Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Champions League Preview: Inter Milan vs. LiverpooL

Liverpool’s margin of victory and clean sheet in the first leg at Anfield took many by surprise. As a result, we have a clear favourite going into the rematch. Can Inter overcome the odds?

The 2-0 defeat suffered at Liverpool leaves Inter with a mountain to climb. But in a way, the pressure is now off them for this game.

Naturally, fans are disappointed – in some cases even angry – that the Nerazzurri look likely to fall short in Europe once again, despite their intimidating form in Serie A. Nobody has given up hope yet, but given the circumstances it would hardly be a surprise should Tuesday prove to be Inter’s final European night for this season.

As such it could be said that Roberto Mancini’s said have a lot more to gain from this second leg than they have to lose. Even if they do eventually go out, a battling performance and narrow aggregate defeat would still afford them some credit. A complete turnaround, meanwhile, would truly elevate these players into Inter folklore – it would be a game discussed for years to come, just as the comeback of 1965 against Liverpool is today.

The harsh dismissal of Marco Materazzi after just half an hour of the first leg was always going to put Inter at a disadvantage, but they had also been on the defensive prior to the sending off, and really disappointed in midfield and going forward.

The defence performed heroics, with Cordoba in particular a sensation prior to his exit through injury, and this must be the case again on Tuesday. A better team than Reggina would have punished some sloppy errors made on Saturday - to concede an away goal on Tuesday would leave Inter needing four. Not that that is out of the question, but those who so often thrill in Serie A must prove they can deliver on the big European stage.

An early strike would certainly help – the longer the Nerazzurri go without netting the more hurried and frustrated their play is likely to become. Mancini’s side must attack Liverpool relentlessly from the first whistle and not allow the Reds to gain any composure.

Liverpool are extremely confident heading into the second leg, and so they should be. They struggled to break down a stubborn Inter defence for most of the Anfield encounter but Dirk Kuyt’s deflected effort and Steven Gerrard’s superbly placed daisy-cutter brought two goals that Reds fans no doubt will consider well deserved.

Fernando Torres was largely kept under wraps by Inter’s makeshift defensive set-up, but Rafa Benítez will have no doubt observed the troubles the Italian champions experienced dealing with Peter Crouch (and not just in the air). But as thrilling as that 2-0 scoreline was, Liverpool will be more than aware of the challenge that awaits them at San Siro.

After all, this is a game that Inter must chase and an encounter from which Liverpool have little to gain and much to lose. Qualification for the quarters is expected by the fans, assumed by others – it will not be a mere formality. Discipline and concentration will be key as the Reds prepare to deal with heavy bombardment from an Inter side with a phenomenal home record.

The positives for Liverpool, however, are many: firstly their league form since the first leg has been exceptional. Four consecutive wins and thirteen goals scored have built a side brimming with confidence. Fernando Torres is hitting the back of the net with regularity; Xabi Alonso appears to have recaptured the form he showed last season and is linking well with Mascherano; Steven Gerrard is once again the menace we all know he can be – along with Dirk Kuyt he has become revitalised in the 4-2-3-1 system.

Secondly, this is Europe. Unlike Inter, these Liverpool players know what it is to excel in the Champions League, as does their manager. An away win at Camp Nou last season demonstrated that it’s not only at Anfield that Benítez’ side are a force to be reckoned with.

And let’s not forget 2005, when Liverpool travelled to Italy holding a more precarious first-leg lead than this one and – contrary to all expectations – secured a 0-0 draw in Turin that knocked Juventus out.



Inter Milan - Reggina 2 - 0 08/03/2008 SERIE A
Napoli - Inter Milan 1 - 0 02/03/2008 SERIE A
Inter Milan - Roma 1 - 1 27/02/2008 SERIE A
Sampdoria - Inter Milan 1 - 1 24/02/2008 SERIE A
Liverpool - Inter Milan 2 - 0 19/02/2008 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Inter Milan - Livorno 2 - 0 16/02/2008 SERIE A


Liverpool - Newcastle 3 - 0 08/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - West Ham 4 - 0 05/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Bolton - Liverpool 1 - 3 02/03/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Middlesbrough 3 - 2 23/02/2008 PREMIER LEAGUE
Liverpool - Inter Milan 2 - 0 19/02/2008 CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Liverpool - Barnsley 1 - 2 16/02/2008 FA CUP



Marco Materazzi is suspended following his dismissal at Anfield. Cordoba hasn’t featured since being stretchered off in the first leg but the Nerazzurri are confident that Cristian Chivu (shoulder) will be fit enough to face Liverpool. Luis Figo is in contention for a recall on the right of midfield while Julio Cruz will probably replace Hernan Crespo up front. Zlatan Ibrahimović came through the weekend’s game unscathed.

