Morientes finds right words to become Kop idol

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The Independent Football

Before Fernando Morientes reached the door of the Anfield press room, his eye was caught by one picture on the wall that, among all the other photographs of Liverpool city landmarks, made the Spanish striker stop to take notice. He took a step closer to examine the picture before turning to his translator to ask "El famoso Kop?"

Before Fernando Morientes reached the door of the Anfield press room, his eye was caught by one picture on the wall that, among all the other photographs of Liverpool city landmarks, made the Spanish striker stop to take notice. He took a step closer to examine the picture before turning to his translator to ask "El famoso Kop?"

If "El famoso Kop" have studied the form, they will know that a Morientes debut, which comes today against Manchester United, is a cause for great anticipation. Anyone who has followed his career knows that the striker scored in his first matches for Albacete, Real Zaragoza, Real Madrid and Monaco as well as Spain's Under-18, Under-20 and senior teams.

For his part, Morientes did not underestimate the circumstances of his debut when he called the match "as important as Real Madrid against Barcelona". He added: "It might be down to luck or fate but I do have this run of scoring on my debut and the one that I cherish most is my first goal for the national team. But if I score against United, that goal will be equally important."

Despite the reports of a "verbal agreement" between Real and Liverpool for the Spanish side to have first refusal on Steven Gerrard in the summer, Rafael Benitez was unwavering in his stance that the club, and he chooses his words carefully, "do not want to sell" their captain. Morientes himself went even further in emphasising the importance of Gerrard, whom he described as the "figurehead" of Liverpool. "I'm going to learn English as quickly as possible so I can tell him to stay," he said.

Not surprising when you hear the praise lavished upon Gerrard from another central figure in today's encounter. Sir Alex Ferguson has never been slow to talk up the footballers that he covets, although the United manager has now given up on ever signing Gerrard. "We would show an interest in Gerrard if there was any chance of getting him," he said. "Liverpool and Manchester United just do not sell players to each other."

"There are a lot of similarities between Roy Keane and Gerrard as young players," he said. "They both have that great energy and dynamism. The key with the great players is how well they retain it. Roy has retained his dynamism for more than a decade. He's 32, playing fantastically well and that's incredible. Steven Gerrard could be the pivotal player for England over the next decade."

However Benitez regards his five Spanish acquisitions, there was little doubt at Liverpool yesterday that Morientes was the big European name they were looking for to reassure them that they have not become a selling club among the continent's élite. Benitez revealed yesterday that more money was offered for Morientes by their competitors Newcastle, Lyon and Monaco, but that the player had given his assurance since the beginning of December that he would join Liverpool.

"When you leave Madrid you need to go to another club that fills you with hope and enthusiasm and Liverpool does that for me," Morientes said. "I spoke to all my friends here - Hierro, McManaman, Campo - and they all told me to join. I was told that, while in Madrid you have to deal with the press and fans every day, here you can get on with your football. I am also aware of Liverpool's status and it is important to me that they are challenging at the top of the league."

His match fitness may yet prove to be an issue today, but Morientes' suitability for the Premiership has never been in any serious doubt. "I'm good with my head and I prefer to shoot first time," he said. "From what I have seen of English football a lot of the action is in the penalty area and I think the qualities that I bring could be decisive."

There was no mention of Michael Owen, the man with whom Morientes has exchanged jobs over the course of the last six months, but he admitted that life at Madrid had changed dramatically under the rule of Florentino Perez. "I always wanted to contribute," he said, "and I came to Liverpool because I wanted to take part."

Ferguson also described Morientes as "an untypical Spanish footballer", although the United manager could not resist adding that the striker had been considered as a potential transfer target "but not in a serious way".

There may be no Rio Ferdinand to measure himself against today, but Morientes can at least compare himself to the young Liverpudlian at the other end of the pitch. Wayne Rooney makes his playing return to Merseyside and the welcome he will receive from the Kop will tell Morientes more about English football than a thousand pictures ever could.

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