Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Match Preview: LiverpooL vs. Marseille

Few managers can have enjoyed as much success in European competition as Liverpool boss Rafael Benítez. With Valencia, Benítez won a UEFA Cup, a triumph that would be pushed into the shade by his current side’s remarkable Champions League triumph in 2004/05. While the Reds could not quite match this achievement two seasons later, falling at the final hurdle, it is an impressive achievement to have taken a side few would have considered in the top two in Europe, to such a level.

As the Anfield club chase a hat-trick of finals, the obstacle of qualifying from Group D can be cleared on Wednesday night. All that is required is that Liverpool draw with Olympique de Marseille – failing that, a point against PSV Eindhoven in a fortnight would be enough to secure a berth in the last 16.

Progress has rarely been so smooth for Benítez and co, who have been, so far, relatively steady performers.

Of course, no Champions League campaign for the Reds would be complete without some kind of Steven Gerrard-inspired drama – whether his drive into the box a massive five minutes into stoppage-time against Atlético Madrid at Anfield, which proved the catalyst for an equalising penalty, was heroic or simply villainous is very much a matter for debate.

That point leaves Benítez’s side on the brink of qualification. A draw in Spain against Atlético coupled with victories over PSV and Marseille, have seen Liverpool enjoy an unbeaten run in the group stage that stretches back to last season and an impressive home European record that stands at eight games.

The last team to beat them at home Europe? Marseille – and the Frenchmen were certainly in a more beat-up state when they shocked the Kop by winning 1-0 in September 2007.

But Liverpool were also in a period of uneasy transition as Mathieu Valbuena’s stunning strike provided a rare moment of silence on a European night at the usually raucous Merseyside venue.

Joint top of the English Premier League, Liverpool should have confidence and swagger about their play on Wednesday evening, although this was not evident as they were held to a scoreless draw by Fulham on Saturday.

Goals should not be overly difficult to come by against a porous Marseille side. If Liverpool were to find the net just twice against the Provence club, they would reach a tally of 300 European goals.

His defence is certainly going to be the first port of call for Eric Gerets ahead of this fixture, as it has been nothing short of abysmal this season. Title rivals, Olympique Lyonnais, had their rearguard questioned earlier this season but they have conceded just ten goals in their 15 Ligue 1 matches in comparison to l’OM’s 20.

It is not just the quantity of goals that are being lost by Marseille that is worrying; it is also the manner in which they are being leaked. Take, for example, Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Lille, in which les Phocéens trailed by two goals at the interval.

Both goals came from set-plays that the defence could have coped better with. Goalkeeper Steve Mandanda should have been more positive with Michel Bastos’ (admittedly) vicious corner that provided Adil Rami with a platform to thump home a near-post header, while Lille’s second goal was a laughable breakdown in communication between goalkeeper and central defender Ronald Zubar.

If the Stade Vélodrome club continue to protect their goal in such a suicidal manner, Liverpool could well threaten the 8-0 triumph they inflicted upon Beşiktaş in Matchday 4 last season.

Thankfully from Gerets’ point of view, he can call upon the most prolific striking force in France. Generally deploying a front-three of Mamadou Niang, Hatem Ben Arfa and Bakari Koné in Ligue 1, the trio have managed 17 goals and eight assists between them.

All three are likely to be deployed at Anfield, albeit in a set-up considerably more defensive than they may be used to in league play. Ben Arfa and Koné will be asked to play wide roles, with Niang the hold-up man in attack.

Marseille will remain focused on this game as it could provide a route into the UEFA Cup, a competition they were only knocked out of last season by eventual winners, Zenit St. Petersborg, and even then, OM lost only on away goals.

Gerets’ side hold the upper-hand on PSV Eindhoven at present. Both sides only have three points but Marseille are better off due to their 3-2 aggregate success over the Dutchmen.



Benítez will not necessarily be able to call upon the services of key midfielder Steven Gerrard for this fixture. The England international, who scored twice as Liverpool recorded a somewhat fortuitous victory over Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome on Matchday 1, has a groin problem but the Liverpool manager expects to have his captain available.

