due to the range in fitness and determination of the various opposition sides – that successive strolls in pre-season can bring a rude awakening come the first league game. Another centre-half seems to be a priority, with the risk of none being fit for the season opener at Spurs, and Liverpool facing Crouch, Carew and Stoke’s bombardment in the opening three fixtures. It certainly won’t be an easy start, especially if Liverpool have to call upon teenage reserve players. A defeat at Spurs wouldn’t surprise me, with Rafa starting a league campaign away for the 6th successive season, but from then until October, and the trip to Chelsea, I expect pretty much maximum points. With Alonso gone, and Aquilani not fit until September, another early key could be Gerrard’s position; having said that I’d be loath to see him moved into central midfield, he opened up Atletico Madrid on Saturday several times in quick succession from that deeper position, with passes of great incision. (If Alonso was the better passer overall, his one weakness was not enough penetrating passes through the middle, in the way Gerrard can find.) But the improvement of Lucas should enable Rafa to keep Gerrard and Torres in tandem up front. According to some, Liverpool missed a good chance of winning the title last season, but I don’t buy that; to go from 4th place and 76 points to 1st place, and needing in excess of 90, is a massive ask. To do so without the experience of a previous title race only made it harder. Yes, United and Chelsea had some problems last season, but Liverpool could only pair Torres and Gerrard together on 14 occasions. If that can be doubled this time around, with no injuries to other key men, than this really could be the year. Anyway, preamble out of the way, this is my assessment of the squad as it currently stands, and of those players who needs to improve on last season’s showings to find that extra few percent to bring home #19.

** Must Do Better **

Jamie Carragher Okay, let’s start with a controversial inclusions. If anyone else had defended like Jamie Carragher last season, I’d have been delighted. But he had more of an 8/10 season than the 9/10 he’d been racking up since 2004. I don’t subscribe to the opinion that he’s past his best now that he’s 31, as his experience and leadership qualities are vital, as is his local pride, but I just feel that he can be a fraction better than what we saw last season. And this is a season where Liverpool, one the whole, need to be just a fraction better. Fernando Torres Little wrong when he was fit enough to play, although the stop-start nature of the injuries meant that he often took to the field patently short of sharpness. But he scored more goals against the better teams than in his debut season, and maintained an excellent strike rate; so any improvement would simply need to be physical, and the psychological boost that comes with it. Javier Mascherano Another top player who wasn’t quite at his best in 2008/09 – certainly so in the first half of the campaign, when he returned from the Olympics looking like he’d been hit with a stray javelin. A year on, he now needs to put ideas of Barcelona rather than Beijing behind him. If anything, he currently looks meaner than ever before, tearing through opponents in pre-season with all the compassion of Roy Keane fronting up Alf-Inge Haaland, and looking nothing short of a grade-A psycho with his three-day stubble, glazed stare and crazy-toothed smile. Now that Alonso is gone it’s imperative that the Monster is at his best. Ryan Babel If it truly does take one to know one, John Barnes is to be taken seriously when it comes to Ryan Babel. "Ryan is a fantastic player," Barnes said. "If we can find the right blend and formation for him to show us what he can do I believe he can be one of the best players in the Premier League” I’ve long shared this view, but also wonder if the player has the right temperament; then again, Barnes was seen as laid back, and certainly had little aggression, and he did okay, didn’t he? It’s worth noting that Babel, at 22, still isn’t even at the age Barnes was when he arrived in 1987. There’s so much more to come from the Dutchman, but I’m not certain if his game will come together in time, or in this team, or in this league. It’s also not yet clear if Babel is good enough that his inclusion demands that the system must be built around him, and it might need that for him to succeed. However, I live in hope, albeit hope without breath held. Glen Johnson Here is a player who simply must improve on what Liverpool had before: Alvaro Arbeloa, who was a very good defender, and a willing forward runner, but not the cleverest on the ball. Johnson is quicker, stronger and far more accomplished from a technical point of view. Arbeloa was not a good crosser of the ball, and Johnson has the delivery of a top winger. If the £17m full-back brings his Portsmouth and England form with him, he will improve on Arbeloa quite comfortably. If he suffers the same problems as he did at Chelsea, there will be concerns, although that was a very young man playing for a manager (Mourinho) who wanted his own player (Ferreira) in the role. Albert Riera I like the Spaniard a lot, particularly the way he can give-and-go in passing moves better than most wingers, but his form fell away as he ran out of steam towards the end of the season; just as he ran out of steam towards the end of games. He provides natural width, and that was vital with Xabi Alonso able to spray quick, long passes to the wing, but now that his compatriot has left for Real Madrid, a change of emphasis may be required. However, Riera has good skill in tight situations and can make it to the byline regularly, though his delivery can be improved. Daniel Agger Due mostly to injury, we didn’t get to see the best of what I believe to be an absolutely outstanding talent. That he is having more back trouble ahead of the new season is a worry, because a fully fit Agger is about as good as you get for an all-round defender. His creativity from the back will be important in turning more home draws into wins, and he can add goals from defence, which is always a handy bonus. Andrea Dossena It’s unclear if the Italian has a future at the club, although he might be worth keeping due to Fabio Aurelio’s inability to last a whole season, and often, a whole month. Emiliano Insua seems everyone’s natural choice at left-back, and rightly so, but young defenders can struggle to regain their form quickly if they lose it (it’s a new experience and they can’t draw on having already overcome such setbacks). Insua also has to prove he can last a season in the first team, having only dipped in and out thus far. It may be worth keeping Dossena simply to help fellow Italian Aquilani settle in, as the new man could be more important to Liverpool’s success than anything a left-back does. Italians don’t have a great record of playing overseas (Zola being an exception), so settling into life off the pitch is vital (as Ian Rush found when making the reverse journey 22 years ago). In that sense, the Italian left-back could be of great use. But I do like Dossena, and hope that it was just a case of adapting to life in the Premiership that made his first six months at the club so shaky, before he briefly shone on the left of midfield, where his crossing was particularly dangerous. I won’t lose sleep if he goes, but Aurelio’s latest injury might have delayed his exit, until January at least.

