Wednesday, November 28, 2007

UEFA CL Preview: LiverpooL vs FC Porto

Matchday 5 in the Champions League sees the return game to the opening fixtures with Porto needing just a point at Anfield to seal their place in the next stage of the competition. The Reds on the other hand know that anything less than a win will spell the end of the road for them in this season’s tournament.

It’s safe to say that this past week has been an unusual one at Anfield and perhaps not the ideal preparation for a vital midweek Champions League game. Manager Rafa Benitez has become embroiled in a face-off with club owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett over their apparent unwillingness to sanction transfer activity before they arrive on Merseyside for the clash with fierce rivals Manchester United on December 16.

After hinting at the row in his pre-match press conferences last week, Benitez confirmed that he was upset at the situation after Saturday's 3-0 win at Newcastle when he claimed the Americans “don't understand” the need for quick action to avoid disappointment in the January transfer window.

In response, Hicks and Gillett issued a statement last night when they reiterated their determination to stand firm. With the Premier League the stated aim of the Reds manager this season, it remains to be seen whether an early exit from the money-spinning Champions League will be tolerated by the club’s American owners.

However, despite the pressure Benitez remains upbeat over the club’s chances against Porto. “The team has confidence” said Benitez. “We know it will be a difficult game because we know Porto are a team with quality so we have to do our job and see if it is possible to play as well as we did against Besiktas.

“And I am confident we can do it. We are team that can play under strain and stress. We have proved that. People will be looking for another result like the Besiktas one but it is important that they are patient.

“We don't need a lot of goals. We just need to win because if we do that we can go to Marseille and have a real opportunity.” The damage was done to the Reds campaign with their loss at Anfield to Marseille and the away defeat to Besiktas in Istanbul.

Liverpool know exactly what is required, the fans will do their bit, the question is- can Rafa inspire the players to produce another glorious night at Anfield?

Unbeaten in Group A, Porto need just a point to guarantee their progression into the knock-out stages of this season’s competition. However, they know defeat at Anfield an a win for Marseille against Besiktas would see the group go down to the wire on the last matchday.

In the first game between the two sides Porto took the lead through a Lucho Gonzalez penalty, only for Dirk Kuyt to equalise with a header midway through the first half. Porto were unable to take advantage of Jermaine Pennant’s second half sending off and the game ended 1-1.

The opening day point, was followed up with a last-gasp win away at Besiktas. A draw and a win over Marseille has seen the Dragons jump to the top of Group A.

Porto arrive at Anfield top of their domestic league and with a weekend victory behind them to keep up their unbeaten start to the Bwin Liga season. A goal five minutes into the match and another five minutes from full time saw FC Porto to a comfortable 2-0 win against Setubal. Lisandro Lopez continued his hot goalscoring streak with the opener, and a spectacular Quaresma strike near the end ensured the leaders maintained their four-point lead at the top of the table.



Newcastle - Liverpool 0 - 3 24/11/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Fulham 2 - 0 10/11/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Besiktas 8 - 0 06/11/2007 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Blackburn - Liverpool 0 - 0 03/11/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Cardiff City 2 - 1 31/10/2007 CARLING CUP
Liverpool - Arsenal 1 - 1 28/10/2007 PREMIER LEAGUE


Porto - Vit. Setubal 2 - 0 25/11/2007 BWIN LIGA
E. Amadora- Porto 2 - 2 11/11/2007 BWIN LIGA
Porto - Marseille 2 - 1 06/11/2007 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Porto - Belenenses 1 - 1 02/11/2007 BWIN LIGA
Porto - Leixoes 2 - 1 29/10/2007 BWIN LIGA
Marseille - Porto 1 - 1 24/10/2007 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE



Rafael Benitez could be tempted to name an unchanged line-up from the side that impressively swept aside Newcaslte 3-0 at St James’ Park on Saturday, although Peter Crouch could return due to his recent form for club and country.

FC Porto

Stepanov and Bolatti are the new faces among Jesualdo Ferreira’s choices for the trip to Liverpool. The two players were called to the Portuguese champions squad, from where João Paulo will be the only notable absentee.


Liverpool- Steven Gerrard

Following the disappointment of England’s Euro 2008 exit, Gerrard was on the end of some booing from the Newcastle fans at the weekend. He responded in the perfect way with a match-winning display, scoring one and having a hand in the other two. Liverpool will need their inspirational skipper to reproduce that form against Porto on Wednesday in order for them to have any chance of progressing into the round of this season’s competition.

FC Porto- Ricardo Quaresma

The Portuguse winger caused Pennant and Finnan all sorts of problems in the first leg at the Estadio do Dragão. With the Reds needing to go all out for the win, Quaresma will look to exploit any gaps left in the home side’s defence and provide the crosses or even the goals to send Porto through to the next round.

Reina Desperate For Reviving Win

Pepe Reina denies that speculation surrounding the future of Liverpool FC manager Rafael Benítez could distract his team-mates as they chase a vital victory to salvage their UEFA Champions League hopes against FC Porto at Anfield.

Precariously placed in Group A, Liverpool know that six points from their two remaining games is their only possible route to the last 16. The pressure has been building on last season's runners-up in recent days following a well-publicised dispute between Benítez and the club's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. However, Liverpool goalkeeper Reina insists the players' focus is purely on facing Porto on Wednesday. "It is not affecting us at all. It's not easy and it's not nice but all we can do is play football and show how good or bad we are on the pitch," said the Spanish international.

