Tuesday, December 11, 2007

UEFA Champions League Preview: Marseille vs LiverpooL

Put simply, ninety minutes separate Liverpool and Marseille from ecstasy or agony. The winner is guaranteed to qualify for the knock-out stages of Europe’s premier club competition.

However, things are never that simple in football, and if a draw is reached on Tuesday night then the door concealing many permutations shall be flung open: honours even means the French outfit prevail due to a superior head-to-head record, courtesy of a 1-0 victory at Anfield on Matchday 2.

If Porto lose at home to Besiktas, however, matters become complicated yet further. Should the Turks register a shock victory at the Stadio Dragao, they will qualify, and Liverpool would join them thanks to a better goal difference in the head-to-heads between the Reds, Marseille and Porto, all of whom would finish on 8 points.

Of course (if only to avoid such complicated equations) the noises emanating from Merseyside have predominately focused solely on winning the tie. Steven Gerrard has already issued a battle-cry and the Liverpool fans have heeded their captain’s call as thousands upon thousands of Kopites are expected to flock to the south of France.

The stakes could not be higher for Liverpool, as many feel that with a very public rift between manager and owners apparent, failure to qualify for the final stages of the Champions League may signal Rafael Benitez' Anfield exit.

American custodians of Liverpool FC, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, have been deeply entrenched in all things financial, from reconstructing the expenditure on the new stadium to quenching Benitez’s thirst for big transfer buys. With the lucrative income-stream from the Champions League under serious threat of being hastily cut-off, Hicks and Gillett may see adequate justification to sack the Spaniard and bring in a less-demanding manager.



08 December v Monaco (H) WON 2-0

01 December v Lille(A) DREW 1-1

28 November v Besiktas (H) WON 2-0 (CL)

24 November v Metz (H) WON 3-1

11 November v Lyon (A) WON 1-2


08 December v Reading (A) LOST 3-1

02 December v Bolton (H) WON 4-0

28 November v Porto (H) WON 4-1 (CL)

24 November v Newcastle (A) WON 0-3

10 November v Fulham (H) WON 2-0



Eric Gerets didn’t have the luxury of being able to rest his players against Monaco, instead he named his strongest line-up in the 2-0 victory. But there will be no complaints over tiredness from the French side, as the players themselves have billed this game as the most important of their season so far.

When the group was announced, many felt Marseille would become the whipping boys, but after their stylish victory at Anfield the French have emerged as strong candidates for qualification. Ex-Red Bolo Zenden is likely to feature against his former paymasters and will be looking to pull the strings for Gerets’ side.

Meanwhile, another ex-Red, Dijbril Cissé, may have fallen off the tracks this season but has shown that he can be an effective substitute.


Rafael Benitez has denied accusations that he cut his losses in the 3-1 defeat by Reading after substituting Gerrard in the 70th minute. Either way, Liverpool’s captain was afforded twenty minutes extra rest and will definitely lead the Reds out in the Stade Velodrome.

Who shall play alongside him is another question. Both holding midfielders, Momo Sissoko and Javier Mascherano started at the Madejski on Saturday, and with the result so crucial on Tuesday, Benitez may opt for a conservative formation and field the two again.

Otherwise, Daniel Agger is training again following his lengthy lay-off, but Benitez will probably not risk the Dane in such a high-profile game, and will most likely start Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia. Fernando Torres seems to have recovered from a slight knock picked up against Reading and will be included in the squad.


Marseille – Niang

The explosive striker has been Marseille’s only real threat in front of goal this season. With 8 goals he comfortably leads the club’s scoring charts and will be the main threat against Liverpool. Although not much of a team player, the striker has pace, power and desire to keep any backline occupied.

Liverpool – Steven Gerrard

Once again the stage is set for Liverpool’s favourite son to shine. His abilities are world-class and well-known, the only question remaining is whether he can drag his team from the brink of despair and into triumph as he did against Olympiacos and AC Milan in the glorious Champions League run of 2005.

Steven Gerrard Must Be Given More Space

Steven Gerrard has had a habit of seizing the moment to become Liverpool's saviour during the Rafael Benitez era but if our country's most dynamic midfielder is going to come to the rescue once again in Marseille tonight, he badly needs help from his manager.

