Monday, May 25, 2009

What Next For Liverpool? Who Needs To Come In, And Who Needs To Leave?

Liverpool FC have just had their best ever finish to a Premiership season. Coming in a close second to Manchester United, the team from Anfield have finally made that small step that seems a mile, to challenge for the title. Now, comes the hard part, winning the title...

In Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, they have two of the best attacking players in the world. Ably backed up by the likes of Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Jamie Carragher, and Jose Reina, Liverpool have one of the strongest spines in European football.

This team have only lost twice all season, yet they finished four points behind their bitter rivals. The reason: too many draws. By finishing level 11 times, Liverpool denied themselves the potential of an extra 22 points. By winning just two of those matches, they might have won the league.

Next season will be a massive season for the club and for their manager Rafael Benitez. Finally in complete charge of the transfers both coming in and out of the club, the Spanish manager sees Liverpool as United's only real rivals next season.

He has earmarked a possible three signings for the club to achieve that illusive dream. One problem that seems to be up for general debate is that certain players will have to move on so that funds become available.

Club legend Sami Hyypia has already moved to pastures new. The giant Finish international spent a fantastic 10 years with the club, playing in 464 matches. But at 35, he is well past his best, and a move to Bayer Leverkusen is good business for both club and player.

With Hyypia moving on, Benitez will have another £2m in his kitty, rumoured to be anything from £20m to £40m.

There is no doubting Liverpool need strengthening in the full back positions. Dossena never seemed to settle, and the jury is still out on Arbeloa and Aurelio, while the injury jinxed Phillipe Degen looks destined to head back to Belgium.

Glen Johnson will be Portsmouth's most sought after player this summer. After being released by Chelsea, it had appeared that his career in the Champions League was at an end, but after two brilliant seasons at Pompey he is now rated as the best right back in the country.

His transfer fee should be around £10m, but at that price Benitez will have some competition. Manchester City have the ability to gazump everyone and Spurs will have the ace that is Johnson's ex-manager, Harry Redknapp.

Despite this Liverpool should be able to fend these off with guaranteed Champions League football, especially as City and Spurs won't even be in Europe.

The problem with signing Johnson is that it might end Liverpool's interest in Carlos Tevez. His agents are rumoured to be demanding a signing on fee of £10M for two year's loan plus £10M in wages for Tevez, and that's before the transfer fee of £25M.

The board have already backed Rafa with money during his tenure. In his time with the club his spending has hit £170M, while the club's wage bill has gone up from £64M a year to £79M a year.

Whether they will splash out such a massive fee on Tevez remains to be seen, but many feel he could be the missing piece in a title winning team.

Imagine Torres up front, Gerrard, Tevez, and Kuyt just behind, with Mascherano and either Barry or Alonso in midfield. Frightening to say the least.

One thing that Rafa cannot be faulted on is the tenacity, desire and determination of his team, and a player with a magnificent work rate like Tevez would slot right in. We all said that about Robbie Keane, however, and we know how that turned out.

The probable signing of Gareth Barry is causing alarm bells in some areas of Anfield, especially in the Xabi Alonso appreciation stand. The Spaniard is mercurial when it comes to passing and, on his day, is probably the best passer of a ball in Europe.

He is a real throwback to the days of old, when midfielders were expected to be jacks of all trades. Alonso's problem is that he is not the most mobile or, at least, nowhere near as mobile as Barry.

Last season, the club made it obvious to everyone that Gareth Barry was transfer target number one. At £18m Rick Parry decided he was too expensive, but with Barry in the final year of his contract is now available for around £10m, so Liverpool look odds-on to go try again for Villa's ex-captain.

If Barry does come in, and Alonso does make his exit, it would mean that Liverpool as a team would have completely shifted their football philosophy and would almost instantly become a workman like team, albeit with some flair up front.

Unlike Alonso, Barry is not the kind of player who can pass the ball through the eye of a needle. He's a box to box player, a player who can get about, and put himself about, almost the antithesis of Alonso.

Anyone who was brought up looking at Liverpool in the '70s and '80s, were brought up to realise that good football with good discipline is what won them so many titles. Although Liverpool's fans have been starved of a title-winning team for almost 20 years now, such a change in direction could be hard to take, but if Rafa delivers a trophy then all will be forgiven.

Albert Riera has one more season before the fans and Rafa finally decide on him while Ryan Babel looks set to move back home to whoever can afford him. Yossi Benayoun has proved to be a superb squad player, so don't expect him to move on, but if Rafa gets Valencia from Wigan, as Phil Thompson seems to think he will, then the Israeli international could be on his way.

Another area that needs strengthening is at centre half. With Hyypia moving on Liverpool have only three recognised senior central defenders, but this is where one of the English youth players is most likely to make a step up.

The 6+5 rule will be coming in during the summer, and Liverpool, like any other EPL team, will have to make some adjustments, hence the importance of bringing in players like Johnson and Barry over an Argentinian like Tevez.

One thing to note is that Liverpool were the only team in the top four to begin every Premier League game with an Englishman on the pitch. So with one or two top drawer English additions they should not have too many problems, and with UEFA's new rule looking likely to be implemented next season it would seem that signing English players is the way to go.

The on/off saga of the new stadium has entered a new level, as Carlsberg have begun negotiating over the name rights for the said stadium, although this may be a tad premature. With Hicks and Gillett needing to refinance their loans on the club at the end of the summer, a new stadium looks as far away as it did last year.

One thing about the new stadium that won't go away is that Everton are still willing to share, and as both clubs wrestle with growing debts it could begrudgingly become an option the longer both clubs have to wait for the Economy to pick up.

With the current collapse of sterling against the Euro and against the American dollar, the American businessmen have seen the wealth diminish, so there won't be a massive spending spree for Rafa during the summer.

As Benitez has intimated that they only need one or two more, the fans of Liverpool FC hope they're the right signings to bring the title back home.

twitter / WillieGannon