Who should Rafa target

Who should Rafa target to improve for next season?

Assuming that Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is at the helm again next season and the fact Liverpool have endured a miserable time of it in 2009-2010, who are the players whom Rafa should be targeting to turn this around?

Let’s imagine for a moment that the Spaniard has a blank chequebook enabling him to sign the players he wants (yes, I know how unlikely that is at the minute at Liverpool, who are probably paying the milkman in Tesco vouchers).

Who should he target for next season?

  1. Jesus Navas (Sevilla) :

Liverpool’s main problem area, not just this season, but for the past 10 years, if not longer, has been wide midfield.

The fact that Benitez continues to play the likes of Yossi Benayoun (better centrally), Dirk Kuyt (a striker), Steven Gerrard (a travesty when played wide) down the flanks is more an indictment of the form of Albert Riera and Ryan Babel than an endorsement of the players abilities as a winger.

Liverpool need a fast, tricky winger to stretch teams in the same way that Nani or Valencia do for Manchester United, particularly down the right where Glen Johnson has done a manful job this season, but needs far better support.

Navas of Sevilla is the man. He is an outstanding young winger who would be a huge asset to Liverpool used down either flank.

2 Gareth Bale        (Tottenham) :

Insua may be a decent left back technically, but his lack of height and pace has been exposed time and time again this season.

Liverpool need to upgrade here and upgrade quickly and the best option for them would be to make a move for Gareth Bale of Spurs.

The Welsh youngster has been in exceptional form this season but Harry Redknapp has plenty of options and if a fee could be agreed, he’d make an excellent acquisition and a significant improvement over Insua at full back.

  1. Luis Suarez (Ajax) :

Rafa Benitez needs to dispel this myth that Liverpool are a better team when Steven Gerrard operates best as the second striker behind Fernando Torres, with two defensive midfielders tucked in behind him.

It has been plain to see over the past few games that when Gerrard is teamed in midfield with Mascherano and a partner is played alongside Torres, that Liverpool look much, much stronger.

Unfortunately for Liverpool, striking partners for Torres are thin on the ground, hence a move for a young, world class striker who can ease the scoring burden on Gerrard and Torres. Suarez is that man.

  1. Micah Richards (Manchester City) :

Richards seems not to be in the plans of Roberto Mancini and as a result he has fallen down the pecking order for club and country.

Liverpool need a powerful, muscular and young defender to replace Carragher and give much needed back up to Glen Johnson.

Richards would do this immediately and would be a long term solution in defence, filling in the role that Carragher plays for the club at the moment, full time centre back, part time right back.

He’s still raw and not yet the finished article, but he would get the chance to fulfil his potential at the club.

  1. Juan Manuel Mata (Valencia) :

If Navas is going to improve the right flank then a similar quality of player is needed down the left.

Mata fits the bill and Rafa Benitez is already believed to be acutely aware of this players potential, having been strongly linked with the Valencia star for some time now.

Mata would give the side balance, a naturally left footed player who would provide a similar quality of ball from the left as Navas would the right, though they could interchange wings whenever possible to switch the angle of attack.

The thought of Torres, Suarez and Gerrard feasting on their crosses from wide areas is food for thought for every Liverpool fan.

What kind of money can Liverpool spend?

But this flight of fancy needs to be tempered with the harsh reality that Liverpool do not have this amount of money to spend, or anywhere near it.

In order to fund such purchases not only would several players need to be allowed to leave the club, to raise transfer funds, but also free up space on the wage budget.

Therefore the likes of Riera, Babel, Benayoun (though it would be with a heavy heart I’d let the Israeli go), Skrtel, Insua, Aurielo, El Zhar and Degen would all be allowed to leave.

In addition, I’d give serious consideration to the future of Lucas Leivia and Alberto Aquilani and if the right offers came in, I would consider selling either or both of them. The same would be true for Kuyt or Agger.

It sounds somewhat drastic, but it could get worse. The alternative is losing either one or two of Gerrard, Torres and Mascherano and for me, losing either one of those players is worse than losing all of those listed above.

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Golf Preview

With my equilibrium perhaps damaged by the volcanic ash that seems to be enveloping the UK your intrepid correspondent missed the first day’s play at the Volvo China Open.

Or perhaps I’m just struggling to keep abreast of the European Tour’s quite incredibly haphazard early season scheduling.

