Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Champions League Preview: Liverpool vs. Fiorentina

It looks like a big clash at first glance, but neither Liverpool nor Fiorentina will have much to fight for when they cross swords in the final fixture of Champions League Group E.

For the Reds, it is the deadest of dead rubbers. The last round's results dashed their hopes of advancing to the knock-out phase - despite a 1-0 win at Debrecen - and thus Wednesday's game will serve as little more than a dress rehearsal for the Europa League.

However, following their goalless draw at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, even a meaningless three points would give Rafael Benitez's men a much-needed confidence boost.

La Viola fared decidedly better over the weekend, their 2-0 victory against Atalanta launching them into fifth place in what is a congested-looking Serie A table.

The Tuscan side are already through to the last 16 in Europe's elite club competition, and any sort of result at Liverpool will see them finish top of the group.

So with a seeding in the knock-out draw on offer, it is Fiorentina who edge it in the motivation stakes as they head to Anfield hoping to pile more misery on the Mersey men.


FORM GUIDE

Liverpool

Dec 5 Blackburn Rovers 0-0 Liverpool
Nov 29 Everton 0-2 Liverpool
Nov 24 Debrecen 0-1 Liverpool (Champions League)
Nov 21 Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City
Nov 9 Liverpool 2-2 Birmingham City

Fiorentina

Dec 6 Fiorentina 2-0 Atalanta
Nov 29 Inter 1-0 Fiorentina
Nov 24 Fiorentina 1-0 Olympique Lyonnais (Champions League)
Nov 21 Fiorentina 2-3 Parma
Nov 8 Udinese 0-1 Fiorentina


TEAM NEWS

Liverpool

With his side's fate already sealed, boss Benitez will no doubt ring in the changes and take the opportunity the rest some of his regulars.

Fernando Torres was tipped to make his return against Blackburn at the weekend but was left out of the matchday squad altogether. He could, however, feature in some capacity against Cesare Prandelli's invaders.

Alberto Aquilani didn't get so much as a minute on Saturday, and the Kop faithful (not to mention the midfielder's father) will surely kick up a fuss if he doesn't get on the park here.

Last starting XI (vs. Blackburn Rovers): Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas, Benayoun, Gerrard, Riera, Kuyt.

Fiorentina

Wonderkid Stevan Jovetic returned to the first XI at the weekend, while Marco Marchionni - another who tormented the Reds in Tuscany - is pushing for fitness after picking up a muscle strain in the 1-0 defeat to Inter on November 29.

Former Chelsea forward Adrian Mutu is still recovering from minor knee surgery.

Last starting XI (vs. Atalanta): Frey, De Silvestri, Dainelli, Kroldrup, Pasqual, Santana, Donadel, Montolivo, Vargas, Jovetic, Gilardino.


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Liverpool - Lucas Leiva

The Brazilian continues to divide opinion on Merseyside, in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact he's been an ever-present in the starting XI this season. With the result irrelevant, this is the sort of game in which he must shrug off the shackles and show that he has the quality to match his enthusiasm.

Fiorentina - Juan Manuel Vargas

Jovetic would be the obvious choice, but this man has been in red-hot form. It was the Peruvian wide-man's goal against Lyon that knocked the Reds down to the Europa League, and, having scored again on Sunday, he will no doubt fancy himself to snag another at Anfield - if he's not rested, of course.

Rafa - No Aquilani Row


Rafa Benitez has played down reports of a row with Alberto Aquilani and confirmed he will make his full Liverpool debut on Wednesday.

The Italian international has yet to start at game for the club since joining from Roma for £20million in the summer.

Reports on Tuesday from Italy suggested that Aquilani was becoming frustrated at his lack of playing time, with his father claiming he has been fully recovered from his knee injury for over a month.

But Benitez insisted that there was no issue with Aquilani and he would be starting their final UEFA Champions League group stage clash against Fiorentina on Wednesday.

"I was talking with Alberto this morning and he was surprised too," Benitez said of the reports.

"Match fitness is something you can only improve on in games and we had the plan for him to play in reserve games, now is the right time - it is a Champions League game but we cannot qualify so we can play him from the beginning, he will have minutes and we will see how he reacts."

Benitez confirmed that Fernando Torres, who has been nursing a groin problem, would be involved but he will not be risked from the start.

"He [Torres] has been without playing for three-and-a-half, four weeks, so it would be a risk," said Benitez.

"We are starting with Aquilani after not too many games so at any point if you have to change it is important you have players who are out there who can play 90 minutes if you have a few who you are not sure about it could be trouble."

He did confirm that there are no issues over captain Steven Gerrard.

"Some players will need to play, some we will need to manage," he said.

"We will have a training session on Wednesday and analyse it but Gerrard can play, that is not a problem."

