Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Champions League Preview: Liverpool vs. Inter Milan

An intriguing tie pits a team who dominate domestically but fail in Europe against one whose proud European tradition remains their only hope in an otherwise terrible season.

The knock-out stages of the Champions League are important for all involved. But few clubs are under quite so much pressure to succeed as Liverpool. Mid-way through February, Europe already represents the Reds’ sole hope of lifting silverware this season.

The collapse in the Premier League was disappointing, albeit greeted by most with a feeling of resignation (it seems it always happens nowadays).

But Saturday’s defeat to Championship side Barnsley brought Liverpool’s season crashing to a new low. The South Yorkshire minnows snatched the result of the weekend as they earned a famous 2-1 win at Anfield with a last-gasp strike. Reds supporters were stunned.

True, there have been unwelcome distractions off the pitch, and Benítez did field a weakened team at the weekend. But there can be no excuses: Even Liverpool reserves (but let’s not forget the likes of Carragher, Finnan, Babel and Alonso were playing) should be capable of pummelling a side 29 places below them in the league ladder.

Liverpool are a team whose confidence has hit rock bottom. There appears little stability, fans are not convinced that the manager knows his strongest side and players are failing to perform. Goals in particular appear hard to come by – the Reds squandered a hatful of chances on Saturday and paid the price. There is no time for Liverpool to wallow in self-pity: a similar showing against Italian giants Inter will render their season a total failure.

Rafa Benítez has shown his ability to outwit Europe’s great sides, the Kop has proved it can will the red men onto victory. Two Champions League finals in three years is a phenomenal achievement, with the likes of Juventus, AC Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea (twice) all falling foul of the Anfield side.

By contrast, the Reds’ exit against Benfica at this stage of the 2006 competition is often forgotten amongst the hype of Athens and particularly Istanbul. Inter are unquestionably giants, not outsiders, and Liverpool must therefore hope that their reputation for overcoming the heavyweights in Europe yet again rings true.

If domestic failure creates pressure in Europe, one would imagine that Inter enter this Champions League encounter in a state of relaxation. Not so. Roberto Mancini’s side have made Serie A anything but a competition in recent times, this year already enjoying an eleven point lead over second-placed Roma. Saturday’s easy 2-0 win over Livorno means that, 23 games into the season, the Nerazzurri remain unbeaten and have only dropped ten points.

Naturally, they possess both the best attack (48 goals) and the best defence (13 conceded). But history reveals that Inter have traditionally failed to convert domestic success into European honours. They did claim back-to-back European Cup wins – but that was 43 years ago! Not since 1972 have they even reached the final of Europe’s premier club competition.

In these days of multiple Champions League entries from one country, it has been tough viewing for Inter fans as their side have bowed out in the final 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals while domestic rivals have fought it out for Europe’s grand prize. Last season’s bitter defeat to Valencia and Milan’s triumph in Athens were a case in point.

Kings of Italy the Nerazzurri unquestionably are, but can they finally end their European drought? They certainly have the players. Inter possess a phenomenal strength in depth that perhaps only one or two other sides in Europe can match (and none can better).

Mancini has shown rotation can work – players come into the side, know their roles, assimilate quickly and deliver when it matters. In Zlatan Ibrahimović they have one of the best strikers in the world, while the defence is always solid and the midfield both compact without the ball and threatening in possession.

Knock-out football of this calibre does not allow for mistakes, but if Inter can finally replicate their domestic form in Europe there is little reason why they cannot eliminate Liverpool and proceed to win this year’s Champions League.



Liverpool - Barnsley 1 - 2 16/02/2008 FA CUP
Chelsea - Liverpool 0 - 0 10/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Sunderland 3 - 0 02/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
West Ham - Liverpool 1 - 0 30/01/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Havant & Waterlooville 5 - 2 26/01/2008 FA CUP
Liverpool - Aston Villa 2 - 2 21/01/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE


Inter Milan - Livorno 2 - 0 16/02/2008 SERIE A
Catania - Inter Milan 0 - 2 10/02/2008 SERIE A
Inter Milan - Empoli 1 - 0 03/02/2008 SERIE A
Juventus - Inter Milan 2 - 3 30/01/2008 COPPA ITALIA
Udinese - Inter Milan 0 - 0 27/01/2008 SERIE A
Inter Milan - Juventus 2 - 2 23/01/2008 COPPA ITALIA



Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres were all rested at the weekend and will all start on Tuesday. Rafa Benítez will certainly name what he believes is his very strongest side for this encounter, and only has Daniel Agger (foot) and Andriy Voronin (ankle) out injured.

