Soccer: Setting the tone with signings

By Tim Rich

The Anfield boot room, where championships were once plotted, now serves as Liverpool's press room and sometimes Rafael Benitez would point to the pictures on the wall. They showed the team that won Liverpool the European Cup in Istanbul.

Benitez would gesture towards them and remark that most of these players, the ones he inherited from Gerard Houllier, were not very good. "I wonder how we ever won it," he would say.

The squad Benitez left behind is considerably better than the one he inherited from Houllier but Roy Hodgson knew it needed breaking up and rebuilding.

With his half-a-dozen languages and his studied, professorial air, Liverpool's new manager may be the nearest thing to an English Arsene Wenger, but he has begun his first month in office with a deft ruthlessness.

A manager's first signing sets the tone. In his first summer Benitez brought in four Spaniards - one of whom, Xabi Alonso, was exceptional - and allowed Michael Owen and Danny Murphy, products of Liverpool's once flourishing academy, to move on.

Persuading Joe Cole to leave London was an invigorating move. He may have been a free agent but he was a name who did not require a Google search or a subscription to Marca and when he talked of Liverpool being the "biggest club in the world" or recalling the European Cup semifinal in 2005 "when the atmosphere made the hair on the back of my neck stand up" he talked the Kop's language.

Curiously, recreating "atmosphere" in what has been a dispirited dressing room is a word Hodgson uses a lot.

More importantly, Cole secured Steven Gerrard's future. The Liverpool captain had not enjoyed last season and he had seldom enjoyed working with Benitez. At 30, he has one move left and did not give his commitment to Anfield immediately after Hodgson's appointment. Liverpool's shortlist to find a successor to Benitez was sufficiently weak for Kenny Dalglish to suggest himself as the new manager.

Gerrard would wait and see, although he did not have to wait too long. If there is a photograph that sums up Liverpool's summer it is the one of England teammates Cole and Gerrard grinning as they cycle together at the club's training camp in Switzerland.

It was not a surprise that Emiliano Insua and Fabio Aurelio had been the first to join Yossi Benayoun on the road out of Anfield.

Just as Wenger seemed unable to bring a high-class goalkeeper to Arsenal, fullbacks were Benitez's blind spot. Josemi, his debut signing for Liverpool, was the first in a long and dispiriting line, especially as he lost faith in another academy product, Stephen Warnock, who was to prove better than who replaced him.

Wayne Bridge is not the best left-back in England but he is more consistent than Insua and as good as Fabio Aurelio and, if Manchester City are spending £17 million ($36.1 million) to bring Aleksandar Kolarov from Lazio, he would very quickly become a bit-part player at Eastlands.

Meanwhile, the extras in Benitez's productions are being moved offstage.

Albert Riera, who called Liverpool "a sinking ship" in March, will join Olympiakos for a fee of about £4 million in the next few days. Sotirios Kyrgiakos, a bargain-basement buy from AEK Athens, is likely to follow him to Greece.

On the other side, Peter Crouch may be persuaded back to Merseyside, or Hodgson could invest £12.5 million in Loic Remy, a 23-year-old who scored 14 times in Le Championnat last season and who is rated by his club, Nice, as a striker with the pace and potential of a Thierry Henry or a Nicolas Anelka.

Nevertheless, despite Hodgson's assurances that it was perfectly normal for Javier Mascherano not to return his calls, it seems extremely unlikely that the captain of Argentina will be protecting the back four when Liverpool's season begins against Arsenal.

His agent, Walter Tamar, has talked of the "magical taste" of a reunion with Benitez at the new European champions, Internazionale.

Frankly, it would be hard for anyone at Anfield to deny Gabriel Milito's assertion that: "It is unrealistic of Liverpool to think they can keep hold of him when they can't even offer him Champions League football and are not close to challenging Chelsea or Manchester United for the title."

As for Fernando Torres, nobody really knows. Perhaps the biggest factor in Liverpool's favour is that there are very few clubs that could raise the fee for the striker. That may be why there was a realism about Hodgson as he prepared for his first game, against Grasshoppers Zurich, last night.

"It is not going to be an overnight thing," he told the club's website. "I don't want to dupe the Liverpool public by telling them that everything is rosy because Joe Cole has signed. There is a lot more to be done and many more players needed."


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