Sunday, February 14, 2010

Liverpool Face Journey Into Un-Known

Among the eight clubs that joined the Europa League in December were some of European football's more famous names.

Juventus, Marseille, Atletico Madrid and, of course, Liverpool had all dropped out of the Champions League and were ones to look out for in the last 32 draw.

With all due respect, Unirea Urziceni weren't.

Sounding a little like something nasty that might take a course of antibiotics and a couple of weeks to clear up, success has suddenly become infectious for the Romanian minnows.

Their rise from relative obscurity has been rapid.

Urziceni only won promotion to the third division for the first time in 2003, with promotion to the top flight coming three years later.

Indeed, when Liverpool last won the UEFA Cup, Unirea were a semi-professional outfit, struggling to make ends meet in the lower reaches of Romanian football.

Nine years on and they are reeling from the departure of the manager who guided them to an historic first ever Liga 1 title with which came passage into the Champions League.

Dan Petrescu is better known in England as the marauding right-back who won an FA Cup, League Cup and European Cup Winners Cup with Chelsea in the mid to late nineties.

In Romania, he is a national hero. He was one of their most celebrated players and was fast becoming one of his country's most sought after managers.

That's why his sudden departure just a week after Urziceni had been handed a dream tie against Liverpool in the knockout stages of the Europa League was greeted with shock and derision.

Derision at the club's board for not backing Petrescu, and shock at his chosen destination.

After guiding the unfashionable provincial club to a Romanian cup final and league title in the space of just three years, Petrescu handed in his notice to take the reins at Russian second division club, Kuban Krasnodar.

Despite finishing third in Champions League group G, just a point behind Stuttgart, who pipped Unirea to the last 16 courtesy of a 3-1 win over the Romanian's in the final group game, Petrescu was powerless to prevent the release of two of his best players, Tiberiu Balan and Dacian Varga.

Although the pair had only been loaned to Urziceni from FC Sportul Studentesc, the failure of the club to retain their services, or at least bring in ample replacements, angered Petrescu who saw his position as untenable.

Leading Urziceni out at Anfield instead next week will be a man who, like Petrescu, has been there before.

Roni Levy was manager of the Maccabi Haifa side that met Liverpool in the third qualifying round of the Champions League in 2006/07.

He will take heart from a narrow 2-1 defeat at Anfield ahead of an admirable 1-1 draw played at a neutral venue in Kiev due to political problems in Israel at the time.

Levy was handed an 18-month contract at Unirea in January worth a reported $600,000 and knows he has a job on his hands to maintain the momentum of the most successful era in the club's short history - they were only formed in 1954.

"It's a very big moment in my career and I know how big this challenge is and how difficult it will be because everyone will compare me to Dan Petrescu," said the Israeli.

"I hope we will be top at the end of the season."

Levy will be grateful that Petrescu left Urziceni in good shape.

After 17 games, the defending champions are second in the Liga 1 table, level on points with leaders CFR Cluj and third placed Steaua Bucharest.

With the three Bucharest clubs, Steaua, Rapid and Dinamo, traditionally the leading lights of Romanian football, Urziceni and Cluj are threatening the established order.

The title rivals meet today as the Liga 1 commences following a two-month winter break.

It is a meeting that symbolizes a power shift away from the tripartite of Bucharest clubs who between them had won 25 of the 26 league titles on offer since 1981 until Cluj muscled in the season before last.

The reason for the sudden change is quite simple. Money.

Like Cluj, Urziceni were taken over by a new sponsor eight years ago. What has followed has been a logical progression.

After entrepreneur and now club owner, Dumitru Bacsaru, gained ownership of the club in 2002 through his company Valahorum, it took just a year for Urziceni to gain promotion to the second division.

As well as attracting better quality and, of course, higher paid players, the club's Tineretului Stadium was developed and its capacity increased to 7,000 seats.

Although the venue is more than sufficient for a town of just 17,000 inhabitants it doesn't meet UEFA requirements.

As a result, Unirea play their European home games 15 miles away at the Steaua Stadium in Bucharest, which nomadic Reds fans will be pleased to know has a more accommodating 27,000 capacity.

