Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Champions League Preview: Marseille vs. LiverpooL

Matchday 1 of the 2008-09 Champions League group stages will see Liverpool travel to Marseille in a battle of the once-greats. Both were at one time the unrivalled giants of their country, yet neither have won a league title since the early 1990s. Both remain their country’s most successful club but are in serious danger of losing that mantle. Both have been looking forward to ‘next year’ for far too long.

But the time may finally be nigh for two of Europe’s historical heavyweights to reclaim their crowns. Both have invested extensively yet shrewdly in the market over the last few summers. Both have assembled arguably their strongest team on paper since their heyday. And neither have the chameleon-haired, brittle-legged Djibril Cisse in their squad any more.

What’s more, they each go into their Champions League opener in decent touch.

Liverpool are lucky to even be in the competition after their indifferent showing against Standard Liege in the third round of qualifying. It took the Reds until the 207th minute of the tie to break open the Belgian champions’ defence, Dirk Kuyt poking home deep in extra time of the second leg to spare his team-mates’ and his manager’s blushes.

But things have picked up quite suddenly for the Merseyside giants. They remain unbeaten and sit second in the Premier League table after claiming a thoroughly deserved win against Manchester United on Saturday. It is Liverpool’s best start since Rafael Benitez arrived in 2004, and they travel to the south of France high on confidence.

Once again, Marseille’s situation is similar. They couldn’t quite hold on to claim their first win at Bordeaux in 31 years, but the draw leaves them second in Ligue 1 behind perennial front-runners Olympique Lyon. In other words, it has been a promising start for Eric Gerets’ side as they seek to deny les Gones an eighth consecutive title – just as Liverpool hope to prevent United matching their record of 18 English championships.

Liverpool and Marseille will be sick at the sight of each other by the end of the group stage, having met at the same point of last season’s Champions League. L’OM inflicted a shock defeat on the Reds at Anfield, courtesy of Mathieu Valbuena’s unanswered stunner. But the five-time European champs hit back with a 4-0 win at Stade Velodrome to progress to the knockout rounds – they eventually reached the semi-finals, where they fell to Chelsea – while their hosts were dumped into the UEFA Cup. The fixtures are reversed this time around, but it remains to be seen whether the results will differ.



13 Sept v Bordeaux (A) DREW 1-1

30 Aug v Sochaux (H) WON 2-1

27 Aug v SK Brann (H) WON 2-1

23 Aug v Le Havre (A) WON 1-0

17 Aug v Auxerre (H) WON 4-0


13 Sept v Manchester United (H) WON 2-1

31 Aug v Aston Villa (A) DREW 0-0

27 Aug v Standard Liege (H) WON 1-0

23 Aug v Middlesbrough (H) WON 2-1

16 Aug v Sunderland (A) WON 1-0



The home side have been buoyed by the return of Mathieu Valbuena, who proved to be Liverpool’s bane at Anfield last season. The 23-year-old midfielder had been battling a groin injury, but he featured against Bordeaux at the weekend and could start on Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, Hatem Ben Arfa is also hoping to return to the starting XI after sustaining a knee knock during training recently. The France winger, like Valbuena, managed a late substitute appearance at the weekend and is likely to feature in some capacity agains the Reds. Karim Ziani remains an option for the left, however, while Bolo Zenden is on standby to line up against his old club.

Coach Gerets employed something resembling a diamond midfield at Bordeaux, with Benoit Cheyrou and Charles Kabore playing box-to-box roles on the flanks. That shape may well be ditched for a 4-2-3-1 with captain Lorik Cana returning in a holding role alongside either Cheyrou or Modeste M’bami.

Possible Line-Up: Mandanda – Bonnart, Hilton, Zubar, Taiwo – Cana, Cheyrou or M’bami – Kone, Valbuena or Ziani, Ben Arfa – Niang


All the speculation surrounding Liverpool ahead of this clash concerns the fitness of Steven Gerrard (groin) and Fernando Torres (hamstring). The pair were left out of the starting XI against the Red Devils at the weekend, Gerrard coming on halfway through the second period while Torres sat out altogether. Both were expected to be fit for the trip to France but rumours have sprung up that they could be left out of the squad entirely.

That would leave Benitez in something of a pickle given Javier Mascherano pulled up with a calf complaint late in the United game. Either of Damien Plessis and Lucas Leiva may thus be given an opportunity in midfield beside Xabi Alonso, while David N’Gog or Ryan Babel could start up front (or both, if the somewhat out-of-touch Robbie Keane gets dropped).

Sami Hyypia’s surprise exclusion from the Champions League roster means Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger are left to fight for a place beside Jamie Carragher in central defence, while Andrea Dossena and Fabio Aurelio will battle for the left-back slot. Albert Reira, who impressed on debut at the weekend, is a possibility to retain his place on the left wing, while Dirk Kuyt is likely to line up on the right.

The formation will depend on who is available. While it would be a surprise if Benitez made any significant changes from the side that defeated the English and European champions, if Gerrard and Torres are fit then the system may have to be shifted to accommodate them.