** Must Sustain Form **

Steven Gerrard At times utterly sensational, although he needs to pick his nights out with more care. The stress of an impending trial, and a few niggling injuries, mean that there is potential to improve further on a campaign that saw him crowned Footballer of the Year. A fit Fernando Torres alongside him for more than 14 games would also help him find more space, gain more assists, and probably get to take more penalties. Pepe Reina Supreme consistency, very few errors and an involvement in quite a few goals at the other end; there really is nothing to say about the most reliable keeper in the country other than: more of the same please, Señor. Yossi Benayoun A non-eventful first half of the season gave way to an outstanding final few months for the Israeli. Of course, it’s possible that he was only that sharp because he was merely a fringe player before February, which means he might not be the kind to sustain it for a whole season, or be able to excel at the start of the campaign when everyone else is equally fresh. However, if he could have that kind of impact for even six of the nine/ten months, rather than three, it could make a world of difference. His ability to get the ball into the danger zone, either with a pass or a dribble, allied to his fine finishing skills, make him a great option, but he will not give width. With Insua and Johnson, that may be less essential. The ‘problem’ is that Liverpool have four very good options for the wings, without any of them being undeniably world-class, and with each offering very contrasting qualities. They are all flawed, but when on form can offer something very special, so it’ll be interesting to see who stakes the strongest claim early on, and who can make the biggest impact as the season progresses. Or whether it will be a case of horses for courses, with selections based on opposition weaknesses. Dirk Kuyt The one wide-man guaranteed a game is Dirk Kuyt and rightly so. I’ve long defended the Dutchman, but even I didn’t think he could be as effective as he was last season, when he weighed in with 15 goals (many of them vital), and some lovely assists, not least with pin-point crosses in the run-in, one of which was even with his left peg. I therefore suspect that he’ll struggle to be quite as effective this time out, although he’s always worth his place in the side for how he inspires those around him to greater efforts by setting a perfect example, and playing without ego. I sincerely hope that last season was not a fluke, but rather a case of proving to himself that he belongs in the side, and that he has ‘cracked’ the Premiership (not in a way that leads to complacency, but one which leads to confidence). If Kuyt can be even 90% as good as last season, and Torres and Gerrard play the whole campaign, that will result in a lot of goals. Lucas Leiva Had a poor start to last season, and a baying crowd booing his name only led to a further dip. But he pulled it together, and has returned looking stronger, with the aim to bulk up and no longer be bullied. So while he could, and should do better overall, he ended last season in the kind of form I’d be happy to see him take into 2009/10. Anything beyond that will be a bonus, unless Aquilani fails to stay fit, or fails to adapt. The biggest problem the Brazilian faces are those fans who won’t be won over, no matter what he does. Martin Skrtel Had a nightmare against Boro, and a few shaky moments thereafter, but on the whole can be pleased with his first full season at the club. Still young for a centre-back, with plenty of scope to improve, but already at a very high level. Offers height and aggression, a valuable combination for the English league. Better on the ball than he’s given credit for, both he and Agger are the long-term future of Liverpool at the heart of the defence, and it’s just a question of how long Jamie Carragher can keep going – he’s not past it yet, but is the only Liverpool first-team player in his 30s. Andriy Voronin I honestly don’t get the criticism of Voronin. While his workrate seems questionable at times (but looks excellent so far in pre-season), and he seems a right miserable sod, he is a clever, skilful player who will add options to those of last