Rafa Benitez returns to a very different Liverpool

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Now seems like  a good moment to assess Brendan Rodgers’ first season in charge of Liverpool.

It’s his 50th game as manager tomorrow as the club hosts Chelsea – whose interim manager is Rafael Benitez, the Spaniard adored by Liverpool fans for a six-year spell that brought the Champions League in 2005 and second place in the Premier League in 2008-09. His family still live near Liverpool.

Since many Chelsea fans detest Benitez, he can expect a much better reception from opposition supporters than from his own club’s traveling fans at Anfield. Benitez brought Xabi Alonso and a then-useful Fernando Torres to Liverpool and finishing as runner-up to Manchester United was a credible achievement for a club that has not won the English league title since 1989-90. Their impressive total of 86 points might have brought the championship trophy in another, less competitive season.

After four successive top-four finishes under Benitez between 2006 and 2009, Liverpool are about to miss out on the Champions League for the fourth year in a row. They ended up eighth in the Premier League standings under Kenny Dalglish’s management last year and are currently seventh under Rodgers, ten points adrift of Arsenal, in fourth.

Rodgers has been forced to slash the wage bill by the club’s American owners after heavy transfer spending on the likes of Andy Carroll failed to pay off. The former Swansea manager says the club are a work in progress.

“I am very hopeful we can meet the challenge going forward and we can try to be a consistent team to get into those top four places,” he told reporters.

But it is a big ask and you only have to look at Chelsea themselves. They finished sixth in the league last season and they had a net spend of over [$108m] in the summer in order to try to get back into that top four… It is an ongoing process. I’ve signed here for three years and I would hope from the first day I came in until the final day I leave we will be in a better position. But I don’t think you can put a timeline on it. Without that lightning bolt of investment you have to build and coach your way towards it and mould the team. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen overnight but I’m not crying for time, it is just the reality of the club.”

Two points behind last year’s tally of 52 points with five fixtures remaining, Rodgers is likely to surpass the mediocre total that contributed to Dalglish’s exit. But Liverpool trail low-budget neighbors Everton: never a good look in the red sector of the city. And Rodgers has spent money on transfers. Some $70-0dd million, much of it on former Swansea players Joe Allen and Fabio Borini, whose impact is debatable. Without Steven Gerrard’s class and Luis Suarez’s goals, Liverpool would probably be closer to the relegation zone than the European qualification places.

It’s rare these days that a manager of a high-profile club gets to write off an entire season as a transition period. Owners and fans want quick results, even during a comprehensive roster overhaul. Rodgers may argue the rebuild will take every minute of those three years, and he may be right. But he’ll have to mount a more sustained and serious challenge for the top four next season.

STREAM LIVE: The Manchester Derby

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The third Manchester Derby of the season is the first away from Old Trafford, as Manchester United visits Manchester City (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday.

There’s much on the line, as the sides sit just two points apart in the race for the Top Four. Man City would leapfrog third-place Liverpool with a win, while United could join the Reds on 66 points with a match-in-hand.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Sergio Aguero starts for Man City, with Gabriel Jesus on the bench.

On the other side, it’ll be a physical middle-third guarded by Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, and Marouane Fellaini. Wayne Rooney and Jesse Lingard start on the bench.

LINEUPS

Manchester City: Bravo, Zabaleta, Kompany (C), Otamendi, Kolarov, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Sterling, De Bruyne, Sane, Aguero. Subs: Caballero, Sagna, Fernando, Navas, Clichy, Gabriel Jesus, A. Garcia

Manchester United: De Gea; Valencia, Bailly, Blind, Darmian; Herrera, Carrick, Fellaini, Mkhitaryan; Rashford, Martial. Subs: Romero, Shaw, Fosu-Mensah, Tuanzebe, Young, Lingard, Rooney.

Ex-Liverpool CEO shares biting story of Suarez transfer

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Ian Ayre’s got jokes.

The former Liverpool CEO lifted the lid on some transfer stories during a Merseyside lecture this week.

Of note, Ayre admitted that the club thought Dele Alli demanded too much given what he had produced when the Reds has the chance to sign him as a 16-year-old, and said that Liverpool could’ve landed Alexis Sanchez but the player wanted to live in London (“We couldn’t move the football club to London, unfortunately,” he quipped).

The best part relayed by Sky Sports had to do with Luis Suarez, and shows the relentless nature of the transfer market. Clearly Barcelona had interest in Suarez before the fiery striker bit Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, because, well…

“I remember the sporting director of Barcelona calling me during that game, immediately as Suarez bit the player, and he said to me ‘my friend, he’s bitten somebody, how can this be the price?’ I said ‘he’d already bitten somebody when you first bid!'”

We’re sure there’s a certain amount of storytelling in there, but undoubtedly some truth.

Given Barca paid a reported $84 million for the striker, the asking price couldn’t have started that much higher.

Men in Blazers podcast: Chelsea tops Spurs, Top Four predictions

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Rog and Davo return to discuss Chelsea’s FA Cup semifinal victory over Spurs, update their Top Four predictions (again), and dive into the depths of the relegation zone. Plus, the very important movement to change “Hudson Street” to “Ray Hudson Street.”

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De Rossi admits desire to beat young teammates with bat

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Daniele De Rossi doesn’t like the modern world.

Okay, okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the Roma legend dropped a funny quote when discussing the differences between young players these days and those when he began his career.

A one-club man, the 33-year-old De Rossi has played in 556 matches for i Lupi and admits that he probably flummoxed veterans when he began his career because that’s the cyclical nature of adulthood.

From Italia Football:

“When we started out, it was all different, that was 20 years ago. Now a 20-year-old will get into the first team and have more Instagram followers than Messi. When I was young, the older players would say ‘it wasn’t like in my day’ – that’s life and it always will be.

“Mind you, some of them irritate me too. When I see them do live Instagram videos from inside the locker room before a game, I’d like to take a baseball bat to their teeth… But they’re 18 years old and in 20 years’ time they will find themselves complaining about the youth of today.”

Mmmm, tastes like ash and hickory.

It’s a safe bet that De Rossi isn’t wild about Stephan El Shaarawy’s hair, we imagine, but living legends generally get a little leeway with their comments in the media.

Plus, it sounds like he has the wisdom to understand the “why” and at least channel his angry into tackles.