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Saturday, December 13, 2008

FIFA announce World Player of the Year shortlist, Rafa doubts Liverpool title credentials

Arsene Wenger: No more slips in tight title race

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger heads to Middlesbrough for Saturday's lunchtime kick-off knowing that his side cannot afford another slip-up after getting themselves back in the race for the Premier League title.

Although the Gunners are eight points behind league leaders Liverpool, Wenger maintains that the strength in depth of the competition this season will ensure no-one runs away with the title.

Arsenal travel to the Riverside Stadium boosted by last weekend's win against Chelsea but they have already been beaten by the likes of Hull City, Fulham, Stoke City and Manchester City, as well as fifth-placed Aston Villa and that proves the intensity of the league, according to Wenger.

"The level of demands are higher from everywhere," Wenger told Arsenal's website. "You cannot have on one side the best Premier League in the world and on the other side have teams just to turn up and think you will win the game. You will have surprises."

The Gunners boss, though, is determined not to suffer another shock result on Saturday - and is expected to recall several first-team players who missed the midweek Champions League defeat in Porto.

He continued: "I believe we have come back into some consistency - we have beaten Chelsea and Wigan, also Kiev, and that the Porto result was a special game. When you get to a position where you can protect your Premier League game a bit, then you do it.

"You have a period now where you can completely focus on the Premier League and you can set yourself a target. If we can get to within a reasonable difference by Christmas, we still have half of the championship to play after to come back into the race."

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez agrees that it will be a very tight championship this year and speaking ahead of the Reds' clash with Hull City declared it would need the other big four to "mess up their season" to ensure a smooth path towards the title come May.

But, like Wenger, Benitez is fully focused on domestic matters now that the Champions League is on a winter break and has urged his side to knuckle down for the 10 league games before European football resumes.

"We now have almost three months to concentrate on the Premier League, and the FA Cup. We would want to go back into Europe next year still top of the table," Benitez said.

"We have qualified for the next stage in Europe, we are top of the Premier League, and now we can concentrate on domestic considerations. We do not want to give up top spot. If we are still there when we start up again in Europe, the chances of a really good season will be obvious."

Meanwhile, reigning champions Manchester United continue their defence of the title with a number of injury worries ahead of a tricky trip to White Hart Lane to face Harry Redknapp's resurgent Tottenham Hotspur.

Former Spurs striker Dimitar Berbatov is struggling with an Achilles injury, while defender Rio Ferdinand suffered a back spasm towards the end of Wednesday's Champions League draw with Aalborg.

Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra are suspended and Cristiano Ronaldo (hip) and Michael Carrick (thigh) are also receiving treatment, which could leave Ferguson needing the full depth of his squad.

Chelsea coach Luiz Felipe Scolari must decide whether to stick with France striker Nicolas Anelka or recall Didier Drogba against West Ham United at Stamford Bridge.

Drogba is available again after completing a three-match ban for throwing a coin into the crowd against Burnley in the Carling Cup and Scolari has never started the Ivorian and Anelka together.

FIFA announce World Player of the Year shortlist

Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo is the favourite to win another major honour after being included on the shortlist for the FIFA World Player of the Year award.

The Manchester United double winner has been nominated alongside Barcelona duo Lionel Messi and Xavi, AC Milan playmaker Kaka and Liverpool striker Fernando Torres.

Ronaldo scored 42 goals and scooped the Premier League title and European Cup with United last season whilst Torres and Xavi won Euro 2008 with Spain.

Although Brazil international Kaka and Argentina forward Messi are both regulars on the awards circuit neither of them won any silverware in 2008.

The shortlist has been complied after coaches and team captains from around the world were asked to vote for their top choice and it is the first year five players, rather than three, have been named.

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez revealed his delight with Torres' nomination for the world award.

"I am pleased he has been nominated for the world player-of-the-year award - it is well-deserved. To score 33 goals in your first season in England and then to win the European title with Spain shows his quality," said Benitez.

"There are some very good players also nominated, but I feel Fernando has a good chance. Of course, Cristiano Ronaldo is also nominated - and he is a very good player, too. It could be him; it could be Torres - but I will always support Fernando.

"It is very positive for him and for us. He was doing very well, and his record last season is a massive achievement.''

The winner will be announced at a glitzy gala at the Zurich Opera House on January 12.

Buffon seeks £250k-a-week for Man City move

Manchester City will have to pay Gianluigi Buffon wages of £250,000-a-week to prise the world's best goalkeeper away from Juventus.

The Daily Mail claim that City would also have to pay a transfer fee of £20 million for the 30-year-old Italian international.

The super-expensive transfer is thought to be a 'statement signing' by the club's new billionaire owners, the Abu Dhabi royal family, who shocked football by signing Robinho during the summer transfer window.

City manager Mark Hughes is believed to have endorsed the transfer - on condition Buffon proves his fitness after missing a month of Serie A action with a groin injury - and would welcome the World Cup winner into his squad.

However, last month Buffon, who currently earns £90,000-a-week at the Stadio Olimpico, dismissed City as a fantasy football club.