season, without the added burden of settling in to a new club. He excelled in the first month of his initial season at Liverpool, and later on, against Besiktas, created five of the eight goals, in a performance I will never forget. But after injury he was admittedly iffy; then again, that’s not a first for any player, let alone one new to a country. He returns after an excellent season in Germany, and can add something different to the squad. I’m not arguing that he’s world-class or going to win the league single-handedly, but if his attitude is right he can chip in with a few goals and assists, as a very capable and game-intelligent back-up striker. Long-term I expect Nemeth, N’Gog and Pacheco to force him out of the equation, but this is a big season, and as Liverpool are still a fairly young side, he should not be seen as keeping those up-and-coming kids out of the side, but tiding the team over until they are ready. However, like Lucas before him, maybe he just needs to crop the ponytail; yes, yes, I’m jealous of anyone with hair, but it seems to affect other people’s perceptions of him, and make him a bit of a joke figure. Let’s face it, even Steven Gerrard wouldn’t be taken as seriously as a footballer with a barnet like that. Emiliano Insua As mentioned earlier, the left-back slot is his for the taking; but it’s time to step up to regular appearances and consistency over a whole campaign. Also needs to make a few more telling contributions in the final third, although it’s not necessarily his fault that he wasn’t involved in a single Liverpool goal, as chances created for others weren’t converted. He seems bigger and sturdier than when he first arrived (he’s certainly solid, but not fat, as some suggest!), and gets forward with natural ability and knows what areas to hit with a cross. He also has a great shot, though it’s only really been seen in the reserves so far. Fabio Aurelio Finally last season the Brazilian convinced me that he could cut it, but in terms of luck, the ‘it’ he cut must have been a black cat. His versatility and experience will keep him close to the first team when fit, and 30 games a season appears to be about as much as we can ever hope for. His free-kicks have become an important weapon in the Reds’ armoury. Even when fit he is rested for games in quick succession, but that could benefit Insua. David N’Gog Heading for the ‘Must Do Better’ category until the spring, the young Frenchman could be excused a lack of impact due to the fact that he was not even used to first team football, let alone that of a superior league and a style of football he was unaccustomed to. I admit to having had my doubts. But I’ve seen enough to now feel very optimistic, even if it might be another year or two before it all clicks into place for him. He still looks a little lightweight at times, but has improved on his early showings, and shows some lovely deft touches. His finishing needs a lot of work, and he’s not a natural like Nemeth (who reminds me so much of a right-footed Robbie Fowler), but is ahead of the Hungarian due to greater height and superior pace. I do expect Nemeth to make a great impact at some point in the next year or two, all the same. N’Gog still only played 452 minutes of Premiership and Champions League football last season (the equivalent of just five games), but according to the Goal Involvement figures I calculated for Red Race (kind of like ‘assists’, but taking more of the move into account), only Gerrard was involved in more goals per-minute of action. Part of this great figure is down to N’Gog featuring mostly against average opposition, but they were still top division sides from England and Europe, suggesting that he has a bright future.

** Anything’s A Bonus **

Philippe Degen Going forward he can look quite pacy, if a little aimless, but I’m yet to see any defensive nous whatsoever. I really don’t know what to make of him, but in fairness so little has been seen of him in competitive action it’s hard to be too critical.

Going forward he can look quite pacy, if a little aimless, but I’m yet to see any defensive nous whatsoever. I really don’t know what to make of him, but in fairness so little has been seen of him in competitive action it’s hard to be too critical.

