Gerrard verdict a huge boost to Benitez

LIVERPOOL manager Rafael Benitez was delighted his captain Steven Gerrard could now “focus on football” after being cleared of affray yesterday.

This has not been the smoothest of pre-seasons for Benitez, and the Far East tour this week has been dogged by a succession of problems.

Injuries to Martin Skrtel and Nabil El Zhar which forced the players to return to England for treatment have come on top of the continued transfer saga surrounding Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Alvaro Arbeloa.

But as he prepared his side for tomorrow’s friendly against Singapore, Benitez was relieved that the cloud hanging over Gerrard has now been swept away after he was acquitted at Liverpool Crown Court following an incident in Southport on December 29 last year.

Gerrard has missed the Far East trip because of the week-long trial, and will be reunited with his team-mates next week when Liverpool return to the UK.

Benitez was told of Gerrard’s acquittal during a training session yesterday and said: “We are really pleased. He is very important for us and he can now focus just on football.

“We are all pleased at the club and over here at the training camp.

“We have been supporting him all the time and were just waiting for the decision. Now he can concentrate just on football and hopefully play at the same level as last year.’’

Remarkably Gerrard stepped from the courtroom straight into a surprise appearance for Liverpool’s reserves last night – and scored a trademark goal.

The Liverpool skipper was at Prenton Park for a friendly against Tranmere and Benitez’s side fell behind to a Chris Shuker goal just before half-time.

But before being substituted after 63 minutes, Gerrard blasted a fine equaliser with a low drive from outside the box.

Tranmere took the lead again with a header from defender Gareth Edds before Adam Hammill rescued a draw for Liverpool with a late penalty.

Liverpool’s financial problems also seem to be heading towards an agreement between owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Wachovia over extending the £350 million (€404m) loans that were due to be paid yesterday.

The Americans have been negotiating for an extension for several months and an indication of the banks’ general agreement has been underlined by the fact that yesterday’s deadline will be allowed to lapse.

Talks between Hicks, Gillett and RBS have been ongoing for months, and although the deadline will not be complied with, both sides appear relaxed.

A source insisted that the deadline should be treated as fairly fluid, with negotiations continuing.

Last month RBS took the unprecedented step of writing to Liverpool’s supporters to justify continuing financial support of the club’s American co-owners.

Now discussions on refinancing the loan are understood to be progressing well, with the sending of the e-mail virtual confirmation that the loan will be refinanced.

The message from RBS said that the bank has a “long-term relationship with the club, and look forward to this continuing for many years to come”.

It added: “In our view, and that of the executive management of the club, it is financially healthy and able to service comfortably its debt obligations from cash flow generated by playing matches and commercial activities.”

Liverpool are paying £40m (€46m) a year in interest, but this is being serviced without serious problem, although Benitez’s transfer budget is clearly being affected.

The RBS e-mail continued: “It is in our commercial interest to support the club, so that it can continue to perform successfully on and off the pitch.

“We also lent money to the club’s parent, Kop Football Ltd, so that it could repay debt which was on the balance sheet of the club at the time of acquisition.

“This is the only portion of Kop Football’s bank debt for which the club is legally responsible.”

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