Likely XI (4-4-2): Reina - Finnan, Carragher, Skrtel, Arbeloa - Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Babel - Crouch, Torres


Luis Jimenez is injured and will miss out, while Inter's doctors must check on the progress of Luis Figo. Roberto Mancini rested some players during the Livorno game, so the likes of Materazzi, Ibrahimovic and Cruz should all earn recalls. The coach is unsure what to do about Patrick Vieira, however, and might opt to leave him on the bench as he's lacking match practice. Cesar is suspended.

Likely XI: (4-4-2): Júlio Cesar - Maicon, Cordoba, Materazzi, Maxwell - Zanetti, Cambiasso, Stankovic, Chivu - Ibrahimovic, Cruz


Liverpool – Fernando Torres

Torres has been at Anfield for less than a season, but he’s already one of the key men in Rafa Benítez’ side. It’s simple: when the striker doesn’t play, Liverpool lack cutting edge up front. The Reds smashed in more goals than any other team in the Champions League group stages, but have struggled to find the net of late. Torres’ pace and accuracy in front of goal are vital if Liverpool are to eradicate the recent profligacy which has cost them dear.

Inter – Julio Cruz

Former Inter manager Roy Hodgson says he’s the key and so do we. The striker has developed from a bit-part player at the Giuseppe Meazza to one of the Nerazzurri’s star men. Cruz has scored 15 goals in 19 games this season and if Liverpool’s defence show the same indecisions as against Barnsley they can expect the veteran Argentine to pounce.

Mascherano Primed For Inter Battle

Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano is ready to lay himself on the line to ensure Liverpool beat Internazionale in the Champions League.

Italian champions and runaway Serie A leaders Inter take on Liverpool tonight in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 clash at Anfield. They could be forgiven for feeling this is an ideal time to tackle the Reds, who appear to be in turmoil both on and off the pitch.

Defeat by lowly Barnsley in the FA Cup seemed to sum up a campaign that has so far fallen woefully short of pre-season expectations, and can no only redeemed by success in Europe.

But there is no hint of defeatism, self-pity or even apprehension in the attitude of holding midfielder Javier Mascherano. He is expected to start in the centre of the Liverpool midfield tonight against Inter, and so come up against fellow countrymen Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Julio Cruz.

They are his colleagues in the Albiceleste, but Mascherano says friendships will be put to one side as soon as battle commences at Anfield, where Liverpool will be looking to bounce back by securing a first-leg lead to take to the San Siro.

"I would die to try to get my team a win in this game. They are my team-mates for my country but my job is to stop Inter Milan's players," Mascherano told the Daily Mirror.

"When I play for Liverpool, I don't have any friends in the opposing side.

"When I go out on to the pitch, when I get my mind into playing mode, I forget about everything except winning. I will die to try and get my team a win.

"If that means getting myself between the ball and people who are friends off the pitch, then that is just the way it is,” he stressed.

Jose, Martin And Frank Lead Early List For Liverpool Ppot

It almost seems that the question on Rafa Benitez has changed from whether he'll be sacked to when.

Which leaves us with some pretty important questions that need to be answered soon. Will he last the season? Who will replace him?

What is the purpose of life?

I added the last one, but there might be some Liverpool fans saying that very same thing when they hear that Jose Mourinho is on a short list of potential Rafa replacements on Merseyside.

It's all speculation at this point, but the names being floated out there are a who's who of managers that might be available.

We know Mourinho is.

We expect that Frank Rikjaard will be after Barcelona's season.

And would Martin O'Neill really leave Aston Villa for Anfield?

Those are the three names that are most often popping up out there.

I think all three could succeed at Liverpool under the right ownership and I know a few Liverpool fans that would celebrate mightily to have O'Neill come in.

But it's too early to make an educated guess, isn't it?

Oh hell. Who do you think should/will replace Rafa at Liverpool? If he's sacked of course...

Alan Hansen's Column from BBC UK

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez will not necessarily have to win the Champions League to keep his job but he has to ensure his side triumph in their last-16 tie with Inter Milan to alleviate the pressure he is under.

He might not get sacked even if his squad is beaten by Inter but, if they are knocked out of Europe, then that puts pressure on everybody - the owners, the manager and the players.

What you would have then is Liverpool supporters turning up en masse until the end of the season with their team having nothing to play for - and that is a frightening prospect.