Martin Kelly He’s in danger of being overtaken by Martin Kelly, who already appears to have moved past Stephen Darby in the pecking order. To me, Kelly looks easily the brightest defensive prospect at the club since Carra broke through 13 years ago. He has pace, strength, height and quality on the ball. Unlike Degen, he looks like a natural when he runs. Anything Kelly does this season will be a bonus, and the same applies to Mikel San Jose. But as young defenders they will almost inevitably make costly mistakes. I expect Ayala, who is even younger, to be behind these two, but he has shown in the reserves that he’s got talent, even if the Youth Cup final was a two-legged nightmare to forget. Nabil El Zhar Not sure why people complain about the young Moroccan, who seems like a handy option from the bench; I’d understand the disquiet if he was a regular starter week-in, week-out, but as things stand he’s a fairly skilful, pacy winger who puts in a lot of effort, too. A fine squad player, but he may do well this season to get on the bench if everyone is fit. But he has room to improve, and is already a decent player at Premiership level. Damien Plessis Definitely should do better than last season, when his bright promise seemed to fade upon returning to the reserves; beyond anything else, he’s fairly low down in the pecking order, so if he fails to build on his excellent debut then not too much is lost. The same applies to Jay Spearing, who has a lot of potential, but who is not a natural partner to Javier Mascherano, whose style he mirrors. Diego Cavalieri In the nicest possible sense, I hope that we don’t see too much of him. He looks like a fine keeper, but how he copes with the pressure of big games is a test I hope we don’t have to discover. As has been seen with someone like Scott Carson, it’s all very well having talent, but nerves on the big occasion can undo a keeper’s career in seconds.

Copyright - Paul Tomkins

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Liverpool snap up Kyrgiakos

Experienced ... Greece international Sotirios Kyrgiakos has joined Liverpool (Getty Images)

Greece international Sotirios Kyrgiakos has completed his transfer to Liverpool and signed a two-year contract.

The 30-year-old has passed a medical to finalise his switch from AEK Athens, and will go straight into the squad for Monday evening's (Tuesday morning AEST) Premier League home match against Aston Villa at Anfield.

He is likely to partner Jamie Carragher in the heart of defence, taking the place of teenager Daniel Ayala who made his full debut in the 4-0 win over Stoke in midweek.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is without two key defenders through injury.

Danish centre-back Daniel Agger will have an operation on his back in Germany next week, and will be out for six weeks.

Martin Skrtel is still struggling with a damaged jaw, sustained at Tottenham last weekend, and is not expected to be fit to face Villa.

Benitez has been searching for defensive cover for weeks, having tried to sign Ryan Shawcross and Michael Turner. He was also linked this week with West Ham's Matthew Upson.

But Liverpool's owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks are believed to have put the block on any further major signings, meaning that Benitez has had to search for the cheaper options.

He has snapped up Kyrgiakos for £2million ($A3.96million), and said of his latest signing: "He has had experience in Scotland with Rangers, and in Germany with Eintracht Frankfurt as well as with the Greek national side.

"He is strong and good in the air, and we were looking for experience and he is the perfect answer."

Kyrgiakos, who has been capped 50 times by Greece, described his decision to move to England as 'the biggest challenge of my career'.

The tough-tackling defender moved back to Greece in 2008 after one season at Rangers and two with Eintracht Frankfurt.

Benitez maintains that Kyrgiakos will be an excellent signing for the Reds, saying: "He is a tough defender who is strong and good in the air.

"He has a strong character and we were looking for these things.

"He can score goals and will be a threat from corners and free-kicks. He is very strong in defence but he will need time as always to settle into the Premier League. He will be a very good signing for us.

"We knew the player when he was with Rangers and we've been watching videos of him at Frankfurt and the national team. Our scout department had a lot of information.

"We have talked about the things he has done before and the things he will have to do for us. It was good. He knows what we want and he's ready to work."

Benitez claims the acquisition of Kyrgiakos will be of benefit to young defenders such as Martin Kelly and Ayala.

He said: "It will be positive. I was talking with Ayala about this. When the young players see someone with experience it is positive because they can learn from them.

"It also means they have more time. If they have to play some games they can but they are not under pressure."

Kyrgiakos' arrival will alleviate Benitez's injury problems in defence.

Benitez is still hopeful that Agger could return before too long.

He said: "If everything goes well it won't take too much time, maybe a few weeks."

Benitez confirmed he will make a late decision on the fitness of Skrtel ahead of the match against Villa.

The Slovakian is still recovering following a clash of heads with Jamie Carragher against Tottenham, and missed the midweek game with Stoke.