"Manchester City? I played fantasy football when I was young, now I only like to think about real football," he told

Rafa doubts Liverpool title credentials

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez believes that his Premier League leaders can only win the title if Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal fail to mount a decent challenge.

Rafael Benitez

Speaking ahead of his team's clash with Hull City on Saturday the Spaniard also said he considered Liverpool to be a small club compared to the "bigger" clubs of England's established top four.

Benitez told The Sun: "For us to win the league we need Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal to mess up their season. It is very rare that three teams all mess up."

Liverpool are one point clear of second-placed Chelsea and six ahead of Manchester United, who have a game in hand, with Arsenal in fourth, eight points off the pace.

Prior to joining Liverpool in 2004, Benitez won the La Liga title with Valencia and the Spaniard can see parallels with the Reds' challenge this season.

"For me, Valencia and Liverpool are similar - for them to win, the bigger clubs have to do badly," Benitez said. "When I won La Liga with Valencia that's what happened, Real Madrid and Barcelona were in transition, so it was easier."

But Benitez has charged his team with building a lead at the top of the Premier League now that the Champions League is on a winter break.

With the group stage finishing this week - Liverpool comfortably qualified for the last 16 - there is now a lull in European competition until the knockout stage begins in February. And Benitez has urged his side to knuckle down for those 10 league games.

"We now have almost three months to concentrate on the Premier League, and the FA Cup. We would want to go back into Europe next year still top of the table.

"We have qualified for the next stage in Europe, we are top of the Premier League, and now we can concentrate on domestic considerations. We do not want to give up top spot. If we are still there when we start up again in Europe, the chances of a really good season will be obvious."

Chelsea rebuff PSV approach for Alex

PSV Eindhoven have confirmed launching a bid to take Chelsea's unsettled Brazilian defender Alex on loan.

Alex was reported to have handed in transfer request at Stamford Bridge this week but the Blues insisted "no transfer request has been received from any player" and have rebuffed PSV's approach for the player.

PSV director Jan Reker said: "We contacted Chelsea, but the answer was clear: they don't want to let him go under any circumstances."

Alex, who played at PSV from 2004 to 2007, has become discontented at Chelsea after being left on the sidelines for much of this season, with Branislav Ivanovic often preferred in place of the injured Ricardo Carvalho.

Speaking ahead of Chelsea's Premier League match with West Ham United on Sunday assistant coach Ray Wilkins said Europe's elite would have to pay big money to land any of their star players as they don't want to sell.

"If anybody was to come in for any of our players in January, knowing the quality of player we have, it is going to cost them a lot of money," Wilkins said.

"You want players at the club who are totally committed, but (manager Luiz) Felipe (Scolari) has not sat on the fence at all. He has actually stated that if players don't want to be at Chelsea then they will leave - but it will only be for a lot of money. "I expect Alex to be here at the start of February. The way he has trained as well has not given me the impression he wants 'off' in January.

"He has been a major part of the side in the last couple of games and he has done very well for us.''

UEFA to deliver Rooney verdict on Monday

UEFA will decide on Monday whether to charge Wayne Rooney over his clash with Aalborg's Kasper Risgard at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

Wayne Rooney

Risgard claimed the Manchester United frontman deliberately stamped on him during the first-half and left marks on his chest.

Stand-in Aalborg boss Allan Kuhn also felt Rooney had overstepped the mark and UEFA have confirmed this morning they will assess the incident, which was missed by referee Laurent Duhamel.

Should UEFA concur with Risgard's view, Rooney would almost certainly be banned for the beginning of the knock-out rounds in February.

Sir Alex Ferguson was offered the chance to present his view ahead of tomorrow's trip to Tottenham - which Rooney will miss after collecting five bookings - but declined to offer an opinion.

However, he is unhappy at the reporting of the incident, feeling Rooney's case has not been helped by numerous reruns on TV and what he perceives as enthusiastic coverage of an event being described as another chapter in the 23-year-old's chequered disciplinary history.

"I am not going to discuss Wayne Rooney," he said.

"You press guys have created most of it. You are not getting anything from this club at all on Wayne Rooney. That is it, finished."

Barcelona eye revenge in "El Clasico"

Barcelona are itching to avenge last season's 4-1 defeat away to Real Madrid when they meet in Saturday's "Clasico" at the Nou Camp, defender Rafael Marquez said.

"A win would give us an important advantage over Madrid and a boost to help us make progress," the Mexican said on the club's website.

"Hopefully it will be a great game and we can convince people that the 4-1 is forgotten. It's something that I don't like thinking back to and I understand people want revenge."

Meanwhile, Real Madrid midfielder Ruben de la Red could become the third player from the Spanish champions to be forced to end the season early after his collapse on the pitch in a Copa del Rey match in October.

Club president Ramon Calderon said in a television interview late on Thursday the Spain international would not play again this season but officials said Real Madrid were still waiting for final test results.

Striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and midfielder Mahamadou Diarra are already out with serious knee injuries.

Source - Soccernet