Urziceni remain unbeaten there in Europe this season.

An impressive maiden Champions League campaign included a 4-1 win over Rangers at Ibrox but also a couple of 1-1 draws with Stuttgart and Rangers in Bucharest prior to a 1-0 win over Seville there, suggesting Unirea are no pushovers on home soil.

Of their most notable players, former Alaves wing-back Pablo Brandan was linked with a move to the Bundesliga in January but nothing transpired.

The Argentine is one of a clutch of South Americans at the club, another being holding midfielder, Ricardo Gomes of Brazil.

Urziceni captain George Galamaz joined from Dinamo Bucharest three years ago for a fee in the region of £1.5 million

It may not compare to the kind of figures we see in the Premier League but that won't prevent Urziceni believing they can prove their worth against Liverpool.

Dominic King: Liverpool FC Can’t Get Sidetracked By Europa League Adventure

A grand day out in Hamburg or an untroubled passage through to the end of the season in the Premier League?

They are the choices with which you are faced and, it must be stressed, this is an either/or situation; you can’t have one and top it up with the other.

In normal circumstances, the vast majority would opt for the former; nothing beats the feeling of being involved in a showpiece final nor can the emotions of winning a trophy be bettered.

Were Liverpool to go all the way in the Europa League, skipping through the rounds en route to a glorious conclusion in northern Germany, not one supporter would be complaining on the morning of May 13 – or would they?

Just say the weekend had seen Rafa Benitez’s side draw or lose at the KC Stadium, a result which meant they missed out on a place in the Champions League.

Suddenly the celebrations that you might have just started visualising will have become just that bit more muted; the harsh reality of modern football, sadly, means that clubs in Liverpool’s position need finance coming in just as much as trophies.

Having started to manoeuvre themselves into a position where it appeared they would firmly grip hold of fourth place, particularly after last Saturday’s victory over Everton, events in midweek have muddied the waters again.

There was, of course, plenty to like about certain aspects of Liverpool’s performance against Arsenal; they defended robustly and, in the main, stifled a side that usually plays with such dash.

Added to that were terrific performances from Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard – the captain is poised to spring into life any time soon – and the composed Daniel Agger, while the return of Fernando Torres, Glen Johnson and Yossi Benayoun is imminent.

Problem is, though, Manchester City – the side who, at this stage, look the most credible challengers for fourth spot – are now level on points with the Reds and have two games in hand; furthermore, they do not have any European fixtures to trouble them.

This, clearly, will be on Benitez’s mind when he starts his preparations for Thursday evening’s Anfield tussle with Unirea Urziceni – on one hand he will be desperate to give supporters who have had nothing tangible to celebrate since 2006 a trophy.

Yet, at the back of his mind, he will be conscious of the game which takes place less than 72 hours later at the City of Manchester Stadium, a meeting that could prove definitive in the race to reach the riches of the Champions League.

“There is nothing we can do about the Arsenal result now but the lads have got some time to reflect and be disappointed,” Gerrard noted earlier this week.

“We’ve got a very big league game coming up against Manchester City but if we play like we did against Arsenal, then I would really fancy us to beat them. You can see that in the way we have played in the last six or seven games, being so hard to beat.”

But with a game against Stoke City on Tuesday night, Roberto Mancini’s team could be three points ahead of Liverpool before the sides lock horns; the margins for error with which Benitez is dealing are decreasing dramatically.

Admittedly, City’s run in is far more complicated than the one Liverpool must negotiate; they have to travel to Stamford Bridge, the Emirates and Upton Park, aside from facing Manchester United, Everton, Aston Villa and Tottenham at home.

Looking at things from this point, Liverpool’s descent to the finish line hardly presents the perils of the Hahnenkamm, the most difficult assignments being the trip to Old Trafford and home showdown with Chelsea; granted their tendency to hit form during this part of the season, you would expect them to amass plenty of points between now and May 9.

Complicating matters, however, is the Europa League. Provided they breeze past Unirea – as they should do – Lille or, most likely, Fenerbahce await.

In an ideal world, Lille will provide the opposition in the last 16, as a short hop to northern France would be far more attractive than four-and-a-half hours to Istanbul.