The Liverpool captain needs space to thrive at the Stade Velodrome but for that to happen Benitez must make sure that he sends out a team with plenty of width and that means reverting to the 4-4-2 formation. At Reading, he went with a narrower 4-3-3 shape and it backfired badly, as you would expect if you have Peter Crouch playing at outside-left when he should never stray from being a centre-forward.

The absence of orthodox wingers means that the midfield becomes too congested and players of the stature of Gerrard do not get the chance to stamp their authority on the game.

A tight three-against-three battle in midfield will negate Gerrard's influence and that could spell the end of Liverpool's Champions League ambitions, because they need their captain to be given every opportunity to break forward and put his excellent shooting ability to good use.

The 4-4-2 system seems to suit Gerrard better than others and while I know he is no shirker when it comes to being in the thick of the action in the midfield trenches, two wingers will make space for attack-minded players like him because they will pull opponents out of his way.

Wingers will ensure that the game is stretched and that Marseille can be pulled this way and that as Liverpool go for what will probably be an all-important win. Wide men will also ensure that there is a regular supply of crosses to Crouch and Fernando Torres.

Unfortunately, the pair have not had the chance to polish their double act because of Benitez's tinkering, which means they would have to do plenty of work on the training ground to compensate.

I get the impression that Benitez remains uncertain as to whether Crouch and Torres can hit it off but, with the right delivery, I would back them to get the better of the French club's defence, especially as the England striker's strength in the air is bound to result in knockdowns for his Spanish partner.

Defensively, deploying two wingers would also help Liverpool. It would mean that the opposing full-backs would be kept on the back foot and not allowed to push forward and make dangerous overlapping runs.

The funny thing is, earlier on in the season, Benitez said that playing with wingers helped his team in terms of attacking and defending. He seemed to forget all that when he took his side to Reading and he was punished as they suffered their first Premier League defeat of the season.

They say every cloud has a silver lining, so let's hope that the painful lessons he learned in Berkshire will ensure that Benitez sees sense and goes with a 4-4-2 formation. It's simple and straightforward and will guarantee Liverpool are well-organised for what I expect to be an aggressive atmosphere on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Liverpool Must Turn Silly Crisis Into Profitable Triumph Or Benítez May Walk Alone

If ever an occasion required Rafael Benítez to remain "focused on training and coaching my team", it is the Champions League reckoning that awaits Liverpool here tonight. So volatile are the sub-plots surrounding the club's final appearance in Group A, and their last in the tournament should results conspire against them at Stade Vélodrome and in Oporto, that the winds and stormy waters that met them in Marseille yesterday made for an appropriate welcome. Benítez must ensure the storm does not follow him home.

Confirmation that George Gillett plans to watch his asset in the flesh against Marseille underlined the magnitude of this fixture in Liverpool's season, if not quite the significance it may have on the manager's future.

The American co-chairman is in Europe for a scheduled business appointment and the luxury of a private jet means he can stop off in the south of France. He is not racing across the Atlantic in rage at Benítez's substitution policy in the defeat at Reading although that may crop up when Gillett plus Tom Hicks meet the Spaniard when they attend Manchester United's visit to Anfield on Sunday.

The countdown to Benítez's confrontation with his American employers for the first time since lambasting their transfer restrictions has inflated the importance of tonight's fixture, as if it were necessary.

"This is the most important match since I joined the club," said Fernando Torres, the Liverpool striker who has done most to answer the co-chairmen's suspicions of Benítez since their rift erupted - on the pitch and now off it. "It would be a huge mistake to think about changing the manager if we do not get the win we need," Torres said yesterday. "Rafa Benítez has done so much for this club and the staff, the fans and the players are behind him. We all need to be united to get a result in France. The match must be the only thing we think of at this time."

Liverpool did not lose sight of their objectives when Benítez responded with public contempt for his co-chairmen's refusal to sanction a £4m bid for the Milan defender Kakha Kaladze, two Bosman signings, the £17m permanent transfer of Javier Mascherano and the £10m sale of Scott Carson to Aston Villa. Newcastle, Porto and Bolton were all dispatched during the initial furore but the loss of an unbeaten Premier League record on Saturday has weakened the manager's hand at an inopportune moment.