Possible Line-Up: Reina – Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Dossena – Mascherano, Alonso – Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel – Torres



Bakary Kone comes into the clash in good form after scoring in the first minute against Bordeaux. The Ivorian forward was one of Marseille’s star recruits during the summer and has settled well at his new club, showing promise both on the right and up front. Taye Taiwo is another one to keep an eye on, inasmuch as the Nigerian full-back’s attacking instincts mean both sides are likely to get some joy down Marseille’s left flank.


As mentioned earlier, it’s a matter of who plays for the Reds. If Gerrard and Torres start, then they are the obvious drawcards. If the skipper sits out, expect Xabi Alonso to see an awful lot of the ball. The Basque playmaker has been in excellent form of late, as evidenced by his dominant performance against United at the weekend. Alonso’s craft paired with Mascherano’s graft seems a winning combo, and it makes one wonder why Benitez was so eager to sell his compatriot over the summer.

Niang Eyes Reds Revenge

Mamadou Niang is confident that Marseille can beat Liverpool in their UEFA Champions League opener on Tuesday.

The French club defeated the Reds at Anfield 12 months ago but were then hammered 4-0 at home in a decisive final group game.

Liverpool have started the Premier League season strongly and will hope to pick up three points at the Stade Velodrome, but Niang has warned that Marseille are also in fine form.

Eric Gerets' side are unbeaten in five domestic matches while they also defeated SK Brann of Norway over two legs in qualifying.

Niang is anticipating an open game and feels that he and striker partner Bakari Kone should provide a stern test for the Liverpool defence.

"I told Kone to relax and play the way he is used to playing, to free his mind and be ready to show his qualities," Niang told skysports.com.

"These games with pressure are what turn good players into great players.

"We know we can beat them. The last time we met in the Velodrome they taught us a lesson but this time we are on song as well so it should be good entertainment."

Agger Invites Reds Talks

Daniel Agger has intimated that he would be interested in holding talks with Liverpool over a new deal.

Denmark defender Agger, who joined the Reds from Brondby in 2006, has two years remaining on his current contract.

The 23-year-old has not featured for Rafa Benitez's side since the first leg of the UEFA Champions League qualifier against Standard Liege, and reports have suggested he is growing frustrated at his lack of first-team opportunities.

Agger has, however, refused to comment on the speculation and instead invited the club to begin talks over a new deal.

"I can confirm that I have not received any offer for a contract extension from Liverpool," he told Ekstra Bladet.

Gerrard Hoping For Champions League Start

After making his comeback from a groin injury during Saturday's 2-1 over Manchester United, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard is hoping to start in the Champions League against Marseille on Tuesday.

After missing England's pair of international fixtures against Andorra and Croatia last week as he overcame a groin operation, Gerrard started Saturday's north-west derby on the bench.

He watched on as his team-mates grappled with their Manchester United counterparts, and entered the fray for the vital last 20 minutes.

The midfielder now feels that he is ready to start a match from the outset, and sees the Velodrome clash as an ideal opportunity for some game time.

Although Gerrard is champing at the bit to be involved, he knows that a decision on his fitness can only be undertaken by his manager Rafael Benitez.

Gerrard told Liverpool's official website: "The manager did the sensible thing with me [on Saturday]. It was hard to sit and watch from the bench, but I'd only had one full training session.

"My heart was saying I was desperate to play, but there are another 40-50 games hopefully this season.

"I wasn't ready to start. I'd been training on my own for the last 10 days. The most I could have played was 20-25 minutes.

"I'll have a few more sessions under my belt before Tuesday's game in Marseille and will be in better shape, but it'll be the manager's decision."

Babel Aiming To Propel Liverpool’s Title Challenge After Scoring Winner Against Man United

Ryan Babel is aiming to propel Liverpool’s title charge after having helped the Reds beat defending champions Manchester United at Anfield on Saturday.

The Dutch international forward came off the bench to score the winner in the 77th minute of the 2-1 triumph for Rafa Benitez’s side.

The 20-year-old is now hoping to score more important goals as the Merseysiders are looking to end their 18-year wait for the top-flight title.

"This is a new season and we want to get off to a good start so this is an important goal for me and the team," Babel told the Liverpool Echo.

"Hopefully I can score more important goals because there are a lot of games still to play and a lot of points to play for.

"But it's always nice to score a goal against a big opponent, especially Manchester United.

"We want to be able to compete until the end of the season and you have a better chance of doing that if you win games like this."

Babel, who is used by Benitez mostly as an impact player and has quickly earned a reputation as a 'super-sub' at Anfield, added: "I suppose it (scoring) is an even better feeling when you've only come into the game late on as a substitute. It was a fantastic moment for me and for the team.

"Before I came onto the pitch the manager was telling me to give the game some energy.

"He said that I have done the same every time I have come off the bench and said to try and do the same this time."

Albert Riera Hails Mental Toughness Of Liverpool FC

LIVERPOOL'S latest signing Albert Riera has the happy knack of playing on winning sides against Manchester United - but the Spaniard insists that his latest success is down to the hard work of his new Anfield team-mates.