Pablo Larazabal had a good start

Anyway with a day’s paly out of the way already I’ll restrict myself to pointing you towards a couple of contenders. Pablo Larazabal had a commendable start with a six under 66 leaving him just two shots off the pace.

If you can match the 18/1 that Paddy Power are offering he might keep your interest going into the weekend.

Scottish golf’s seemingly interminable wait for some good news goes on but take a look at the odds offered on Alistair Forsyth who the bookies seem to be leaving in the middle of the field despite a solid 69 seeing him get close enough to the heart of the action in the first round.

After the drama of Tiger’s return and the brilliance and emotion of Phil Mickelson’s win the PGA Tour needs a moment to catch its breath this week. With a number of players sitting deciding to give the trip to South Carolina a miss it seems as though even the Harbour Town Golf Links does not offer relaxation enough during the Verizon Heritage.

KJ Choi is always solid

KJ Choi went hole for hole with Tiger across four days at Augusta and didn’t blink so you can expect the solid Korean to be unfazed by the competition this week.

Paul Casey and Martin Laird lead the British challenge but don’t overlook the third member of the UK triumvirate.

Englishman Brian Davis is full time on the PGA Tour and is capable of the kind of sound play, consistent golf that might just get the job done this week.

Tom Gillis was a Nationwide Tour graduate last season and has got off to a solid start on the main tour this time around. Six cuts made and four finishes inside the top 25 point to a solid enough year and he’ll know that his best chance of securing his card early is to shine in weeks like this when the competition is slightly weaker.

His recent experience on the Nationwide Tour also means he knows his way around a leaderboard as well as most players. His unknown status will make his odds generous and he could be a good outside bet here.

Robert Allenby will soon secure a win

I’d also take a look at South African Tim Clark. A player that seems to have been around ever but gets on with his business as quietly as anyone he’s enjoyed a strong start to 2010.

Three top ten finishes in nine events has been solid enough to take him into the top 25 in the early season FedEx Cup standings and make him look a strong contender in this field.

Finally I’ll stick in the southern hemisphere to cast my eye over Robert Allenby. Few are more consistent tee to green that the unassuming Australian. Question’s remain over his short game – who doesn’t know that feeling – but he’ll find that less of a problem here than at Augusta.

He’s already knocked on the door this season. It surely won’t be long before he holes enough putts to secure a win.

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Champions League semi finals preview

One of the most wonderful things about football is that despite months of progress through the group stages, hundreds of games, meticulous tactical preparation and the genius of some players, it may well yet be a volcano in Iceland which is the biggest influence on each of this week’s Champions League semi final first legs!

Barcelona face a long trip across Spain, through France and into Italy to take on Inter Milan for the first semi final, a trip of over 1000km that is taking them almost two days to make.

Will Inter take their cue from Espanyol?

On the field, Jose Mourinho’s men will be heartened by the way city rivals Espanol managed to negate Barcelona at the weekend, holding their city rivals to a goalless draw.

No doubt Jose Mourinho will have his own plan of action at hand to deal with the free flowing football of the Catalan side.

Mourinho has, after all, faced Barcelona twice this season, a 0-0 draw in the home leg of their group game followed by a 2-0 defeat in the Nou Camp. The “Special One” will have learned much from those encounters.

Messi’s influence?

Many eyes will now be focused on Lionel Messi, but the Argentinean may struggle to influence the game, particularly in the first leg. Inter will no doubt haveformulated a plan to keep him quiet and Messi’s best performances this season have tended to come at the Nou Camp.

If the Italians can wrestle control of the game in midfield and get at the Barcelona defence, which I still maintain is by far the weakest aspect of the side, I feel Inter could perhaps sneak a narrow victory in the first leg perhaps by a single goal.

Certainly Samuel Eto’o will have plenty to prove against his former club and with Diego Milito in good goalscoring form, allied with Inter’s vast defensive experience and Mourinho’s tactical genius and home advantage over a Barcelona team forced to travel for many hours across land to get to the game, I strongly fancy the Italian side to hand Barcelona a rare defeat.

My advice is to get on the 3.20 on offer with Betfair for an Inter home win against a Barcelona side that looked particularly muted at the weekend.

Bayern odds on against Lyon?