Benitez said: "He is training. We had to decide on Wednesday about him, but it was too soon to take any risks. Okay, we'll see on Monday."

One player who will be fit despite requiring stitches to his eyebrow after a collision in the win over Stoke is striker Fernando Torres.

Benitez added: "He has some stitches but he is okay. He is training with his team-mates and I think he will be okay for Monday."


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• Forward must prove his worth this season

• 'Ryan knows he needs to perform at a different level'

Ryan Babel

Rafael Benítez wants Ryan Babel to reward the manager's judgment and justify his £11.5m transfer fee. Photograph: Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Rafael Benítez has told Ryan Babel he must give Liverpool a return on their £11.5m investment this season or risk becoming surplus to requirements at Anfield. The Liverpool manager has twice shown faith in the Dutch international in recent months, resisting the temptation to sell the 22-year-old as he sought to raise transfer funds this summer and then starting the forward in the Premier League opener at Tottenham Hotspur.

Babel disappointed in the defeat at White Hart Lane, however, and was an unused substitute as Liverpool recovered with a 4-0 victory over Stoke City on Wednesday. And Benítez admits he needs the former Ajax forward to make an impact this season.

"Young Dutch players need more time and this year Ryan has to give something and he knows he has to improve," said the Liverpool manager. "He did well in pre-season and was very good against England so that's why we started him at Tottenham, but then the team didn't play well. I have confidence he can give us something more. He knows. From the first training session this year I could see he had more confidence and was trying more. He has 60 games to prove himself this season and it is important he has the right mentality."

Benítez concedes that the forward needs more games to establish himself at Liverpool but, given the competition at the highest level, believes the onus is on players to seize whatever chance arrives at Anfield. He added: "Ryan knows he needs to perform at a different level. Maybe he had problems understanding the style at the beginning but now he needs to be more consistent. The problem is you need more games to be consistent but you cannot guarantee any player a place at a top club."

Liverpool, meanwhile, have completed the £1.5m signing of Sotirios Kyrgiakos from AEK Athens.


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Over-hyped? Yes, but it is good to have the Premier League back

Mark Hughes

Mark Hughes is in a unique position and is well placed to guide Manchester City to Champions League qualification. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA.

Given that the same team has won the Premier League for the past three seasons, and the top four has remained unchanged since Everton staked the briefest of claims in 2005, one can understand why cricket lovers, cynics and curmudgeons are reluctant to get excited about the return of the world's most over-hyped and over-funded football competition.

Strictly speaking it is Spain's turn to cope with the staggering salaries and spiralling superlatives this season – English football can take a back seat from providing most of the planet's excitement and watch how Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Karim Benzema and the rest fare in La Liga – though any contest that can pit moneybags Manchester City against the new austerity at Manchester United, not to mention another new manager at Chelsea against the same old one at Arsenal, is bound to generate interest and incident as the games go by.

There is no doubt that the Premier League is skewed in favour of the handful of clubs with most resources and yearly admission to the Champions League cash buffet, yet to drastically paraphrase Woody Allen's thoughts on sex without love being such an empty feeling, as predictable leagues go, England's is surely one of the best. Indeed, for a league so often derided as predictable, the Premier League is big on weekly surprises even if the annual prizes tend to fall into the same hands.

There is a simple test, in any case, for anyone who really believes the Premier League has become boringly repetitive. Simply take out a piece of paper and write down your predicted top five, in order, plus the three teams you think will go down. Put it somewhere safe and don't look at it for at least six months. Congratulations to anyone who completed this exercise last year – I did, though congratulations are not really in order – and had Newcastle and Middlesbrough in the bottom three.

Perhaps the top three were rather easier to identify, though who could have known this time last year that Chelsea would end their season transformed under Guus Hiddink? In his departure speech after the FA Cup final Hiddink said his one big regret was never getting the chance to play Manchester United, either in the league or in Europe. He clearly thought he could have supervised a victory and, given the way the season ended, who is to say he was wrong? The possibility exists that, had the fixtures come out differently, or had Hiddink arrived a month or so earlier, United and Chelsea may not have finished the season seven points apart. Such considerations are impossible to take into account nine months in advance.

Anyone conducting the exercise now, right at this moment, will quickly realise another imponderable. While the games may start on Saturday the transfer window is open until the end of the month, and if this season is anything like last year, when City not only signed Robinho on the final day but attempted to derail Dimitar Berbatov's move to United, forecasts made in advance of the close of transfer business are based on incomplete information. All of the top four clubs plus City appear capable of making a major signing before 1 September, in fact the greater surprise will be if none of them do.

