Skrtel arrives to revive Liverpool's flagging pursuit
Saturday 12 January 2008
For Rafael Benitez, a reason to be cheerful after another highly charged week. Martin Skrtel – unveiled by Liverpool as their most costly defender yesterday and immediately compared by Benitez by Jamie Carragher – revealed he had turned down a move to Everton after hearing of their neighbours' interest.
Benitez, who indicated that Malian midfielder Momo Sissoko is probably heading out of Anfield following three bids – thought to include £10m from Juventus – will not consider a move for Sami Hyypia to Fulham, though sources suggest Roy Hodgson, who managed Hyypia in the Finland side, is desperate to do a deal for the 34-year-old whose lack of pace has been exposed at times this season.
Benitez must wait to see if the signs shown by the £6.5m Skrtel in a commanding performance for Zenit St Petersburg against Everton's Andy Johnson in a 1-0 Uefa Cup defeat at Goodison last month bear fruit. The 23-year-old Slovakian, whose father influenced his decision to give up an ice hockey career for football, is 10 days off match fitness having signed in the close season from the recently crowned Russian champions and will miss today's trip to Middlesbrough. But the Liverpool manager was in a more ebullient mood than of late as he pondered a phase of the season in which every match is suddenly a must-win due to a gaping 12-point gap from Arsenal.
"I've been managing for 21 years now. I know that for a manager I'm young but 21 years I think is enough experience – so I don't have any problem with my ability and any doubt about the quality of the squad," said Benitez, when the conspicuous absence of a ringing endorsement from Tom Hicks and George Gillett jnr was mentioned.
Fighting talk – but Benitez was surely in denial when he said that the pressure his players are under will be no greater at the Riverside than at any other time this season. "Look," said Benitez, "The record [points total] of the club is 82 points and we finished third because Chelsea won the title with 91. If you want to win the title you must win almost every one so the pressure for Middlesbrough was the same at the beginning of the season because to finish second is nothing if you want to win the title. The pressure is the same."
He neglected to add that Liverpool's disappointing draws at Manchester City and at home to Wigan mean that they must win every remaining game to reach that record total Chelsea set four years ago, while 82 points – probably more realistic – is 11 wins away for Arsenal, who have 17 to play.
Benitez again seemed to hint that the recent presence of Gillett's son Foster helped make Skrtel's arrival so smooth ("We talked almost every day.") But evidence that the owners are still getting to grips with Benitez and Liverpool is provided in the sections of an illuminating US interview with Hicks, previously unpublished in the UK. "My involvement happened relatively quickly, so it wasn't like I had been studying this for months and months," Hicks said. "I did not have any appreciation of what the Kop was."
Benitez, who has Steven Gerrard and Alvaro Arbeloa back today, will not be going to the Americans for any more reinforcements. Skrtel said the influence of English-speaking manager Dick Advocaat would help him acclimatise, linguistically at least, as he starts a four-and-a-half year contract. "The Everton match confirmed for me that the football is fast here and gave me some idea of what to expect," he said.
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