Their Premier League title hopes are gone, the FA Cup went on Saturday and the Champions League is all Liverpool have to play for.

You could argue that they are still chasing fourth place in the league but that is not what Liverpool should be about. This season has been a major disappointment.

What went wrong for them against Barnsley on Saturday can be traced back to the start of the campaign.

In September they walloped Derby 6-0 then went to Portsmouth for their next game, made five changes and drew 0-0.

The Liverpool philosophy has always been to hammer home when you have an impetus and Liverpool did not do that. They have suffered ever since.

There has obviously been too much rotation in selection and there is a lot of caution when they play at Anfield too.

They have lost confidence at home in the last six to eight weeks, even though the crowd have been great, and things have gone a bit flat.

Against Barnsley, Liverpool went 1-0 up but they did not roll over the top of them and they have not looked like doing that against anyone since the start of the year.

Benitez is a cautious manager. That is an observation not a criticism because most foreign bosses, including England coach Fabio Capello, have that element about them.

But Liverpool fans have always been used to seeing their team hem in the opposition and batter them. Now the style is more cautious and I think they have suffered because of it.

I still do not think the team has gone backwards though. They are better now than they were last year and it does not matter if they finish more points behind the eventual champions this year.

While there has been an improvement, however, it has not been dramatic enough to see them challenge for the title.

It used to be that they could rely only on Steven Gerrard to deliver, now you have got Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

But they still do not have enough players of real quality to back up those two.

It has always been the case that to win championships you need to be able to replace quality with quality. Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea can all do it but Liverpool cannot. It is as simple as that.

How long can Benitez survive without delivering the title? Well, a lot of managers survive without doing that but he has to show he is getting closer.

He has got that great track record in the Champions League but obviously it is the Premier League that everyone wants to win and I think the fans have stuck with him because they can see he is going through purgatory trying to put things right.

It has still come to the stage, though, where something - a performance or a result - is needed to lift everyone and that could come on Tuesday in the first leg of their encounter with Inter.

It is a tough tie - Inter are running away with Serie A in Italy - but I would not be surprised if Liverpool reach the quarter-finals.

When they became champions of Europe in 2005, that team was well below the level you would expect from Liverpool and they beat Juventus and Chelsea to get to the final. In 2007, they beat Barcelona and Chelsea.

The atmosphere at Anfield on those four occasions exceeded anything that was there when I played and, whatever people might say, you just do not get anything like it at other grounds.

That will raise the players to a different level. We have already seen it happen and one thing is for sure, it will be one heck of a game.

Facing Inter Is The Kind Of Match I Came To Liverpool For, Says Torres

Fernando Torres is relishing the chance to ride to Rafa Benitez's rescue tonight in their massive Champions League clash with Inter Milan and admits: "This is why I signed for Liverpool."

With pressure mounting on compatriot and manager Benitez following Saturday's embarrassing FA Cup exit to Barnsley, Torres is ready to shoulder the goalscoring responsibility.

Despite his reputation as one of the world's top strikers, the Spaniard has never played in the last 16 of the Champions League and is up for the task.

Torres said: "This is a very big game for the fans and for us. I came here to play in this type of game, in the Champions League and in other competitions.

"Inter Milan are a very good team but I think we can beat them. Why not?

"That is another reason why I came to Liverpool, to work with the manager, and I have learned a lot from him since I joined.

"Reaching two Champions League Finals in three years is an incredible achievement.

"It takes something special to do that and you don't do that unless you have a very good manager.

He added: "We have an opportunity to get an important win. The supporters, the players, the staff at Liverpool are like a big family.

"It is a different mentality to most other clubs and we need to play like a team tonight.

"Big teams win the important games and we are a big team. After losing to Marseille at home we knew we had to beat Porto at home and then win in Marseille and in both games we played really, really well.

"We scored four goals against Porto and four against Marseille. This is what Liverpool can do and we need to do it again in a big game against Inter Milan.

"We were third in our group, we needed to win our games and we did. I also saw Liverpool beat Barcelona in the Champions League last season. That was also a big game, Liverpool played very, very well and got a great result. To win 2-1 away at Barcelona is a big result.

"They were the best team in the world when it comes to ability because they have so many great players but Liverpool played like a team and if you play like a team you can win every game against every team. If we play like a team tonight then we can win, for sure.

"I think this tie is a bit different though because the first game is at Anfield in front of our own fans.

"But it is important to get a similar result because of our position in the league and because we are out of both cups."