Precisely what City will manage this season after monopolising most of the transfer dealings and back-page stories over the summer is not only a great talking point, but a divider of opinion. They have unquestionably assembled a strong squad, but while some think that will propel them straight into fourth place or higher, others think egos will clash, money will split the dressing room and the Eastlands project will fall flat on its face. As a relatively inexperienced manager in what can only be described as an uncharted, if not unique situation, Mark Hughes is under pressure as never before. As Sir Alex Ferguson never tires of pointing out, success is rarely instant and money alone cannot buy it.

Ferguson in his turn was confounded in 2004 when José Mourinho pitched up at free-spending Chelsea and won the club's first league title for half a century in his first season in England, yet staggering though that achievement remains, there were a couple of things working in the Special One's favour. First, he had already announced himself as a manager and motivator of considerable ability by winning the Uefa Cup and then the Champions League with Porto. Instant respect at Stamford Bridge. Second, Chelsea were already a strong side with Champions League experience when he took over. Claudio Ranieri's old team, with a few new players and a couple of tactical tweaks, were ready to fly. City have nothing like that pedigree. No trophies, no record of success, just a desperate desire to enjoy some of the fun United have been having and suddenly an apparent means of achieving their goal.

United supporters are convinced City will just end up giving them another laugh, though Hughes has one thing in his favour in addition to the financial backing. City are not in Europe this season and can afford to go all out for a top-four place without the distractions experienced by Aston Villa and Everton last time. They are extremely unlikely to fancy playing in the Europa League the following season so must regard this as their best chance to crack the top four. Going out on a limb a bit – did I not mention that was part of the challenge? – I reckon they might be able to do that. Talk of the title is fanciful at this stage, but if City can offer players Champions League football next summer that will be tangible progress.

For that to happen someone from last season's top four will have to drop out, and while Arsenal seem to be everyone's favourites to continue their downward slide, they tend to operate best when expectations are low and they still look solid and settled enough to have a good season. Despite losing Ronaldo, United appear in no danger of dropping out of the top two, let alone the top four. Chelsea and Liverpool, on the other hand, are expected to do well but might blow up. Liverpool will always be title contenders while they have Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres in tandem, though that did not happen for large parts of last season and they still seem short of alternatives should the star duo be split up again.

The Chelsea that finished so strongly under Hiddink last season would have every chance of pipping a weakened United to the title, yet once again they have a new manager and it is hard to believe an Italian will adapt to English football and footballers as seamlessly as Mourinho did. Carlo Ancelotti may not come to grief as spectacularly as Luiz Felipe Scolari, though just because he has a terrific Champions League record with Milan, it does not mean he will hit the ground running in England. In terms of Premier League experience he is way behind Hughes, let alone Rafa Benítez, Arsène Wenger and Ferguson, and it is possible that the table at the end of the season will reflect that.

Relegation could be the easier end of the table to predict this season. There's a hostage to fortune if ever there was one but Portsmouth look as good as down already and Hull appear extremely unlikely to amass the 27 points before Christmas that kept them afloat last time. At least one of the three promoted clubs will go straight back down, and at the moment it appears to be Burnley who are most short on experience and investment. Romance is still possible – Burnley could turn out to be the new Hull, or Wigan before them – but as with United for the title, that's not the way to bet. When a team has won something three times running, you need a good reason for backing someone else. This season United may not be quite as good as they have been. But which of the chasing pack is going to be better?

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Benitez ponders offer for Turner

Michael Turner
Turner joined Hull from Brentford in July 2006 for just £350,000

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has hinted that he is interested in signing Hull City defender Michael Turner.

Benitez has a number of injury worries in defence and saw Jamie Carragher limp off in the first half of Saturday's 2-1 friendly defeat by Atletico Madrid.

Speaking after the match at Anfield, the Spaniard said: "I was talking with Hull manager Phil Brown, but I will not talk about figures."

He added cryptically: "Maybe I was just talking to Phil about the weather."

Benitez has been linked with a bid for central defender Turner, as well as Portsmouth's Sylvain Distin.

He is believed to have offered £6m for Turner, with Hull wanting closer to £12m.

But with Sami Hyypia and Alvaro Arbeloa having left Liverpool this summer, injury problems may force Benitez to increase his bid.