Also missing will be Philipp Degen and Martin Škrtel, who have metatarsal and knee problems, respectively.

Liverpool’s attacking options are widened by the return of Robbie Keane from injury. The Irishman, who has scored twice in four Champions League matches, had been suffering from a shoulder problem but returned to action last weekend.

Possible Starting XI: Reina; Agger, Arbeloa, Aurélio, Carragher; Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard, Riera, Kuyt; Torres


Gerets is boosted by the news that he will have virtually a full squad of players to select from in this encounter. Modeste M’Bami continues to miss out in the centre of the field while Algerian international El Amine Erbate is again sidelined. Squad player Renato Civelli is also missing.

Interestingly, all of the starting eleven who played against Liverpool in the 1-0 success at Anfield are still at the club. Indeed, only Gael Givet – frozen out of the first team – does not make the squad. Julien Rodriguez is making tentative steps back from injury and is not likely to be included in the starting eleven.

Mathieu Valbuena had been expected to be an absentee but last season’s match-winner is in l’OM’s squad of 19 to travel. Englishman Tyrone Mears, still looking for his debut since joining on loan from Derby County in August, makes a long-awaited return from a knee problem. Neither of these players is expected to feature – there would certainly be an issue if Mears was to play as he is not registered for the competition!

Possible Starting XI: Mandanda; Bonnart, Taiwo, Zubar, Hilton; Cana, Cheyrou, Kaboré, Koné, Ben Arfa; Niang



22/11/08 D 0-0 vs. Fulham (h) Premier League

15/11/08 W 2-0 vs. Bolton Wanderers (a) Premier League

12/11/08 L 0-4 vs. Tottenham Hotspur (a) Carling Cup

08/11/08 W 3-0 vs. West Bromwich Albion (h) Premier League

04/11/08 D 1-1 vs. Atlético Madrid (a) Champions League

01/11/08 L 1-2 vs. Tottenham Hotspur (a) Premier League


23/11/08 D 2-2 vs. Lille OSC (h) Ligue 1

15/11/08 L 2-3 vs. FC Lorient (h) Ligue 1

08/11/08 W 3-0 vs. Grenoble Foot38 (a) Ligue 1

04/11/08 W 3-0 vs. PSV Eindhoven (h) Champions League

01/11/08 W 3-1 vs. AS Saint-Étienne (h) Ligue 1

29/10/08 D 1-1 vs. FC Nantes (a) Ligue 1



With the potential absence of Gerrard, striker Fernando Torres has to be the man to watch. Possessing electric pace and an eye for goal bettered by only a hanful of players in the world, even the meanest of defences have a hard time pinning the Spaniard down.

Against Marseille’s ramshackle back four, expected Torres to open his goal scoring account for this season’s competition.


Les Phocéens have a number of dangerous attacking threats. Although many eyes will be fixed upon the potentially devastating presence of Hatem Ben Arfa, striker Mamadou Niang is Marseille’s most consistent offensive producer.

Five goals and the same number of assists in Ligue 1 represent a fine start to the season for the Senegalese star, who has also registered three goals in this season’s Champions League.

Benitez Unsure Of Marseille Approach

Rafael Benitez admits he does not know whether Champions League rivals Marseille will be brave or cautious at Anfield.

The Liverpool boss, who will overtake Bill Shankly for the most European matches overseen by an Anfield manager on Wednesday night, accepts the French side could surprise him with their approach to the crucial Group D match.

This will be Benitez's 66th European match in charge of the club, and he is aiming for victory number 39 to ensure that Liverpool reach the last 16 with one group match to spare.

He will have captain Steven Gerrard back from his torn groin muscle to lead the charge.

But Benitez said: "Marseille are a good side. But it will be interesting to see how the approach the game. They have good players on the counter-attack, and they may sit deep and concede possession to us.

"But they have to win so they may be more attack-minded and really go for it. We will see very quickly how they intend to approach this game.

