Thursday, December 10, 2009

Match Report: LiverpooL 1 - 2 Fiorentina

Liverpool's miserable Champions League campaign ended in defeat to Fiorentina on Wednesday night.

The visitors grabbed a late winner through Alberto Gilardino in the second minute of added time to clinch top spot in Group E.

Looking at the positives, Liverpool started with Alberto Aquilani at last - and Fernando Torres returned from a groin injury for the final 25 minutes.

Yossi Benayoun's first-half header gave Liverpool hope in a game they largely controlled, but defensive uncertainty gave Martin Jorgensen the chance to drive home the equaliser in the second period.

Fiorentina, aware that Lyon were hammering Debrecen, realised they needed to win to make sure of top spot in the group, and they piled on some belated pressure.

It paid off and Liverpool were to suffer yet another late goal disaster. It had happened in both games against Lyon, and now Fiorentina struck to steal their win in injury time.

Substitute Juan Vargas set up Gilardino for a fierce finish that sent the Fiorentina fans wild, and the club's coaching staff into delirious jigs of delight.

Liverpool rested Jamie Carragher, Jose Reina, Glen Johnson and Lucas and would have left out Dirk Kuyt had David Ngog not been taken ill earlier in the day.

Youngster Stephen Darby had a rare run-out at right-back, while Italian defender Andrea Dossena was used in the unlikely role of left-midfield.

The Italians, already secure in the last 16, were missing Stevan Jovetic, their most exciting attacker who scored both goals in their 2-0 home win over Liverpool in September.

The Montenegro international failed a late fitness test on an ankle injury which meant Fiorentina fielding only three of the starting line-up from the first match.

Another of Liverpool's support cast, second-choice goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri was soon into action as he raced from his line to block Cesare Natali's run onto a weak Daniel Agger back pass.

Aquilani was neat and inventive, but Liverpool failed to create anything significant before their Brazilian goalkeeper saved well from Lorenzo De Silvestri and Riccardo Montolivo to keep his side on level terms.

The game, sometimes with almost a testimonial feel about it, meandered on towards the break before Liverpool found themselves ahead after 43 minutes.

Manuel Pasqual's foul on Steven Gerrard gave the Liverpool captain the chance to lift a free-kick towards the near post for Yossi Benayoun to flick a header back into the far corner, despite Sebastien Frey getting a touch on the effort.

Liverpool dominated the early stages after the break, but were punished for poor judgement by Martin Skrtel, who allowed a cross-field pass to drift past him.

Darby was left facing two attackers, and could do little to stop captain Martin Jorgensen driving home the equaliser after 63 minutes.

Torres had been standing on the touchline waiting to come on while all this was going on, and he eventually arrived before the restart for Kuyt.

Benitez maintains that with Torres fit, Liverpool would never have been in the position of European also-rans. Torres tried his best to prove the point with some fine runs.

There had been occasional glimpses of Aquilani's talent, but he was taken off to give reserve striker Daniel Pacheco his debut.

The 18-year-old is rated very highly by Benitez, and joined Torres in an all-Spanish front pairing.

Fabio Aurelio replaced the hard-working Javier Mascherano near the end, with Fiorentina searching for the crucial winner that would win the group.

It arrived in added time and left Liverpool with their worst-ever Champions League group points tally.

Souness Worried For Reds

Former Liverpool captain and manager Graeme Souness fears the club could go into "meltdown" after they finished their Champions League campaign with their lowest points haul.

A stoppage-time 2-1 defeat to Fiorentina at Anfield left Rafael Benitez's side, who were already unable to progress to the knockout phase, with just seven points from six matches.

And although they will now drop into the Europa League, with their Barclays Premier League form also disappointing there is a real danger they could not be involved in Europe's top club competition next season.

Souness, who won the European Cup three times with Liverpool, captaining them to victory in 1984, has grave concerns about what failing to progress in the Champions League this season could mean for his club.