Rafa Benitez Set To Rest, Rotate And Replenish Ahead Of Fiorentina Dead-Rubber


If someone had told Rafael Benitez back in September that Liverpool's final Champions League Group E match would be a dead-rubber, it is not unreasonable to suggest his response would have been along the lines of a satisfied smile.

Of course, like most, that would have been to assume that the Reds would have sealed qualification from a useful, but hardly terrifying, group with a game to spare. A not unreasonable assumption, especially given their 1-0 opening-week success over Hungarian minnows Debrecen at Anfield.

Since then, Liverpool's season has unravelled alarmingly. And the origins of their collapse may well lie in their previous meeting with Wednesday night's opponents, Fiorentina.

When Benitez took his side to Florence on September 29, they were on a run of six straight victories, having seemingly bounced back from losing two of their first three league matches. They had just smashed six goals past Hull City at Anfield, and Fernando Torres appeared to be back to his very best form, with five goals in two matches.

Optimism was high. Liverpool were not playing especially fluently, but they were winning games. Just as they had in 2008/09.

It took just 45 minutes for reality to give optimism a good kicking. An experimental Reds line-up, with Fabio Aurelio in central midfield, received a first-half battering, in which two goals from Fiorentina's classy Montenegrin forward Stevan Jovetic put the game out of reach. The Reds lost 2-0, and pretty comfortably too.

Five days later, Benitez saw his side go down by the same scoreline at Chelsea, and the Reds have won just three of the dozen games since their Florence thrashing - a run of form which has seen them slide to seventh place in the Premier League, and crash out of the Champions League.

Wednesday represents a chance for Benitez and his side to restore some pride to the club, though even a heavy win over Cesare Prandelli's effervescent side would leave only tinges of regret amongst the Anfield faithful. A dead-rubber it might be, but Liverpool cannot afford to treat it as such.

Despite a run of six games unbeaten, and with three clean sheets on the spin, Benitez is set to ring the changes for the Viola's visit, with one eye surely on another critical Premier League fixture - at home to Arsenal on Sunday.

On the face of it, his squad is as fit as it has been all season. Ryan Babel was the only absentee as Benitez put his side through a rigorous training session at Melwood on Tuesday morning, and both Fernando Torres and Alberto Aquilani are expected to feature from the start at Anfield on Wednesday, the latter for his first start in Liverpool's colours.

Others - Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Emiliano Insua and Javier Mascherano - are likely to be rested for the Arsenal clash, with players such as Andrea Dossena, Philipp Degen and, perhaps, Dani Pacheco, given rare outings. Benitez's squad has long been lambasted for its lack of depth; Wednesday offers a chance to answer back.

Aquilani's presence should ensure that the Anfield atmosphere is in attendance on Wednesday night, and the importance of momentum - even if the Reds' recent performances have remained below the standards set last season - should not be underestimated.

It might have been a game against Fiorentina which began Liverpool's poor spell, but the return fixture offers a chance to show that that run, as autumn turns to winter, has been left behind with conkers and bonfires.

Benitez Makes Champions League Vow


Rafael Benitez has vowed to take Liverpool back into the Champions League as they prepare for the embarrassment of a dead rubber against Fiorentina on Wednesday.

Liverpool are already out of this season's competition having failed to finish in the top two in Group E, a humiliating experience for the five-time European Cup winners.

That will truly hit home at Anfield against an impressive Italian side who beat the Reds 2-0 in September at the start of a terrible run for Benitez and his side.

Liverpool had won six on the trot ahead of the match in Florence, but have managed just two wins in 13 since.

Benitez will finally give £20million midfielder Alberto Aquilani his full debut, four months after he arrived at the club, but that could well be the only thing to brighten the night for the Liverpool fans.

Benitez knows that the only way to get back into next season's Champions League is to finish in the top four of the Barclays Premier League, on current form not an easy task.

But he said: "I am convinced we will have Champions League football back here next season.

"We have a good team, a good squad and we can win games in a row now. We have not lost in six and kept three consecutive clean sheets, that is positive and an improvement on what was happening a few weeks ago.

"We know what it means to play in the Champions League. The players certainly understand.

"We have the right experience and I am confident we will finish in the top four, at least, so we must concentrate on our league games to achieve that.

"We have Arsenal next, then Wigan in midweek before Portsmouth away the following Saturday. We must win those games to get ourselves back into a strong position to make sure we do qualify for the tournament next season."

Benitez may rest Jose Reina, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun and added: "Some players will get the chance of a game to impress, people like Aquilani who will start the match. There could be others who have not played yet in the first team.

"Alberto understands. When a player has been out for a long time you must keep building his fitness. We have tried to play him in reserve games but they have been cancelled because of the weather.

"He has trained well now for a few weeks, but it is not the same as matches and we have had to be careful with him because of the ankle operation he had.