That said, nagging away in the back of everyone’s mind will be the question – do Liverpool have the squad to cope with fighting battles on two fronts?

Imagine, say, Torres pulls up lame chasing a pass that prevents him hassling and harrying Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic or Gerrard tweaks a groin trying to help Liverpool to get through to the last eight of a tournament that nobody really wanted to be in.

Yes, it would terrific for Liverpool to go all the way in the Europa League but, quite simply, it cannot detract from the main aim.

Benayoun Returns To Training

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has announced that Yossi Benayoun has returned to training as the midfielder steps up his recovery from a broken rib.

The Israeli had been a rival to goalkeeper Jose Reina as the Reds' Player of the Season in a troubled campaign prior to the injury, which he sustained in the FA Cup defeat to Reading on 13th January.

With Glen Johnson and Fernando Torres also on the sidelines, Benitez will therefore be keen to welcome Benayoun back into his plans as Liverpool chase a place in the UEFA Champions League.

But the Anfield boss will not be taking any risks with the 29-year-old and so it would appear that Thursday's Europa League home first leg against Unirea Urziceni and the crucial Premier League trip to Manchester City could come too soon.

"Yossi was training with the team," Benitez told Liverpool's official website. "Still we have to be careful with his rib, but he was training."

Benayoun was linked with a move Dynamo Moscow in the winter transfer window, but Liverpool refused to sell.

Kyrgiakos Relishing Battle

Sotirios Kyrgiakos believes he has adapted well to life at Liverpool and is relishing the physical nature of the English game.

The Greek defender has been one of the Reds' most consistent performers since his summer arrival from AEK Athens and has played a key role during the club's recent rise back into the top four.

Although the 30-year-old picked up his first red card in the fiery Merseyside derby clash with Everton last Saturday, he cannot wait to get back in the side and feels his spell at Rangers between 2004 and 2006 prepared him for the rough and tumble of Premier League football.

He told LFC magazine: "I didn't have too many problems adapting to football here because I had played in Scotland with Rangers.

"In Germany and Greece I did not have to be as physical because football isn't so aggressive.

"Anyway it's not all about aggression, that's not the most important thing. You have to want to go and win the ball. There is no point waiting for it to come to you, you have to go and get it."

Prior to the Liverpool derby, Kyrgiakos lost a tooth in the 2-0 victory over Bolton, but insists that will not stop him battling hard in the future.

"There are a lot of elbows flying in football here and the referee says no foul," he added. "That is part of football. It's tough and I like this side of the game."

Daniel Pacheco Close To Starting, Says Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez has placed Daniel Pacheco on red alert as he revealed the promising young striker is edging closer to a first-team start.

The 19-year-old has been attracting rave reviews for Liverpool reserves this season and there is a buzz of anticipation among supporters about his progress.

Pacheco is held in high regard at Anfield and showed flashes of promise in the two appearances he has made for the first team so far, against Fiorentina and Wolves.

More recently, Pacheco was on the bench in five of the Reds’ last seven fixtures .

“Dani is continuing to train with the first team,” said Benitez, who next game is against Unirea Urziceni at Anfield on Thursday night.

“When we let (Andriy) Voronin go (to Dynamo Moscow), we immediately brought Dani into the group and every day you can see that he is progressing. His training is good.

“Every day you are thinking about when you can play, he has been on the bench a lot and sometimes you are thinking when it might be right to put him on.

“He has game intelligence and we know that he can make a difference. He is still very young but we are pleased with him and he is doing well.”

Benitez signed Pacheco from Barcelona in the summer of 2007 and he has just signed a deal that will keep him at Anfield until 2012.

“It depends on the game but, clearly, if he continues to keep working as he has been doing, he will definitely gets his chance,” added Benitez, who is keeping his fingers crossed that Jamie Carragher will shake off a groin injury sustained in Wednesday’s defeat to Arsenal.

Liverpool Midfielder Alberto Aquilani Risks Missing World Cup Due To Lack Of Playing Time

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani could fail to make Italy's final 23-man squad for the 2010 World Cup, according to

The player spent the first part of the season out with a serious ankle injury, and has since only made eight appearances in the Premier League and has yet to play a full match under coach Rafa Benitez, who seems to prefer Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, and Lucas in central midfield.