"I fear they are in meltdown. If they don't reach the Champions League next year the best players won't want to play for Liverpool," he said.

"That would be the first time in as long as I can remember. They are hundreds of millions of pounds in debt and they need a new stadium to keep up with the rest and just stand still.

"Every year they are dropping off the pace so they need a new stadium.

"If they don't get to the Champions League the banks will be knocking on the door wanting to replace the income stream that the Champions League would give them.

"All those scenarios are frightening for Liverpool supporters.

"I can't see them becoming a Leeds United because I think there will always be someone out there, whether it be a Russian or someone from the Middle East, who deep down is a big fan and would get them out of a hole - a saviour if you like."

Souness said the priority now must be securing a top-four place in the league despite the lure of silverware elsewhere.

"I think there is real danger. They have to look at the second half of the season," he told Sky Sports.

"The Europa League means nothing to Liverpool. I'm a Liverpool supporter and I would love them to finish in the top four and win the Europa League and FA Cup.

"But if there was a choice of those three it would be to finish in the top four.

"If you are looking to move your club forward you have to encourage the best players to come to your club.

"If they are not in the Champions League that won't happen because you won't have the same income coming into the club.

"If you are already in debt the banks will put pressure on Liverpool because they want money from somewhere to lessen the debt they have right now."

Liverpool Manager Rafael Benitez Rates Weekend Opponents Arsenal

Ahead of Liverpool's final game of their Champions League campaign this season, against Fiorentina, Rafael Benitez has spoken about the upcoming challenge in the Premier League against Arsenal.

The Spaniard insists that while some players may be rested for the Gunners game, he will still likely field his star players against the Serie A side.

"We will change some players but we will still play some big names," Benitez told his club's official website. "It is important to pick them and give some of them the opportunity to improve.

"We will have to rest others though, because they are playing too many games. With the injuries, we have been playing the same players most of the time.

"We have a chart that details the minutes each player has played and some are way ahead of the others, so we will have to manage the situation and try and give minutes to others."

He continued: "We must try to play a good match against Arsenal, then we will have another game on Wednesday and then on Saturday. So we don't have too much time to think about them. We must just play and carry on."

Regarding the improvement of David Ngog, who has deputised admirably during the absence of key forward Fernando Torres, the Reds gaffer said: "You can see that he has improved but he needs to be stronger.

"The centre-backs are powerful in England and although he is only 20 years old and a big lad, he still needs to work hard in the gym and during games.

"We are really pleased with him," said Benitez. "It's a question of time but you can see his quality. I think you will see an improvement from him every week."

Liverpool Wary Of Heysel Insult And Abandon Mosaic Plans For Fiorentina Visit

Liverpool have abandoned plans for a mosaic on the Kop bearing the word “amici” – friends - to welcome Fiorentina to Anfield for tonight’s Champions League fixtures amid concerns it may offend Juventus supporters in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Heysel disaster.

The Premier League club had been asked by some supporters to create a mosaic as a goodwill gesture to Fiorentina after Liverpool’s travelling fans were afforded a warm welcome in Florence in September.

One group of Fiorentina’s ultras had asked for a formal twinning between the two sides – though no such link has been established – prompting Juventus fans to express their fear some fans of their fierce rivals were abusing the good relations between the clubs to taunt the Turin side over Heysel.

“Fiorentina have never missed a chance to cheer that tragedy,” said Juventus ultras spokesman Pino Leo.

“We are sure Liverpool fans do not know how their name and shirts are being used to offend the victims of Heysel, but we wish to inform them how Fiorentina will use the link. If there is no respect for the victims, we will always turn our backs on any new request for forgiveness.”

Sources at Liverpool insist the mosaic was intended purely as a goodwill gesture but the decision was taken last night that such an act may have been open to misinterpretation.