"This is different to last season in this competition. After losing at home to Marseille we had one point from three games and had to win everything else. We had to fight right to the end.

"The season before, we were already qualified when we went to Galatasaray for the last match, and we were able to use other players.

"The atmosphere was so different. If we can go to PSV Eindhoven next for our final group match with our place in the knock-out stage decided, we can use young players."

On his personal milestone, Benitez expressed hope that he would go on to double his tally.

"I am really proud to be in such a position so hopefully the next 66 games I will be here as well," he said.

"This amount of European games is a good achievement for anyone, but especially when you are talking about a top side like Liverpool. That also means the team is doing well in Europe and that is very positive for the club.

"I am proud, but the game is more important. I do know the history and understand it."

Benitez added: "I can recall when I was at Madrid that Liverpool beat them 1-0 in the European Cup final. My friend was the goalkeeper and there were lot of former club-mates in that side, so from that long ago I have been affected by Liverpool results.

"So now to be here and to enjoy this club and the job I do is wonderful. But I must not let any personal thoughts distract me from this game.

"The Champions League is massive and we must progress. Hopefully we can make sure of our qualification in this match and then be able to concentrate on the Premier League."

Arbeloa Aims For Double Glory

Liverpool defender Alvaro Arbeloa has set his sights on a Premier League and UEFA Champions League double this season.

The Reds sit level on points with Chelsea at the summit of English football's top division, while a home win against Marseille on Wednesday would book a place in the last 16 of Europe.

Liverpool were forced to watch on as North West rivals Manchester United secured glory at home and abroad last term and Arbeloa is eager to replicate that triumph.

The 25-year-old recognises European and domestic success is a tough mission but he is optimistic manager Rafa Benitez has assembled an experienced squad which can rise to the challenge.

"It is always difficult to balance your ambitions in the Premier League and the Champions League," said Arbeloa.

"But we can do it. In other seasons we have been really focused on the Champions League because we have not had a good enough position in the league to fight for the title.

"We have the experience to handle both, I hope so. We want to win the two titles, and we want to be in there fighting right to the end in both."

Benitez Proud To Join Ranks Of Anfield Legends

Rafael Benítez has stated his intention to cement his place alongside Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, the legendary Anfield managers, over the next decade as he prepares to rewrite the club’s history books against Marseille in the Champions League this evening.

Not only will Benítez surpass Shankly’s club record of 65 games in charge of Liverpool on the European stage, the 48-year-old will also equal Paisley’s club record of 39 European victories should his players secure the win at Anfield that will seal their passage into the first knockout round with one group game to spare.

The table may suggest that Liverpool’s penultimate game in group D is a routine exercise with the Merseyside club five points clear of Marseilles, but this is not a meaningless game for the Spaniard. “Hopefully I will still be here for the next 66 European games, then I will be really happy,” Benítez said. “I am really proud to be here because, when you talk about statistics or records, it means much more when you talk about the big sides.

This is Bill Shankly and Liverpool, so it is massive and I am proud, but to get the record means also that the team is doing well in the Champions League. Maybe in the future, people will talk about this being a fantastic time here, but I don’t think about this every day. I just think about winning the next game. I am really proud of what has happened, but I want to achieve more if possible.”

Negotiations are continuing between Benítez’s representatives and George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks, Liverpool’s co-owners, about extending his contract, with the Spaniard excited about the club’s future.

With Liverpool level on points with Chelsea at the top of the Barclays Premier League and on the brink of qualifying for the knockout stage of the Champions League, Benítez found himself fending off questions about a European and domestic double yesterday. “If I am here in ten or 15 more years, it will be because we have been winning, so my idea is to create a team that can compete with everyone and win trophies every year,” Benítez, who is set to welcome back Steven Gerrard to the midfield after a groin injury, said. “Everybody knows the priority is the league, the Champions League and then the FA Cup.”

Fernando Torres, who has yet to score in the Champions League this season, has contributed to the feel-good factor sweeping through the club by stating his desire to help Liverpool to win the title for the first time since 1990. “It is fair to say the Premier League is in front of everything else for us,” the Spain striker said. “It is 18 years since Liverpool were last champions of England and the wait is enormous.”