"It was wrong to play him in difficult, physical, games against Everton and Blackburn. We have been waiting for the right moment.

"Games that are tough and tight would have been difficult. Now he can play in a game where the pressure is not the same.

"He has understood the problems, he can see his match fitness is not right. He has waited for his chance and now it has arrived.

"This game will be good for him and the team. We can play without pressure, play well and score goals."

Striker Fernando Torres will also return to the squad but will start on the bench after his lengthy recovery from a groin problem.

Benitez said: "Fernando will not start the match, he has not been involved for a few weeks so it would be a risk to put him straight into the side.

"He will play some minutes, I am not sure yet how many, then he may be involved against Arsenal on Sunday.

"We want to win every game in front of our fans at Anfield, we must do well and then win against Arsenal here on Sunday.

"Of course I am disappointed with this situation. Over the last five years we have always qualified for the last 16, sometimes before the last group game.

"Now we are experiencing totally different feelings, but it is done now, we cannot change the position we are in.

"We now must think about the future, to do our best in the Premier League and the Europa League. We must do our best in whatever competition we are in."

Ngog Reveals Reds' Intent


Liverpool are determined to use the rest of this season to demonstrate to Europe that they are a team of UEFA Champions League quality, according to David Ngog.

The Reds have suffered a campaign to forget after being dumped out of the European Cup at the group stages, while they are also flailing in the Premier League.

Such poor form has led doubters to realistically predict that Rafa Benitez's side may not qualify for next season's Champions League.

But Ngog has revealed that there is a steely determination among the Liverpool squad to deliver a signal of ability across the continent.

The France Under 21 international said: "We are a Champions League team, we all believe that. It is the club's status.

"Now we must all keep going, improving and make sure we do well enough in the Premier League to qualify for next season.

"We know we have the quality, and we are confident. We aim to show from now on that we should be in the Champions League."

Ngog is still dogged by the 'diving' allegation which has followed him since the penalty awarded against Birmingham at Anfield in November.

But he has brushed that aside, saying: "I am not that kind of player, people should know that. I felt the criticism was unfair, but I want to put it all behind me now."

Ngog has earned an extended run of games in Benitez's first XI during Fernando Torres' injury-enforced absence and he was showing signs of genuine promise.

A glaring miss in Saturday's stalemate at Blackburn, when the former Paris St Germain player hit the crossbar from point-blank range, has earned criticism.

But he remains keen to impress, saying: "I am enjoying my football here, I have been given my chance to show what I can do and I will always do that when an opportunity comes along again.

"All I can do is to continue to work hard and do my best for the team when I do get selected."

Keirrison: Liverpool to Rescue Barca Striking Starlet from Lisbon Hell


Barcelona beat Liverpool to the signing of Brazilian striker Keirrison last summer in a deal worth £12m. However, reports in both Brazil and Portugal suggest the player on loan at Benfica may well be moving to Anfield in January in a 6-month loan deal. Barca’s summer move disappointed Rafa Benitez who had been tracking the youngster for some time had failed with a move in the last January transfer window.

Keirrison’s season-long move to Benfica was supposed to allow the player to get used to a more European style of play but the young strikers chances in the first team have been limited thanks to the performances of fellow South Americans Oscar Cardozo and Radamel Falcao. Barca are reported to be unhappy at their striker’s lack of action at Benfica and are willing to loan him to another club in Europe or back to Brazil where Santos are one of the clubs targeting the player.

Rafa Benitez made a late failed January deadline day earlier this year for the young Brazilian striker known as Keirrison de Souza Carneiro or just plain Keirrison for short. He was seen as a direct replacement for Tottenham bound Robbie Keane but the move failed to come off so Liverpool returned to wrap up a deal in the summer. However, it was Barcelona that signed the talented marksman leaving the Reds short of striking options for the first half of the 2009/10 season.

A move to Benfica was supposed to allow the starlet the necessary game time in a weaker European league but after just one league start, four substitute appearances and no goals, Barca are ready to move the player on.

The 21-year-old star has enjoyed a prolific record in Brazil’s Serie A with Coritiba prior to joining Palmeiras. His record in his homeland speaks for itself so it’s of no surprise that a number of European clubs had been alerted to his talent.

Despite Keirrison’s tender age he has already shown just how prolific he can be. Last season alone he has scored an impressive 20 goals in just 31 League appearances (30 starts). This is a remarkable feat since this was only his 2nd League season after scoring 12 goals in 32 League appearances (18 starts) in his first campaign. Few youngsters in world football can boast such an impressive strike tally as 37 goals in 70 League appearances (54 starts), so it’s no surprise he is attracting such attention.

After joining Palmerias the striker also scored 5 goals in 7 league matches (6 starts) as well as a further five goals in the Copa Libertadores.