Without a firm declaration of support from the club's owners Benítez remains one defeat shy of fresh interrogation. The admission that he withdrew the spine of his side while trailing at Reading with Marseille in mind - Torres moments after going 2-1 down, then Steven Gerrard and finally Jamie Carragher - encouraged the portrait of a Liverpool surrender and provided new rope for the manager's critics. Benítez could argue he had no choice but to concentrate on the minimum £12m shortfall facing the club if they do not progress in the Champions League. That is if he were in a position to speak his mind.

Irrespective of events at the Madejski Stadium Liverpool are equipped to repay their manager's gamble with the victory needed against Marseille to guarantee qualification for the knockout phase (a draw would suffice should Besiktas beat Porto at Estadio do Dragao).

Liverpool's capacity for turning a crisis into a triumph is well proven and Benítez will not show the same complacency in his selection against Eric Gerets' improving side as he did in the 1-0 defeat at Anfield, when Mathieu Valbuena scored the game's only goal after 77 minutes.

"Marseille changed their manager before the first game and didn't have a game for 10 days and had all that time to prepare for it. Everybody was saying it would be an easy game but we didn't think that," claimed Benítez disingenuously, given that he started with Sebastián Leto and Fabio Aurelio as a makeshift left flank with Mohamed Sissoko preferred to Mascherano in central midfield.

"It was clear Marseille played a fantastic game on the night. It's clear now that we are in a much better situation than in the first game against Marseille. We are playing much better and have more confidence, so things will be different. I don't think defeat to Reading will affect us. This is another competition now. We are still in a good moment."

It was at Stade Vélodrome where Gérard Houllier took charge of his last European tie as Liverpool manager, a Uefa Cup fourth-round defeat in 2004 when Igor Biscan was dismissed for a professional foul on Didier Drogba, El Hadji Diouf celebrated the defeat with the Marseille fans in expectation of a summer move to the club and the assistant manager, Phil Thompson, gestured that his hosts had bribed their way to victory.

Whatever Gillett and Hicks think of Benítez's Liverpool, they cannot deny the club have had it worse.


Sami Hyypia v Mamadou Niang

The veteran Finn's importance was underlined at Reading where he spent 82 minutes on the bench in readiness for Marseille. Benítez took no chances with Hyypia's problems in playing two matches in quick succession. His energy will be invaluable against the Senegal striker Niang, rejuvenated since being moved from the wings.

Fernando Torres v Gaël Givet

Torres has mirrored Liverpool's performance in the Champions League so far - anonymous to begin with, now destructive in front of goal. The striker has been in outstanding form and against the respected France international Givet, who emerged at Monaco before signing for Marseille in the summer, he faces an intriguing duel.

Steven Gerrard v Lorik Cana

The Liverpool captain has built his reputation on delivering when his club are in dire need and tonight is no exception. Should Gerrard be deployed in central midfield, he faces a similarly motivational leader. Cana injured an ankle at the weekend but Eric Gerets, his manager, said: "He would have to have a broken leg not to play."

Torres: Back Benitez, Whatever The Result

Fernando Torres defended manager Rafael Benitez before Liverpool’s herculean clash against Olympique Marseille on Tuesday evening.

Tensions have been rising on Merseyside ever since the loss to Reading on Saturday afternoon and Liverpool’s under fire manager hopes his team can secure their passage to the lucrative round of 16 in the Champions League.

Failure is not an option for Benitez, and Spanish sensation Fernando Torres echoed the importance of the match on Tuesday evening. However, he also advised for caution against rash decision.

“It is the most important match since I joined the club and it will be a huge mistake to even think about changing the manager if we don't get the win we need," he said.

The Spanish tactician has spent a great deal of money in the summer and American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks expect results.

Rumours have persisted that after his clash with the club’s owners over money and transfers, Rafa’s days at Merseyside could be numbered, but Torres went on the record explaining his adulation for his manager.

“Rafa Benitez has done so much for this club and the staff, the fans and the players are all behind him,” he stated.

“We all need to be united to get a result in France and this match has to be the only thing we can think about at this time.

"We cannot be distracted by anything else."