Likely XI (4-4-2): Julio Cruz – Maicon, Chivu, Burdisso, Zanetti – Figo, Vieira, Cambiasso, Stankovic – Ibrahimović, Cruz


Xabi Alonso stayed in Liverpool to attend the birth of his child and Rafa Benítez has removed him from the squad. Lucas will fill in. Steve Finnan will miss the game with an ankle problem so Alvaro Arbeloa will continue at right-back. Javier Mascherano is in the squad having missed the Newcastle game and should start. Hyypia, Aurélio, Babel and Kuyt – all rested at the weekend – are pushing for recalls but Jermaine Pennant impressed and could be in with a shout down the right. Agger and Voronin are still unavailable.

Likely XI (4-2-3-1): Reina – Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurélio – Mascherano, Lucas – Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel – Torres


Inter – Zlatan Ibrahimović

The Swedish international is celebrated in Italy as one of the very best strikers around, but he appears to have developed a habit of not delivering in the big games, especially in Europe. With Inter 2-0 down and chasing the tie there has never been a more important time for Ibracadabra to conjure up some goals.

Liverpool – Jamie Carragher

The defender will make his 100th European appearance at the San Siro on Tuesday – all have been for Liverpool, of course. Carragher has put in some monumental performances in crunch Champions League ties in recent years and he’s likely to be called on again in this match. If Carragher and the rest of the back line are on form and can bat away everything Inter throw at them then make no mistake: the Nerazzurri will be crashing out.

Jermaine Pennant Refuses To Let Dubai Rumblings Distract Liverpool Players

Jermaine Pennant wants Liverpool to follow one of his former clubs Arsenal into the Champions League quarter-finals.

The Gunners qualified for the last eight along with Manchester United and Chelsea last week.

Now tonight Pennant hopes to be a key member of Liverpool’s side aiming to become the fourth English side to make the quarter-finals when they take on Inter Milan.

Liverpool are 2-0 ahead from the first-leg, and Pennant said: “It was a great result and performance from Arsenal last week to get to the quarter-finals, and I hope that Liverpool can do the same.

“This is a huge game for us, a very tough test. Inter are a quality team and we will have to be at our best.”

Arsenal beat AC Milan last week in this same San Siro stadium, and Pennant wants Liverpool to follow suit.

He said: “It shows how strong the Premier League is. We see top world stars performing in it every week, they are all very good players with great teams. I am not surprised the English top four have done so well.”

Boss Rafael Benitez was more careful with his words, saying: “I would rather not talk about such a situation until after our game with Inter.

“We are confident and in Fernando Torres we have a player who does not seem to be able to stop scoring. He is just the right sort of player for a game like this.

“He and Steven Gerrard are on fire at the moment, and I have a lot of confidence that both of them will be the key to this match for us.”

Benitez has Jamie Carragher playing his 100th European game for the club while Javier Mascherano is fit again after a groin injury.

But Liverpool will be without midfielder Xabi Alonso, who stayed behind on Merseyside to be with his girlfriend, who had gone into labour.

Benitez said: “Xabi wanted to stay behind. He had said he would come if things were okay, but we couldn’t wait, wait, wait, and I now have to use my squad.”

Benitez also wants to make sure that the latest twist in the club’s takeover saga -with co-owner Tom Hicks breaking off talks with Dubai International Capital - does not affect his players on the brink of their most important game of the season.

He said: “My reaction to this news is to concentrate on my side scoring goals to beat Inter Milan.

“We are thinking only about the game. The aim is to do what we have been doing before against Inter, and we know that if we score then we win the tie.”

Rafa Benitez: Liverpool Team Don't Care What Is Happening In Dubai Or Dallas

Rafael Benitez insisted tonight he would not allow the latest twist in the club’s takeover saga to affect preperation for their bid to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.

The Liverpool manager already had enough on his plate as his team flew out from a stormy Merseyside in the hope of completing victory over Inter Milan, with the decision to leave midfielder Xabi Alonso behind to be with his girlfriend, who had gone into labour.