Fernando Torres: I Thought Benitez's Call Was A Prank!

El Nino has revealed how he believed he was being hoodwinked when Rafa Benitez phoned him last year to ask if he wanted to join the Reds.

After weeks of negotiations between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, Fernando Torres made the switch to England in the summer of 2007 for €25 million.

Many questioned Rafael Benitez's decision to spend so much money a player whose goalscoring record in the Primera Division was no more than decent - even Torres himself, as it turns out.

The Spain star revealed that, after his soon-to-be manager made his intentions known, he contacted Reds goalkeeper Pepe Reina to make sure it wasn't a joke.

"When Rafa phoned me on my mobile, at the start I was asking myself if this was some person imitating him," he told the press yesterday.

"So I called Reina to make sure it really was Rafa’s number. After that, I didn’t have to think for long. I knew that was the call I had been waiting for."

60 games and 38 goals later, there are no longer any queries as to the validity of Benitez's interest - or whether Torres was worth the money.

Ryan Babel: I Won't Leave Liverpool - But I Do Want To Play More

Ryan Babel is desperate for more first-team opportunities at Liverpool - but insists he is not thinking about leaving the club.

Manager Rafael Benitez has rotated his squad less often recently, meaning fringe players like Babel are getting fewer starts.

“The rotation system is a thing of the past and I’m one of the victims of that,” the 21-year-old told Dutch magazine Sportweek.

“The team is winning a lot, so you don’t alter things just like that.

“Each season has about 60 games. ’I must work hard and wait for my chance,’ is what you hear, but I’ve shown enough patience. I want to play.

“You get better and develop when you play. On the bench, nothing happens. Of course I’m disappointed when I don’t play, that seems clear to me.”

The Holland international has no intention of quitting Anfield, though.

“I don’t want to go,” he said. “My contract runs until 2012. I don’t give up that easily.”

Liverpool FC Leads The Way In Crackdown On Football Hooliganism

LIVERPOOL FC is leading the way in a nationwide crackdown on football hooliganism, handing out more banning orders than any other Premier League club.

Last night, Home Office minister Vernon Coaker praised police officers, clubs and fans for combining to tackle football-related violence.

Government statistics on arrests and banning orders up to October, 2008, published today, reveal there were 3,842 arrests last season at all international and domestic games, with no arrests at 67% of matches.

Liverpool dished out 35 banning orders last year – more than any other top-flight club, and more than double the number issued the year before.

Jed Poynton, Anfield’s head of operations, last night said: “One of the biggest tools in stadium management in recent years is the support we have had in the courts for banning orders.

“We don’t have a big problem with our fans at Liverpool by any means, but our motto is being firm, fair and friendly. And we’re fortunate to have a police force in Merseyside that is positive.”

The force has helped Everton FC and Tranmere Rovers FC bring more bans than ever before.

Everton banned 18, ten more than the year before, and Tranmere handed out 12 orders, after giving out just one in 2006-07.

Everton FC spokesman Ian Ross said: “We won’t tolerate any misbehaviour, hooliganism or any sort of disorder at the club.

“We’ve a good record with regards to our behaviour, and we don’t suffer the blight of hooliganism that other clubs have sometimes had to put up with in the past.

“But there are people who need to be banished from the club because football is an entertainment business and punters at a cinema or theatre wouldn’t put up with bad behaviour, and we’re equally determined to stamp it out.

“This is a family club and that is a reputation we’re proud to have.”

Bans have doubled or tripled, while the number of arrests has gone up at a slower rate.

About 96 Liverpool fans were arrested, compared with 81 the year before. Some 77 Everton fans were picked up by police, eight more than 06-07, and 25 Tranmere followers were taken in, just six more than in the previous 12 months.

Mr Coaker said: “Football violence and disorder has no place in the modern game, and we are determined to crack down on those who attempt to ruin the sport for the vast majority of genuine fans.