Complacency Liverpool's Worst Enemy In Fine Field Of Also-Rans

Luckily, Liverpool’s fans are inured to the pain by now. They have had a month to steel themselves for the shame, four weeks in which fatalism has replaced fury. On Wednesday night, the third most successful club in European history, boasting more European Cups than Manchester United, Barcelona, Internazionale and Juventus, bow out of the Champions League at the group stage. The club all of Europe once feared demoted to a place among the also-rans. It is a dark day indeed.

The whys and wherefores of Liverpool’s premature demise have been debated endlessly in newspapers, on television screens and radio sets, on countless websites and internet fora, and it would be overkill to offer anything but a brief precis. Rafael Benitez, the manager, has spent badly, or not spent enough, his squad has been decimated by injury, or by an injection of players unworthy of Anfield, his squad has let him down, or his tactics have, his luck has gone missing, or run out. Delete as appropriate, almost. Liverpool’s supporters cannot quite decide what has gone wrong – few clubs in the world boast such a rift between fans who back the manager and those who do not – but they know that it has, and how.

All agree, though, that the Europa League offers some hope of redemption. For all that Europe’s lesser tournament is derided as a distraction from the thoroughly more important matter of qualifying for it next season – Harry Redknapp and Martin O’Neill both took this disdainful approach last year, got exactly what they deserved and should, as I suggested at the time, be banned from entering it for the foreseeable future as punishment – it is still a trophy, a commodity painfully lacking in Benitez’s last three years at Anfield. Liverpool, the consensus is, must win it, for footballing and financial reasons. Not only that, but they should win it. They are Tiger Woods on a crazy golf course, Frank Sinatra in a school music competition. They are the shark among the minnows, or so it seems.

Such a billing, though, is typical of the English attitude to the tournament, one perpetuated by the insular, complacent approach of O’Neill, Redknapp and their ilk, one that dictates that it is a mere afterthought played out in footballing outposts in front of one man, his dog and Colin Murray. It could not be further from the truth, and Liverpool will have to hope neither their players nor their manager buy into it. That way, embarrassment awaits.

The best display I, personally, have seen in any competition this season came in the Europa League, in Benfica’s systematic dismantling of an admittedly scratch Everton side in the the Estadio da Luz. Angel Di Maria, Pablo Aimar, Oscar Cardozo, Ramires and Javier Saviola – as well as Javi Garcia, the excellent midfield anchor – showed that night they would give any Champions League team a run for their money, so crisp was their passing, so free-wheeling their play. Last season, too, the verve of Hamburg, in beating Manchester City in the stadium where the final of the current edition will be held in May, would have been worthy of any team in the senior competition.

Indeed, it is not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that the Europa League has more strength in depth than the Champions League this season. Obviously, no side matches the majesty of Barcelona, the durability of Chelsea, or boasts the stardust of Real Madrid. But take those sides, plus Manchester United, out, and what are you left with?

In Sevilla, Bordeaux, Bayern Munich – at least on the evidence of their win against Juventus last night – and Arsenal there are some intriguing outside bets, but in truth none of those sides are particularly fine vintages. Milan and Inter are both struggling to live up to the standards their forebears have set, while the likes of CSKA Moscow, Lyon, Fiorentina, Porto, Olympiakos and Stuttgart or Unirea are good, but hardly world-beaters.

Such contestants are not exactly a world away from what is on offer in the Europa League. Liverpool aside, there is the Juventus side eliminated at the last from the Champions League, Valencia, Villarreal, Ajax, Roma, Hamburg, Benfica and their city rivals Sporting, Wolfsburg, Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Panathinaikos, as well as the holders, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Everton, whose work Liverpool will be familiar with.

It is hardly a competition devoid of stars. David Villa is arguably the world’s best striker, Diego and Felipe Melo both regulars in the Brazil side which will travel to South Africa next summer as favourites, Amauri – overlooked by Dunga and now, somehow, apparently Italian – as well as Marcos Senna, Francesco Totti and, er, Harry Kewell. It is also home to a glut of players who will, in years to come, be multi-million pound, superstar signings. Di Maria, Ramires, Edin Dzeko, Sotiris Ninis, Joao Moutinho, Ajax’s brilliant Uruguayan Luis Suarez, among others.