But such is the amazing soap opera that has overwhelmed Liverpool this season, Benitez and his squad had barely touched down before co-owner Tom Hicks was announcing on the club’s own website he was breaking off negotiations with Dubai International Capital over the sale of a majority share of the club.

So when Benitez reached the San Siro for his press conference, the question was more about keeping his players’ concentration on the match rather than what might be happening to their employers in Dallas, Dubai or London.

With Liverpool 2-0 ahead from the first leg and on the brink of making it four Barclays Premier League clubs in the last eight, Benitez was very clear in his objectives.

He said: “My reaction to this news is to concentrate on my side scoring goals to beat Inter Milan.

“We are thinking only about the game. The aim is to do what we have been doing before against Inter, and we know that if we score then we win the tie.”

On the late decision of Alonso to stay behind in Liverpool with his girlfriend, Benitez said: “Xabi wanted to stay behind. He had said he would come if things were okay, but we couldn’t wait, wait, wait, and I now have to use my squad.”

Benitez was able to confirm Javier Mascherano’s appearance in the squad after he recovered from a groin injury, and the Argentinian is clearly most welcome in the camp under the circumstances.

He will slot straight back into the side, with the prospect of Lucas Leiva also keeping his place in midfield.

Benitez is also considering using Peter Crouch in attack, saying: “He is a player that Inter are not used to facing.”

But whatever side the Spaniard puts out, the keys to success here are surely Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, who have hit 44 goals between them this term and who their manager describes as “both being on fire”.

The Italians are clearly concerned about the prolific partnership, having seen on TV a catalogue of goals from the pair over the weekend. Their questions were all about Liverpool’s star players.

Maybe it is good the worrying debate over Liverpool’s future seems to go over the heads of the Milan media.

And Benitez is just concentrating on taking Liverpool into the European Cup last eight for the 12th time in their history.

He said: “We have great confidence. When we played Inter in the first game we had just been beaten by Barnsley. Now we face them after five successive victories.

“We are playing well, and we will not just be defending. It it is impossible for us to defend for a long time against such a great team.

“We will be looking to score, to hit on the break. I believe that Torres is the ideal player for this, if we score one then we will surely be through.”

And Benitez knows at the back he has 30 year-old Jamie Carragher, who will be setting a club record of 100 European appearances for Liverpool.

Benitez said of his best defender: “He has the right mentality for this type of game. He has been a very important player for us in the past and will continue to do so in the future.”

Rafa Promises To Attack

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is confident his in-form side can reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League by knocking Internazionale out of the competition.

The Reds lead the last 16 tie 2-0 after the first leg at Anfield three weeks ago and travel to the San Siro for the second encounter in an upbeat mood after securing five successive victories.

Benitez said: "We are playing well and we have great confidence.

"When we played Inter in the first game we had just been beaten by Barnsley in the FA Cup. Now we face them after five successive victories.

"We will not just be defending. It is impossible for us to defend for a long time against such a great team.

"We will be looking to score, to hit on the break. I believe that Fernando Torres is the ideal player for this. If we score one then we will surely be through."

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard also believes Torres could be the Merseysiders' key man in the second leg.

He said: "We'll be looking to hit them on the counter-attack, and Torres plays that game better than anyone.

"Not only can you stick the ball over the top and let him chase it, but he can make things happen himself like he did against Marseille earlier in the tournament.

"He's brilliant, fantastic. I wouldn't swap him for any other striker anywhere.

"He's been massive for us and gives us so many different options up front. He's banging them in and always looks a threat every time he plays.

"You can play him on his own or with a partner and he just adapts perfectly.

"When you look at the impact he's made in just seven months here, it means that no-one now can make excuses about needing time to settle.

"I feel England suits him even better than Spain. He suits the constant flow and the rough and tumble of the Premier League better than the stop-start technical La Liga."

DIC Keen To Revive Lverpool Deal

Dubai's ruling family have not given up hope of buying a stake in Liverpool despite the club's co-owner Tom Hicks breaking off negotiations.

The Texan threw the future of the club back into turmoil after he terminated discussions with Dubai International Capital (DIC) on Monday.

Hicks said he was not prepared to manage the club jointly with DIC "by committee" and vetoed their proposal to buy out 49% of co-owner George Gillett's 50% stake.