“I am delighted that the police, the clubs and the fans are working together to help clamp down on football violence in and out of the grounds.

Football banning orders have proved to be a great success – 94% of individuals whose banning order has expired have been assessed by police as no longer posing a risk of football disorder.

“Great progress has been achieved and we remain committed to preventing violence and criminality spoiling the sport.”

Torres Eager For Gerrard Reunion

Fernando Torres is relishing the return of Steven Gerrard to the Liverpool team tonight as the Reds go in search of the win which will secure their place in the knock-out phase of the Champions League.

Victory over Marseille would guarantee Rafael Benitez's men a place in the last sixteen, while they would also qualify with a draw if PSV Eindhoven fail to beat Atletico Madrid.

The return of Gerrard after a groin strain is a timely tonic for the Reds, who will be looking to bounce back from their frustrating goalless draw with Fulham at the weekend, and for Torres who is delighted to welcome his teammate back to action.

The pair have not been in the same starting eleven since the 3-2 win at Manchester City on October 5.

"I wanted to play for a club like Liverpool, where I could learn from players like Steven Gerrard, who I have always respected as a player and a leader," said Torres.

"A captain in England must lead by example. Steve Gerrard is someone everyone wants to be like – always the first at training, it is he who grafts the hardest in each exercise, who sacrifices himself during each match.

"You follow him blindly. Moreover, he is a star who decided to stay at Liverpool despite all the offers.

"It is a pleasure to receive the throughballs you get from Steven. He puts the ball where he wants, like Xavi (Hernandez) for the national team."

Torres, meanwhile, has also reiterated his love for both the club and the city of Liverpool as he embarks on the challenge of looking to replicate a stunning first season in English football.

"It isn’t easy to adapt but once you have, you would have trouble wanting to play anywhere else," he said.

"You go to play away at a team in the relegation zone and you find yourself playing on a perfect pitch, with the stands full to bursting and opponents who are there to play football.

"And even if they lose, the crowd are going to cheer them on until the death. You only see this in British football."

He added: "The club is a symbol of a city which fought to stay alive.

"Everyone is proud of the team. Players want to come here because they know that Liverpool is a truly great club.

"Anfield is the most English of all the grounds - people live and breathe football there.

"With just 45,000 fans there that roar they give makes you think you have wings on your feet."

Fabio Draws Inspiration From Valencia

Fabio Aurelio believes Liverpool can draw on the experience of Valencia's title-winning success of 2002 in their quest for Premier League glory.

With Rafa Benitez at the helm, the unfancied La Liga side overcame the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid to claim their first championship in 31 years.

It's this triumph that Aurelio, who made 15 league appearances for Los Che during the campaign, feels the Reds can learn from.

"We were running from the back in 2001 and that was good for us," said the 29-year-old.

"Nobody is expecting you to fight for the title so you don't have the pressure that the teams at the top of the table have – to win every game.

"If you're top, you have to win, or otherwise you come down one position, or two positions. That was good for us at Valencia and maybe there are lessons for us now at Liverpool."

The Brazilian full-back fondly recalls a half-time team-talk from Benitez during a clash with Espanyol in December 2001, where he helped inspire Valencia to a comeback that many believe gave them the momentum to go on and clinch the title.

Aurelio said: "We were playing the local side, Espanyol, and there were question marks because the team wasn't very good and we found ourselves losing 2-0.

"There was no shouting, nothing special I remember apart from, 'You can go out and do it" – but the events of the 45 minutes which followed changed everything.

"We won 3-2 and everybody remembers that, because after that we went up and away and won the league.

"The pressure on him [Benitez] was amazing and if you've overcome that maybe you can overcome anything."

Liverpool currently sit joint top of the Premier League with Chelsea but Aurelio warns that it is too early to start thinking of silverware.

"The fans here are amazing but it is a long way if you are fighting for the title," he added.

"We know the pressure we have because of the time Liverpool has waited, but we have to keep our feet on the floor as we are doing now – and wait."