Battle for Anfield casts shadow over quest for Champions League
Tuesday 22 April 2008
The battle for control of Anfield will not be confined to the pitch tonight as Liverpool face Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final. In an extraordinary move, which threatens to overshadow the eagerly anticipated encounter, senior officials from Dubai International Capital – including the chief executive Samir Al-Ansari – will be in the directors' box as the guests of the club's co-owner George Gillett.
The American himself will not attend, due to ill health, which may be a strategic decision, but his son and fellow director, Foster Gillett, will host Al-Ansari and Amanda Staveley, who is DIC's chief negotiator, as they head towards buying Liverpool for around £400m.
Tom Hicks, who owns the other 50 per cent of Liverpool, and has become a hate-figure among supporters due to his belligerent feud with Gillett, is also expected to be at the match, which may make for an interesting seating arrangement. It would be no surprise, however, if Hicks cried off at the last moment, with his spokesman last night refusing to confirm whether or not he would travel to Merseyside. If he did, so it would confirm that DIC is set to buy the club.
DIC, which has hugely ambitious plans for Liverpool and has been trying to acquire the club for two years, is supremely confident that it will finally reach its goal in the next few weeks. It has already agreed a deal with Gillett, who is prepared to accept less than Hicks to make sure the club's future is secure – even though both businessmen will make a healthy return on the £220m they paid 18 months ago. DIC appears sure that Hicks' public attempts to find the finance to acquire the club outright for himself are doomed to failure. DIC expects the Texan to sell to it and believes he is now just posturing.
Meetings have continued behind the scenes over the last few weeks, including several with former players and people who have influence at the club, as DIC wants to make sure it has the fans' approval, which the company believes is vital. And the fact that both Al-Ansari, who is a lifelong Liverpool supporter, and Staveley feel emboldened enough to make public appearances at Anfield shows just how confident they are. Still, Hicks remains belligerent as was evidenced in his television interview last week, which followed his attempts to sack the chief executive Rick Parry, who wants to sell to DIC. But Hicks' bold claims that he can veto Gillett's sale of his stake in the club are not thought to be watertight.
The Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, is refusing to be drawn on the continued developments over the club's future. He believes he was unfairly castigated for his previous interventions and wants to concentrate on attempting to reach what would be Liverpool's third European Cup final under him in just four years, which would be a remarkable achievement.
Chelsea will hope to stymie that, even though they have fallen at this stage of the competition, at Anfield, on two previous occasions. Yesterday the Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, who has been declared fit despite his neck problems which ruled him out of Saturday's meeting with Fulham, claimed that Chelsea "will be wary of us and what we're capable of".
The midfielder added: "They'll have seen the Arsenal game [the second leg of the quarter-final, which Liverpool won 4-2] and be in no doubt of the task ahead. I have a lot of confidence in us.
"This team never knows when it's beaten. Some teams wilt and chuck it when the going gets tough. That's not the case with us; we'll battle and scrap and believe in our ability to do whatever it takes – here at Anfield or down there on their patch – to progress in the European Cup. I don't think there's a player, a manager or supporter of any team in Europe who wouldn't say the Champions League is the pinnacle in football.
"That's one of the reasons why we are desperate to be there when the destiny of the trophy is decided. We need to be brave, bold and clinical and in the return game down there. If we do that, then we can start thinking about Russia."
Gerrard certainly believes that Liverpool have the sign over Chelsea even if, this time, the return leg is at Stamford Bridge. "It's suggested that it gives them a big advantage over us this time around," he said. "There's maybe a little edge for Chelsea in that, but I don't believe that it will have any say. Stamford Bridge is a big stadium and it might give them more confidence bringing us to their backyard, but it's got nothing like the aura about it that Anfield does – and it certainly won't intimidate us."
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