DIC said they had no comment to make, but sources close to the deal say the company, the investment arm of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, are keen to revive a deal.

Hicks' statement read: "I have decided to terminate any further discussions with DIC regarding their possible purchase of a minority stake in Kop (Holdings) and, in turn, in the club.

"DIC made it clear that if they invested in the club, they would want it to be managed by committee.

"Based on my 13 years of successful experience as an owner of professional sports teams, and based in particular on the situation at Liverpool Football Club over the past year, it is clear to me that such a committee approach would not be in the best interest of Kop, of the club or of the club's loyal and passionate supporters.

"Accordingly, I have decided to exercise my right under the Kop Football (Holdings) Limited partnership agreement to veto any sale of any portion of Kop and the club to DIC."

As far as Liverpool are concerned, it is now back to square one with Hicks and Gillett at loggerheads - even more so now the Texan has vetoed the sale - and there are only 17 months until the £350million loan the Americans took out in January has to be refinanced again.

Furthermore, another loan of around £300million will have to be taken out to finance the building of the new stadium at Stanley Park.

Xabi Alonso To Miss Inter Clash After Row With Rafael Benitez

Liverpool's Champions League plans were in turmoil last night after Rafa Benitez banned Xabi Alonso from the side to face Inter Milan.

Alonso's Anfield future is in serious doubt after their falling-out overshadowed Liverpool's build-up to this evening's big game.

The Spaniard wanted to be with his girlfriend Nagore for the birth of his first child before travelling to Italy on a later flight than his team-mates for the crunch encounter at the San Siro.

But Benitez, frustrated and angry, ruled out the prospect of Alonso making the trip, and insisted he was ready to go with the players who travelled.

Steven Gerrard: Torres Can End Inter's Hopes

When John Toshack and Kevin Keegan led Liverpool's attack, their understanding was so sure that they were asked to take a scientific test to prove if they were, in fact, telepathic. Should Keegan study a video of Liverpool's demolition of the Newcastle side he now manages, he might demand the same tests for Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard.

The way Gerrard, with one glance, saw and made a geometrically perfect pass that split two Newcastle defenders and allowed Torres to score Liverpool's second last Saturday was sublime. And if they can re-create something similar at the San Siro tonight, Inter Milan, already trailing 2-0 from the first leg on Merseyside, will be making another premature exit from the European Cup.

Yesterday, Torres remarked that his captain was probably the best player on the planet and the admiration is mutual. "I wouldn't swap him for any other striker in the world at the moment," Gerrard said. "He gives us so many different things up front. He looks a threat everywhere he plays. You can play him on his own or with a partner and he just adapts perfectly.

"He has made life tough for the foreign boys who come over to England. When you look at the impact he has had in the last seven months, nobody can make excuses about being given time to settle."

Rafael Benitez's decision to play Torres as a lone striker with Gerrard in support just behind him, is surely one of the significant factors behind a dramatic revival which since the humiliating FA Cup defeat by Barnsley - a match neither man started - has produced five successive wins. Liverpool scored 15 times in those fixtures and Gerrard and Torres scored 10 of the goals.

"We will be looking to play on the counter-attack in Italy and Torres plays that game better than anyone around," said Gerrard. "Not only can you stick the ball over the top and let him chase it but, if you look at the Marseille game [in December], he can make things happen by himself.

"He roasted Marco Materazzi in the first game [against Inter]. Materazzi might think he was hard done by to get sent off but he could have been booked for a bad tackle before he had been shown one yellow, never mind two.

"It just shows how easily Torres' pace and strength unsettled a World Cup winner. The lad who comes in for Materazzi won't be looking forward to his 90 minutes against Fernando."

The Inter Milan manager, Roberto Mancini, was correct to say that, to make the quarter-finals, his team would have to play "a perfect game". Unless they plan to overcome Liverpool in a penalty shoot-out, Inter will have to score three times without reply; a strategy that contains no margin for error.

"We can defend all night if we have to," said Gerrard. "But we believe we will worry the hell out of them. There will be a reluctance from Inter to over-commit against us because they got nothing at Anfield - no change from the defence; no possession and no time to settle. We'll be going for them again because we know that one goal can kill the tie.

"I am relishing playing in the San Siro because I have never done it before and it's going to be another one off my list. I want to play in the cathedrals of Europe. If we get our attitude right, take our chances and believe in ourselves, it will be another night to remember."