None of those players, none of those teams, think of themselves as also-rans. It would be idiotic to suggest Liverpool are better off out of the Champions League (though that argument would be valid if they were still in domestic contention), or that the Europa League is a more glamorous, more enticing tournament. It is not, palpably, to the tune of £20 million or so in prize money. But to dismiss it as an irrelevance, a competition fit for nothing more than has-beens and never-will-bes, is misleading. It may be the Champions League’s little brother, but while it is not Bobby to Jack, it is very definitely Liam to Noel. The larger may have the greater talent, but the smaller does not necessarily see it that way.

Aquilani Has To Show He’s A Class Act For Liverpool FC

Wednesday night really is the ideal game for Alberto Aquilani. But it’s certainly not the ideal game for Liverpool FC.

I can’t remember a European match at Anfield which was effectively meaningless. But this one is and it’s so frustrating.

The Italian though, will quite rightly see it differently and after sitting on the bench for so long he’ll be bursting to get out there.

The fact the pressure is off is a good thing for him. But there is a different sort of pressure on him and it’s all to do with expectation.

Everyone can see that, as we feared, the loss of Xabi Alonso this season has hit us hard.

Fans are praying Aquilani can replace him now, though he’ll have his own style and strengths and comparisons in that sense will be unfair.

He’s also comes with a £20m price tag. But if reacts to it in the same way as a certain Fernando Torres did, then it will prove money well spent.

Aquilani’s appearance really is the main focus tonight because win or lose we’re going into the Europa League.

Some people say it’s not worth winning but this is not just a trophy, it’s a European trophy and one I was proud to lift back in 1973. So I hope we shrug off the disappointment of being in it and go all out to win it next year.

If we do so it we’ll give the fans a great day out in Hamburg and prove to people that we’re not suddenly to be written off as a force in Europe.

Add to that a top four finish which would put us back on the big stage next season, and we can still prove a good few people wrong.

But Wednesday night at Anfield it’s all about Aquilani.

Not many Italians have succeeded in the Premier League.

But for the sake of Liverpool and Rafa Benitez, this guy just has to go on and make a real difference now.

Liverpool's Andrea Dossena Welcomes Roma Interest

Liverpool defender Andrea Dossena has welcomed interest from Roma, says his agent Federico Pastorello.

The Italian full-back has long been linked with a return to Serie A. Reports have suggested both Napoli and Roma were keen to land him during the winter transfer window.

Dossena has been peripheral at Anfield this term, but he is likely to play in tonight's dead-rubber game against Fiorentina in the Champions League. Pastorello believes this could be his shop window as he hints at interest from Roma.

"He will be playing his 30th game for Liverpool against Fiorentina. If from now until January we see he is no longer required by the club then we will evaluate other scenarios," the agent told Radio Kiss Kiss.

"Roma? We are delighted Dossena is valued by a coach like Claudio Ranieri. We are not worried about the money, what's important is that he is physically well."

I Am Not A Diver, Says David Ngog

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

The Frenchman, who led the line for Liverpool against the Italians in Wednesday’s dead rubber, said: "I know criticism is part of football, but it was unfair because I am not that kind of player.

"I just tried to jump him and not to be touched. It happened so fast and I didn't think of getting a penalty.

"But I don't really think about that now. I just try to stay in a positive frame of mind to improve my game.

"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."

Wednesday’s match has no relevance to Liverpool, who have already bowed out of the competition and are destined for the Europa League.

However, 20-year-old Ngog is confident Liverpool have the quality to return to the Champions League next season as he prepares for one more chance to impress as Fernando Torres' stand-in.

Ngog said: "I know Fernando is one of the best in the world and just watching him is a great example for me. He's also given me lots of advice and been a big help.

"But the one I really looked up to as a youngster was (Thierry) Henry, because he's French. He is the best in the world, especially when he won the 1998 World Cup.

"We (Liverpool) 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."