Daniel Agger (back) and Martin Skrtel (hamstring) are both doubtful for their opening Premier League game at Spurs next weekend.

On Liverpool's injury problems, which also saw Fernando Torres limp off at the end with an ankle injury, Benitez said: "Carragher twisted his ankle, and we decided to take him off as a precaution.

"We will have to wait to see how the injured players improve, but I feel they will be ready for our next game.

"We have two options. One is to bring in someone at the back and the other option is to keep working with the young players we have.

"Some youngsters need the opportunity to impress, we will see how they go.

"Jamie will come in tomorrow for treatment at Melwood, and we will assess the situation then.

"For a twisted ankle you need two or three days to see how the injury settles down. I do not believe he will need a scan.

"Fernando came off with an slight injury on his ankle, but he also came off as a precaution because this was only a friendly."

Liverpool played most of the match with Spanish youngsters Danny Ayala and Mikel San Jose in central defence against the outstanding Atletico forward Sergio Aguero.

A target for Chelsea, Aguero scored one goal and created a second for Diego Forlan in the first half, with Lucas Leiva replying for late on Liverpool.

Atletico coach Abel Resino dismissed the Chelsea connection, saying: "As far as I know, we have not had any bids for Aguero."

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Rafa Benitez has a lot to ponder before the new season
Limping off: Jamie Carragher left the field after 15 minutes against Athletico Madrid to add to Rafa Benitez's problems Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Rafa Benitez, seven days from the start of Liverpool's most important league campaign for 20 years, has much to ponder.

Though the Spaniard will be hopeful Jamie Carragher, withdrawn after 15 minutes of yesterday's 2-1 Anfield loss to Atletico Madrid with a twisted ankle, and Daniel Agger will be fit for Sunday's trip to White Hart Lane, he will most likely be without Martin Skrtel, while he will have to wait until October to see Alberto Aquilani, the £20 million replacement for Xabi Alonso, in red.

Doubts hover over Lucas Leiva, a £6 million target for a handful of clubs, while there remains a lack of strength in depth in attack. It is believed Benitez has money to spend – he admits he has spoken with Phil Brown about Hull defender Michael Turner – though he is likely to be browsing in the bargain bin. It is hard to disagree with Sir Alex Ferguson's assessment that Liverpool, given their troubles, would do well to match their 86-point haul of last season. Still, as ever on Merseyside, where there is Steven Gerrard, there is hope.

The Liverpool captain is used, by now, to shouldering the burden of expectation, but it weighs heavier now than ever before. Free from his off-pitch distractions of last season, Gerrard, at 29, knows time is starting to fly. Liverpool came within a whisker of landing their first title since 1990 last term, undone by home draws, and, with the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo, Emmanuel Adebayor and Guus Hiddink from their rivals, could not hope for a better chance this time.

With Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates all in a state, to a greater or lesser extent, of flux, Gerrard is Anfield's constant. Even in pre-season, the stands tingle as he picks up the ball from deep. His team-mates, too, the England international combining on half-a-dozen occasions with Fernando Torres as Liverpool created a barrage of chances, all but one spurned.

Gerrard thrives on his almost telepathic connection with the Spaniard, each clearly enjoying the company of the other. Benitez – and Fabio Capello - will be pleased, too, that he seems to have a new playmate. Glen Johnson, another man with England on his mind, impressed on his home debut, his attacking instincts designed to give Liverpool added impetus. Benitez's intent is clear; at Anfield, Liverpool will go for the jugular, and with it the title.

Frederic Piquionne, on loan from Lyon, scored twice on his debut as Portsmouth beat Rangers 2-0. Emile Heskey scored for Aston Villa as they beat Fiorentina 1-0 while Sunderland drew 1-1 with Hearts.

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Reds suffer Atletico defeat

Liverpool 1-2 Atletico Madrid

LucasLiverpool’s pre-season campaign continues to go wrong with another defeat and another injury in their final friendly against Atletico Madrid at Anfield.

The Spaniard’s front duo of Aguero and Diego Forlan both claimed a goal each before Reds in-form midfielder Lucas pulled one back late on.

With Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel already injured, Jamie Carragher limped off early on and adds to Rafa Benitez’s worries. The Reds were left with youngsters Daniel Ayala and Mikel San Jose at the back.

Carragher picked up an ankle knock which hopefully won’t see him out of next’s opening game against Spurs.



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