The winger made an instant impression by constantly stretching the champions' defence during Saturday's 2-1 victory - following on from the part he played in Manchester City's 3-1 win over their neighbours on his Eastlands debut in 2006.

However Riera dismissed notions of being a lucky charm against Sir Alex Ferguson's side, highlighting the mental resolve of his fellow Liverpool players instead.

"They scored first but we believed in ourselves and believed we could change the score," the 26 years-old told Liverpoolfc.tv. "We played a very good second half. It wasn't just luck. You can't talk about luck too much in football. We played a great match and that is why we won."

Riera was as impressed with the fans as he was the rest of his new team, but said the Anfield reception did not come as a shock.

"That wasn't a surprise because I knew before I came here that these fans were the best, and I knew before that this was the best home any side could play football in," said Riera, who has won five caps for his native country. "I think the supporters will win us a lot of points this season because they push us on."

Ngog Took Boumsong Advice

Former Newcastle defender Jean Alain Boumsong has revealed he helped persuade David Ngog to join Liverpool.

Boumsoung endured a difficult time on Tyneside and eventually packed his bags for Juventus.

However, he still believes the Premier League is among the best in the world and was adamant that his teenage cousin should take the opportunity awarded to him.

Ngog had been struggling for first team opportunities at Paris Saint-Germain, but has already made an impact on the Anfield faithful after a number of promising substitute showings.

"When he talked to me about Liverpool, I first wanted to know whether he had spoken with Rafa Benitez and whether he wanted him," Boumsong told L'Equipe.

"Then I told him that Benitez is a great coach. When he has promising youngsters he gives them opportunities and if you work hard you will get your chance.

"To me the English league is the most difficult, but David has joined it as a complete unknown and that will help.

"He will have to get more power in his game. He is still young, but has plenty of areas to improve.

"However, when he sees (Steven) Gerrard diving into tackles and (Jamie) Carragher clattering him in training, he will soon wake-up."

Gerets: Reds Just Keep On Running

Marseille boss Erik Gerets has likened Champions League opponents Liverpool to Duracell bunnies because they can run forever.

The Belgian, who has twice plotted victories over the Reds in Europe, first for Galatasaray and then in Marseille's win at Anfield last season, admits to being concerned about the level of form the five-time European Cup winners achieved in beating the current champions on Saturday.

Gerets sends out his Marseille side, undefeated this term, on Tuesday against a side brimming with confidence after their victory over Manchester United.

And Gerets is even more worried that Liverpool beat United without Fernando Torres and with captain Steven Gerrard only involved for 20 minutes.

He said: "If I had been asked five days ago whether I was happy with Liverpool not having their best two players, it would have been a different answer to now.

"I love watching Premier League football played at that pace. I really enjoyed watching Liverpool's game with Manchester United.

"Liverpool are like the Duracell bunnies - they are an example to the rest of the world for the effort they put in. You just wind them up and off they go."

He added: "Liverpool have a fantastic coach, a fantastic team. I know that Manchester United have cut their lead of titles (now 18-17 in the Merseysiders' favour) but I really hope that Liverpool win the Premier League, and somehow we survive in this group and end up playing them in the Champions League final."

Gerets has bitter experience of facing a fired-up Liverpool, having suffered at their hands 4-0 last December at Stade Velodrome.

He said: "Liverpool do not surprise me any more. They outplayed us then in everything they did, physically and tactically.

"But we will not let it happen again because we aim to cut out those mistakes this time."

Skipper Lorik Cana, rested in Sunday's 1-1 draw at Bordeaux, will return in midfield, probably in place of Karim Ziani, while there is a worry over Hatem Ben Arfa who has a knee injury.

Canna played in that 4-0 mauling last term, and said: "We are better now, more experienced with new players who are superior, overall, than last time.

"We saw the way they played against Manchester United, they have big names and are in great form.

"But all we can do is give everything, 100 per cent. We will not want another home defeat like last time."

DIC Rule Out A Bid For Liverpool FC

Investment group Dubai International Capital (DIC) has said it is not in talks to buy Liverpool FC.

Reports had suggested that the investment arm of the Dubai government may bid again for Liverpool, while the group has also been linked to Newcastle. But a DIC statement denied there was a bid for the Reds - or any Premier League club - on the horizon.

The statement read: "DIC is not involved in any negotiations to buy Liverpool and is not planning a fresh bid for LFC or any other club."

Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is still linked to the Reds.

DIC failed with a bid to acquire 49% of Liverpool in March when the Anfield outfit's co-owner Tom Hicks ended negotiations with the company after months of negotiations.

But the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, is believed to want to pursue his interest in the Merseyside club, although he would not utilize DIC in any negotiations.

That has been the case since early summer when he was linked with an attempt to buy out Hicks and his co-owner George Gillett.

Those negotiations have been carried out in the UK by a company, PCP, run by Amanda Staveley, and which has been involved in negotiations for the successful purchase of Manchester City by an Abu Dhabi group.

The DIC statement continued: "Neither DIC nor any other Dubai based party is aware of any consortium or vehicle involved in a bid. DIC has not mandated PCP to act for DIC in any matter whatsoever.

"DIC would like to wish LFC and its fans a successful future."