Having featured inconsistently for the English outfit after his £20 million move from Roma in the summer, the latest reports in Italy suggest he will be overlooked by coach Marcello Lippi for the upcoming friendly with Cameroon and potentially the World Cup as well if he does not become a regular at Anfield.

The 25-year-old missed the 1-0 loss to Arsenal on Wednesday, suffering from a virus. The player has 11 caps for the Azzurri in his career, scoring twice during that time.

Ryan Babel Can Still Play A Role For LIverpool FC

First came the instant control, then the subtle shift in direction to flummox an Arsenal defender before an explosive shot.

Ryan Babel’s moment of genuine quality deserved better than seeing his effort tipped on to the bar by Manuel Almunia but it caused supporters to shake their heads in disbelief as much as it did frustration.

Babel, of course, is Anfield’s greatest enigma, a player with all the gifts to become a giant; quick, strong, two good feet and capable of being a regular goal scorer.

Unfortunately, though, he has never put it together on a consistent basis and the fact that he does not have the work ethic of certain other team-mates ensures that Liverpool fans continue to view him with skepticisms.

It has been a wretched campaign for Babel, one that has been punctured with too many stories with him potentially leaving the club, ‘tweets’ about him being dropped from the squad and rows with Rafa Benitez.

Benitez, however, has held an olive branch out to him by using him in the last three games, as well as speaking positively about him.

With a clear focus, Babel has a platform to show his talent; the question is whether he wants to.

John Aldridge: David Ngog Needs Lessons At Finishing School To Help Liverpool FC

David Ngog might prove in time that he can master the art of being a centre-forward.

It is often a thankless task being asked to assume the role of a lone frontman and even when I was in the prime of my career, there were times when I found it hard going.

But we saw at Arsenal on Wednesday night that, once again, playing Ngog in that position does not really add anything to Liverpool’s team.

Rafa Benitez works with him every day, so he clearly sees things in him, but at the Emirates Stadium Ngog looked like a schoolboy playing in an adult’s match.

One thing you cannot fault him for his effort; he never stopped running or trying his hardest to help the team and, for that, he should be commended.

Unfortunately, though, in contests of great magnitude against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, effort alone is not good enough.

You need to have a clear head and be ruthless when opportunity knocks but, when Steven Gerrard sent him skipping through, Ngog was neither and Liverpool suffered accordingly.

Put it this way – had Fernando Torres been presented with the same chance, you would have invested your mortgage on him scoring; when Ngog was homing in on goal, he never convinced that he would score.

In my opinion, Dirk Kuyt should have started up front at The Emirates because he is vastly experienced and has scored a few goals recently but Rafa likes playing him in that role on the right.

Had the manager been able to invest in the squad during the January transfer window, maybe we would have had somebody with experience to take over from Ngog in Torres’ absence but that wasn’t the case.

Liverpool had a terrific chance to beat Arsenal on Wednesday, as the Gunners were as poor as I have seen them for a long time.

Without that killer instinct, however, things become more difficult. How it showed.

Glen: Kop Is Different Class

He may have represented six different teams during the course of his relatively short career so far, but Glen Johnson is in no doubt which set of fans have been the best to play for.

The 25-year-old had turned out for West Ham, Millwall, Chelsea and Portsmouth before joining Liverpool last summer, as well as featuring for England.

However, Johnson believes Kopites are a cut above anything else he's experienced.

"The fans are fantastic," he told "People say how good the Portsmouth fans are, and they are, but Liverpool fans are in a league of their own.

"When you walk out (at Anfield) and hear the fans singing the anthem, it helps.

"Every player is so proud to put on the shirt."

Johnson revealed on Friday he hopes to be back in training inside the next month - and the defender has two wishes for the remainder of 2009-10.

He said: "For Liverpool, I hope we win every single game until the end of the season.

"Personally, I need to get my knee straight, get it back to how it was, and try to get back into the team.

"Hopefully we can tick every box, finish in the top four and be happy."