Wednesday night sees the two less fancied teams in the competition square off in the beautiful Alianz Arena in Munich as hosts Bayern face off against the big underdogs in the competition, Lyon.

Most of the betting sites online have Bayern as strong favourites for this first leg and given their resurgence in form in recent times under Louis Van Gaal, and their strong home form in particular, it is hard to argue against that.

However Lyon have shown great resilience this season in the Champions League. The French side have beaten Liverpool at Anfield already this season and having come through their all-French quarter final with Bordeaux, they will be confident going into the clash with Bayern.

Problems facing Lyon on and off the field

However the French side face two problems, firstly there is the seven hour bus journey taking them from their home to Munich, due once again to the ash cloud.

Secondly and perhaps more worrying for their hopes, is an injury to striker Lisandro Lopez making him a doubt for the game. Should the striker miss the tie, his loss would be a huge blow to Lyon’s hopes in this crucial first leg.

Bayern, in contrast, have few injury concerns and come to the game fresh from another outstanding performance in the Bundesliga, where they smacked seven goals past Hannover at the weekend.

In form Arjen Robben scoring a hat trick to add to his catalogue of key strikes for the German giants.

Given that Lyon could be without Lopez, the seven hour journey to Munich and the form of the German giants, it is hard to argue with the most betting sites appraisal of the game.

This looks to me like being a solid Munich win and you can get that at 1.73 with Paddy Power at the moment.

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Preview – Open de Andalucia and Arnold Palmer Invitational

First Europen Tor event in Europe for the season!

The European Tour’s relaxed attitude to geography means that this week’s Open de Andalucia is actually the first of the season’s events to take place in Europe.

The tournament is co-promoted by Malaga native Miguel Angel-Jiminez and the Spanish influence is extended throughout the field.

Jiminez has won four out of his 16 tournament victories in Spain and we can expect him to justify his place amongst the favourites with a strong showing this week.

The big hitting Alvaro Quiros leads the betting just now and he to should still be involved in the final shake up on Sunday.

Pablo Martin ready to bounce back

Take a look also at Pablo Martin. Another local boy, he had a great start to the season with a win at the Alfred Dunhill Championship and a tie for sixth at the South African Open.

His form has dipped since then but that is a lot to do with the death of his father and a tie for 38th on six under in Morocco last week suggests he’s finding his feet again.

This will be an emotional homecoming and if he can feed into the goodwill he can challenge at the weekend.

Danny Willett would look to lead the British challenge. A former world amateur number the Yorkshireman has already posted three top ten finishes in six events this season.

He was only denied an each way placing last week with a double bogey down the last. He looks set fair to build a solid professional career and odds in the mid twenties could well tempt this week.

No Tiger in the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Tiger continues to dominate the US headlines without yet hitting a ball in anger. He’s skipping the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, maybe a relief to the rest of the field who have watched him take home the honours six times in the past.

With no Tiger around, Phil Mickelson slots in as favourite, but is still searching for form in 2010.

Steve Stricker is best of the rest with the bookies and I’d say it’s worth looking around to try and find odds generous enough for an each way punt on the American.

Graeme McDowell sat last week out and will arrive fresh from his tie for sixth place at the WGC-CA Championship a fortnight ago.

His closing 66 there was an indication both of his form and his love for being in at the sharp end in big American events. Expect another strong showing as he finishes his preparations for his beloved Masters.

Another with an eye on Augusta will be former champion Mike Weir. A solitary top ten finish would seem to be scant reward for a solid enough start to the season for the Canadian left hander.

Good news for us though as the odds are likely to make backing the unassuming Weir more than tempting.

Pat Perez came close here last year before finishing tied for fourth and although his form since then has been patchy this is a course that suits him.

Last year’s experience will have given him the confidence to deal with any pressure that comes his way in Arnie’s backyard. Another top five finish is not impossible this year.

The South Africans

Finally a couple of South Africans catch the eye.

Charl Schwartzel has been in great form to lead Europe’s Race To Dubai so he’ll be keen to make an impression in the States.

And Trevor Immelman, another former Masters champion, has not had his troubles to seek in the past couple of years with injuries and poor form. He’s too good a player to stay in that rut forever and it won’t be long before he is challenging again.

Where better to start than at the home course of the man who is still, in many people’s eyes, the greatest Master of them all?

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