Pressed about the significance of beating Porto, Reina said: "It's not a question of keeping the manager in his job – we want to keep going in the Champions League for a long time, so obviously we need that win and the three points so we can play Olympique [de] Marseille [on Matchday 6] and make it like a final. Our commitment to the manager is there and he has been quite successful in the last four years, reaching seven finals and winning four trophies. The players and the supporters are with Rafa, but that's not new. We all know how important he is for Liverpool. We will hopefully show that the manager and the players are all together and stronger than ever. It's a must-win game and we have to show our character."

Although they sit three points behind Marseille and four adrift of Porto, a competition-record 8-0 victory over Beşiktaş JK on Matchday 4 has strengthened Liverpool's conviction. Nonetheless, they simply have to carry on winning. "We will get more respect from people because it was a great win, but it was just one win and one good night," the 25-year-old said. "We must keep winning and it doesn't matter what happened in the past. This game will probably be more difficult. We are on a good run with three wins in a row and now the target is the Champions League and it's all depending on us. We know that if we win it will help us qualify."

Rafa Refuses To Discuss Bust-up

Rafael Benitez refused to discuss his war with Liverpool's owners as he concentrated on making sure the Reds stay in the Champions League.

A week of astonishing acrimony between the Liverpool boss and American club owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett will be put aside when the Merseysiders fight for their European lives against Porto on Wednesday.

And Benitez will go into the Anfield clash with the Portuguese champions after clear-the-air talks with chief executive Rick Parry.

Hicks and Gillett have been enraged by Benitez's insubordination in a clear breakdown in their relationship with the Spaniard over transfer policy.

Benitez has been at odds with Parry too, so to be told that the club's administrative head was in charge of transfers was probably the last straw for the Spaniard.

But with speculation rife that Benitez's outbursts, first in an astonishing media conference last week and then after the win at Newcastle on Saturday, would cost him his job, there have been concerted efforts to cool down the crisis.

Benitez said: "As manager of Liverpool I know that the match against Porto is the most important thing, so I do not want to talk about anything else.

"I am sure we will win and play well, then I will be thinking about the next game, beating Bolton on Sunday.

"You can ask about the meeting with Rick Parry, but I will only talk about Porto, that is the only thing I am concerned about.

"We were thinking about Porto, were talking, but we talk a lot. We were talking about different things, but the most important thing for my club and our supporters is the game."

Privately Benitez has made it clear he wants to stay at the club. Whether this latest charm offensive will work with the Americans only time will tell.

There are even suggestions that the pair's own relationship is not good, but that they are united in a desire to eventually end Benitez's reign at the club.

This stance has angered Liverpool fans, who have always backed the man who has taken them to two European Cup finals. A fans' march to the ground is believed to be planned ahead of the Porto game, plus a chanting of the manager's name throughout the game.
Benitez would not even be drawn on whether he is pleased with such a public outpouring of support.

He added: "The fans are the most important thing, always. Their support is fantastic, you could hear that in the semi-finals with Chelsea, it was the same against Besiktas.

"And if they are behind the team again then I will be very pleased.

"The most important thing is the club and the supporters, the game is more important.

"We know we must win, but we must not think that is the only way. We must not make mistakes and lose the game.

"If we draw and then win in Marseille, it is still possible to qualify for the last 16, we must not forget that and end up making mistakes that mean we lose.

"As for the fans, I want to hear the same noise that we had against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals, that will please me.

"We have enough confidence and experience to win this one. We have been here before, we have played huge games against Olympiacos, Juventus and Chelsea.

"We know what must be done, we must approach the game with confidence and the right mentality. We are in good form so we must continue to play in that manner."

Earlier in the day, Benitez had overseen a light-hearted training session at the club's Melwood HQ, with the emphasis on humour and a clear underlining of unity with his players.

Skipper Steven Gerrard and goalkeeper Jose Reina both insisted that the players will not allow the crisis to affect them against Porto.

Benitez deflected any questioning of his relationship with the club's owners, pointedly looking ahead to the Porto game.

He said: "Our form is much better now, we are playing some very good football, and we must maintain our momentum.

"We must do better against Porto than we did in Portugal when we drew our first match. The difference this time is that we will have our fans behind us, and we are playing better. We are in a better position than before.

"For the future? I have my plans ready...for winning the next game."

Rafael Benitez Focused Only On Porto

Rafael Benitez has attempted to calm the speculation surrounding his future ahead of Liverpool's key Champions League game against Porto tomorrow.

The Liverpool manager used a press conference last week to make a point about transfer policy to Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the club's American owners, who then said the Spaniard should concentrate on on-pitch matters until next month

The row was revived again over the weekend after Liverpool's 3-0 win over Newcastle United when Benitez suggested his bosses did not understand the importance of the January transfer window, which prompted reports that he will soon be sacked.

Sources close to the Liverpool manager say he took the first steps towards a reconciliation on Monday and Benitez would talk only about matters regarding Porto in today's pre-match press conference at Anfield.

In order to pre-empt questions on his future, Benitez began by insisting: "As the manager of Liverpool Football Club, I know that the most important thing is the club and the supporters so I will keep talking about the game against Porto."

Questions about the importance of reaching the knock-out stage of the competition were met with a similar straight bat.

Benitez is hoping to dampen talk of a split between himself and Hicks and Gillett but Liverpool's fans, who are staunchly behind the manager, are set to make their feelings known in very public fashion.

A march is planned before the game in support of the Spaniard and it has even been suggested the Kop may sing his name for the entire 90 minutes. "If they sing or chant for our goals it will be much better," Benitez said.