Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Liverpool Likely Tto Face European Giants

Liverpool may have fought back from the brink of elimination to reach the Champions League knockout stages but they face a tough tie in the second round.

A 4-0 win in Marseille means last season's beaten finalists will be in the draw for the first knockout round, but they only finished second in Group A so their potential opponents are limited to the holders Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Sevilla.

Liverpool cannot be drawn against a team from England, so if Arsenal beat Steaua Bucharest in their final fixture and finish top of Group H, Liverpool will not be able to face Sevilla and they will be guaranteed to face one of the giants from Italy and Spain.

After the emphatic win in Marseille, Benitez was clearly reminded of the 2005 final victory over Milan and the crucial wins over Olympiacos and Juventus in that run when he said: "The players have showed character in important games before and they have showed it again.

"When we lost against Besiktas and played badly against Marseille, I said we still had confidence."

He added: "The team was still playing well in the league and scoring goals. That gave us more confidence."

Liverpool's qualification improves Benitez's position when he finally holds talks with club owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett over his January transfer plans.

But Benitez's post-match comments suggested he does not plan to make huge changes to his squad.

He said: "People are talking about how good the side is compared to last year, but we showed here that we can do different things.

"The performance was really good. We played compact as a unit, played well in attack, had our chances and didn't concede."

Sissoko Angered By Reds Axe

Liverpool midfielder Mohamed Sissoko has hit out at manager Rafael Benitez and hinted he could be set to leave Anfield in January.

Sissoko has been left out of the Reds' squad for their crucial UEFA Champions League showdown against Marseille at the Stade Velodrome.

The Mali international, who started his career with Auxerre, has made just one appearance in the Anfield outfit's group stage fixtures, the 1-0 home defeat by the French side.

Former Valencia player Sissoko insists he plans to hold talks with Benitez once the transfer window opens and wants to be a regular in the first-team.

He told radio station RMC: "I am really mad. The match is played in France, all my family is there and wanted to see me on the pitch.

"I respect that choice, but we will talk in January.

"That is quite a long time for me to ask myself the question (about leaving). I am not attracted to play one match in five."

Liverpool Justify Benayoun's Faith

Liverpool FC winger Yossi Benayoun praised his team's competitive edge after they advanced to the UEFA Champions League knockout stages with a clinical 4-0 triumph at Olympique de Marseille.

The winner-takes-all affair at the Stade Vélodrome had looked poised to be a tense encounter until Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres struck a goal each inside the first eleven minutes. Dirk Kuyt and substitute Ryan Babel then pounced after the break to wrap up a qualification that had seemed highly unlikely when the five times European champions found themselves with a solitary point from their opening three matches.

"Honestly, I always believed we could do it," Benayoun told "Even at the time, I said that if there's one team that can win three games in a row, it's Liverpool. This is a club that's proved over the last few years that it can deal with big games in this competition. We knew every game would be like a final and we won three finals."

The Reds progress as the second-placed team in Group A, behind FC Porto, and they could well go far after a textbook example of how to tackle a tricky European tie in a hostile stadium. "We knew all about Marseille's great fans so it was important to get an early goal," Benayoun said. "That gave us confidence and our second came soon after. It killed the game and after that their supporters weren't so noisy anymore."

The Israeli international insisted that the match was anything but easy despite inflicting Marseille's heaviest home defeat in UEFA competition. "When you look at the scoreline it seems easy, but I can assure you it wasn't," he said. "They have a lot of good players and even when it was 2-0 we needed to be careful. They only needed half a chance to get a goal and start a comeback but we were very strong defensively."

The Merseysiders were also particularly strong on the flanks, where Benayoun and Harry Kewell looked fresh after being rested at the weekend. They both caused plenty of damage, but the 27-year-old Benayoun felt the whole team should share the acclaim. "Everyone put in a great performance, all over the pitch," he said. "We played the way we know we can, we deserved to win and we deserve to be in the next round."

Marseille 0 - 4 LiverpooL

Liverpool delivered an inspired performance when it really mattered to secure a place in the Champions League knockout stages at the expense of Marseille.

The Reds became the first English side to beat Marseille at the Stade Velodrome in European competition as early goals by Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres were added to by second-half strikes by Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel.

It meant the Merseysiders finished second in Group A behind Porto and qualified from the pool stages for the fourth year in succession.

In truth, the Reds could and should have won by more, such was their dominance and Marseille's lethargy, especially at the back.

It was a special night for Gerrard, who opened the scoring when he powered home the rebound from a penalty he won himself.

That was his 23rd goal in the Champions League, overtaking a milestone he had shared jointly with Michael Owen.

Torres was a pest to the Marseille rearguard throughout and his 11th-minute goal was a gem, a mazy run topped off with an ice-cold finish.

Kuyt and substitute Babel scored neatly-taken goals at either end of the second half as Marseille imploded.

They can at least console themselves with a UEFA Cup spot, while Reds coach Rafael Benitez can go into Sunday's meeting with club owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett in renewed heart.

Liverpool came into the match reeling from Saturday's 3-1 defeat to Reading, their first loss in this season's Barclays Premier League.

They would also have had Sunday's Anfield summit meeting with Manchester United in the back of their minds although, as expected, Benitez put out all his big names in a full-strength team.

They delivered in the most emphatic manner and had qualification wrapped up after just 11 minutes.

The deadlock was broken Gerrard in the third minute from the spot.

The captain was the man to win the penalty when, having been set free by Kewell, he was sent tumbling by Gael Givet.

The defender was the last man and should have been red-carded, but he did not even receive a booking.

Gerrard dusted himself down and even though his initial attempt was saved by Steve Mandanda, he rammed home the rebound from six yards and Liverpool were on their way.

Torres was doing well up front, pulling defenders out of position and finding space with his pace.

But it was his skill with the ball at his feet that put Liverpool 2-0 up.

Receiving a short pass from Harry Kewell just outside the area, the Spain international jinked around two defenders before opening his body up and sliding a cool finish inside the far post.

The crowd, so vibrant prior to kick-off, were stunned but their side could have been further behind by the break.

Liverpool were having little trouble at the back, Marseille relying on long-range pot-shots as their only means of testing Jose Reina.

Only once did they breach the Reds' rearguard, but Mathieu Valbuena - slipped in by Lorik Cana - chose to go round Jose Reina rather than shoot and the chance was lost. There was more action at the other end.

Kuyt, who was happy to drop back to help out his midfield, headed a drifting Harry Kewell cross straight at Mandanda midway into the half.

And towards the end of the opening period, Liverpool had a clutch of chances that should have harvested at least one more goal.

Gerrard sent a free-kick just wide before Kewell volleyed narrowly over in the 40th minute.

Torres, having outpaced Julien Rodriguez, then poked an effort over but it was all Liverpool.

By that time, Samir Nasri, the young France playmaker who was adjudged not fit enough to start after recent ankle trouble, had been thrown on by coach Eric Gerets, replacing Benoit Cheyrou.

And at half-time, former Liverpool player Djibril Cisse was introduced off the bench in place of another ex-Red, Boudewijn Zenden.

It mattered little and Liverpool were soon 3-0 up. More embarrassing defending allowed Kuyt to run free towards goal after Kewell's pass from the left in the 48th minute the Holland striker smashed home his finish from 10 yards and that was game, set and match.

Marseille's best chance of the game came just after the hour mark when Cisse got on the end of a Valbuena cross.

The striker's header beat Reina but hit the base of the post and went wide.

Benitez used his full allocation of substitutes in the final quarter, and one of them - Babel - added gloss to the scoreline in injury time when he ran onto a long ball, rounded Mandanda and slotted home into an empty net.