Keirrison broke into the Coritiba first team in 2007 helping the club to promotion from Serie B but it was his impressive arrival in the top division that has underlined his incredible potential. The 5 ft 11 forward is renowned for his pace and finishing ability and his 20 League goals left him 1 strike behind the League’s top scorer. His goals helped Coritiba to a comfortable 9th place in the 20-team Serie A after an excellent return to the top flight. He had since proven himself at Palmeiras that he could score goals but failed to win over all the fans as he is more of a predator than a flamboyant striker.

Liverpool were one of a list of interested clubs last summer that included Arsenal, Olympiakos, Real Madrid and Valencia. Rafa Benitez has reportedly declared his interest in bringing the Brazilian to Anfield in a short-term loan deal to provide competition for both Fernando Torres and David N’gog. However, a number of Brazilian clubs are also looking to bring Keirrison back to Brazil including Santos.

Jose Paulo Fernandes takes over as Santos president in late December and has targeted the striker.
He told Globosporte, “Keirrison is on loan at Benfica, but he is not being used in Portugal, and it is clear we would be interested.”

“But we cannot forget that he is in Europe and is very expensive and is not something simple.”

A loan deal may well suit Liverpool with less fees to pay and a hungry striker who is looking to prove himself in Europe would be a good addition to a Reds team that is looking to close the gap on the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal.

Dossena Eyeing Exit Door


Liverpool full-back Andrea Dossena has once again hinted at his desire to leave the club.

The Italian defender has found first-team opportunities hard to come by so far this season and is widely expected to leave Anfield when the transfer window opens in January.

Napoli are being touted as Dossena's most likely next club as he looks to secure a place in the Italy squad for next year's World Cup in South Africa.

The Reds play Fiorentina on Wednesday in the UEFA Champions League, although they can not make the knockout stages of the competition.

"I hope to play (against Fiorentina) but the situation is not good, now we will evaluate everything," he told Gazzetta dello Sport.

"It's clear that staying on the edge is not good and it might be better to find another solution."

Dossena has only made three appearances for Liverpool this term, against Debrecen in the Champions League, Bolton in the Premier League and Leeds in the Carling Cup.

Steven Gerrard: I'm No Liverpool Legend Yet


Steven Gerrard has rejected the tag of 'Liverpool legend', insisting that his decorated career will be incomplete if it ends without a Premier League title to show for it.

The England star made his 500th appearance for the Anfield giants in Saturday's 0-0 draw at Blackburn Rovers; a milestone that brought with it praise and testimony from all over the country.

However, Gerrard refutes the notion that his contribution to the Kop matches that of past greats such as Kenny Dalgish, Alan Hansen and Ian Rush.

"I don't think I'm a Liverpool legend," he said in The Mirror. "You can only call players legends when they've finished and you look back on their careers and they have been successful or a top player throughout.

"A lot of people give the legendary status out too early for my liking. I don't see myself as a legend - I see the likes of Dalglish, Hansen and Rush as legends.

"They have been there and done it. Hopefully one day I can look back on what I've achieved and can say I'm a part of the legends at this club, but I certainly wouldn't put myself in that bracket now."

The Reds haven't won the English championship since 1990, and many thought that hoodoo was nearing an end after they finished a close second to Manchester United last season.

However, 2009-10 has been a disaster to date, on both the domestic and European fronts, and Gerrard couldn't hide his annoyance at the way things have panned out.

"It's frustrating to be where we are in the league now because this was meant to be the year where we were going to be right up there all the way through," he said.

"It would mean everything to win it. It's frustrating not to have it already and I've come close on a couple of occasions.

"I will continue to fight for the Premier League from now until I stop playing. Hopefully I can add it to my collection because it would round a fantastic career off.

"It would be extra special if I could do it as captain in the next couple of years. I'm not sure how long I'm going to be captain for - probably another two or three years. If not as captain, then hopefully I can still lift it as a Liverpool player.

"Now, though, it's important for us to try to get back up to the top of the table."

At 29, Gerrard knows all too well that time is the enemy in his quest for a league winner's medal - especially if he wishes to fulfil his dream of winning it as captain.

He continued: "I've been around for 11 years and I'm getting towards the 30 years of age mark now, so I'm running out of time. I want to make the most of the next four or five years.

"I've still got many more ambitions and dreams that I want to fulfill before I finish."

Rafa Benitez Set To Tie Up Deal For Icelandic Starlet Kristjan Gauti Emilsson


Iceland wonderkid Kristj√°n Gauti Emilsson, 16, is set to sign for Liverpool later this week.

The centre back, who also had trials with Manchester United and Rangers, was offered a contract after impressing Rafa Benitez.

Emilsson, who plays for Icelandic champions FH, has always supported Liverpool and described the move to Anfield as a 'dream come true'.