Friday, February 19, 2010

Steven Gerrard Expects Liverpool To Be More Clinical In Return Leg Of Europa League Tie

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard remains upbeat about the Reds chances in the Europa League despite struggling to beat Romanians Unirea Urziceni in the first leg of their last 32 clash.

Rafael Benitez's side dominated proceedings at Anfield but could not break their opponents down until David Ngog's late strike, which earned them a 1-0 victory.

"They were very stubborn but we expected that," Gerrard told Five.

"You could say maybe we needed to be a bit more clinical but I think we'll get more joy away from home.

"But we were patient and the goal came. They're going to have to come out and try and beat us in the second leg."

Gerrard hopes the victory is the start of a lengthy run in the competition, despite it being seen as a poor relation to the Champions League.

"The teams knocked out of the Champions League are fantastic teams and some of the top sides across Europe are in the competition [the Europa League] so it's going to be tough to win it but we're confident we can go all the way," he added.

Rafa Benitez Happy To Take Slender Europa League Victory To Romania

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez was satisfied with his side’s 1-0 Europa League victory over Unirea Urziceni despite their obvious struggles to break down the determined Romanians.

Striker David Ngog’s goal nine minutes from time eventually ended the resistance to give the Reds some breathing space ahead of next week’s return leg.

And although Benitez would have liked a bigger cushion he was happy to take a slender lead to Bucharest.

“I think we could have scored one or two more goals but that is football,” he said.

“The team was doing well in defence, 1-0 and a clean sheet is not bad.

“Sometimes when the other team is defending well you have to be patient and keep more of the ball and then we scored at the end.

“It is always important to score, especially in this competition, and not concede so we were waiting for this goal and were really please when we scored.

“It is not the best result but it is good. If we score one they have to score three so a clean sheet was important so we have to be relieved.

“If you ask me if I would prefer 2-0 then 100% yes but you cannot change the score now.

“We knew they were well-organised and they were a good team so we were expecting more or less their style of play.”

Two substitutes played a major part in the goal with Ryan Babel crossing for Daniel Pacheco to head back to Ngog and Benitez said he was glad to have options from the bench.

“It is always important to have good players on the bench with skills that can change a game,” he added.

The match could have been a lot easier had Steven Gerrard put away Liverpool’s first chance after just 25 seconds.

Ngog’s goal was only the sixth in seven European matches this season - a far cry from the last campaign when they routed Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield 11 months ago and scored four in a Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea.

However, Benitez said it was unrealistic to expect his side to consistently repeat those performances.

“We started really well and I was really pleased for a while,” said the Spaniard.

“We cannot play at the same level that we played against Real Madrid every game, especially when the away team is defending well.

“You have to take you chances and if we had taken the first one in the first minute it could have been totally different but we had to be patient and keep on attacking.

“We were trying, passing the ball and continuing to move the ball.”

Unirea coach Roni Levy believes the tie is far from over.

“I am disappointed in the result. Of course, Liverpool had the ball for most of the game but one moment we didn’t concentrate we conceded a goal,” he said.

“My players came and did the best they could do. This is the first half of two legs and I am looking forward to next week.

“It is a good result to take back to Bucharest: there is still a lot of interest in the game and still we have a chance.”

Match Report: Liverpool 1 - 0 Unirea Urziceni

Striker David Ngog's goal nine minutes from time eventually broke the resistance of a determined Unirea Urziceni at Anfield in the Europa League.

With the visitors intent on soaking up plenty of pressure Rafael Benitez's side struggled to find the creativity to get past the massed Romanian ranks.

However, the Frenchman's close-range header meant the Reds have some breathing space as they head to Bucharest for next week's third round second leg tie.

The victory was only Liverpool's third in nine European fixtures since they beat Real Madrid 4-0 in the last 16 of the Champions League 11 months ago - a disappointing run which contributed to their exit from Europe's elite-level competition in December.

Their job would have been easier had Steven Gerrard converted their first chance after just 25 seconds when Unirea lost possession straight from the kick-off.

Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt linked up for the Dutchman to put the midfielder through but his side-foot shot was tipped over by goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis, who then punched away the Liverpool captain's corner.

Unirea's 4-5-1 formation meant they were happy to keep 10 men behind the ball and when Liverpool gained possession they all immediately retreated to the halfway line - meaning the hosts had to work hard for their openings.

However, Kuyt enjoyed some luck in the 10th minute when his heavy touch in the penalty area was not cleared and he followed up to flash a shot across goal which Arlauskis tipped past the post.

Gerrard was next to miss a chance, planting a 12-yard header from Riera's cross well wide.

Riera tried his luck from distance in the 26th minute but his left-foot drive was deflected wide by George Galamaz.

The game had taken on an attack versus defence training exercise with Unirea rarely venturing forward.

When they did, with a counter-attack just after the half-hour, Marius Onofras attempted an audacious lob over Jose Reina from the halfway line wide on the right but the Spain goalkeeper comfortably claimed.

Javier Mascherano's 30-yard drive was deflected wide by Razvan Paduretu while Ngog's shot on the turn from just inside the penalty area was also diverted wide.

Five minutes before half-time Bruno Fernandes was booked for bringing down Gerrard as he looked to burst clear but Daniel Agger drilled the 35-yard free-kick straight into the wall.

Heartened by their first half performance Unirea looked more inclined to go forward after the break but it was Liverpool who had the first chance with Gerrard heading wide again from Jamie Carragher's 52nd-minute cross.

Pablo Brandan was booked for tripping Gerrard in the centre-circle, ruling him out of next week's second leg through suspension.

Had Paduretu shown more composure on the edge of the area Liverpool could have been in trouble but the midfielder hacked wildly over.

Fabio Aurelio's low drive was on target but he was denied by a good low save from Arlauskis.

The ineffective Riera was replaced by Ryan Babel for the last 28 minutes and he began encouragingly with two decisive runs, the latter resulting in a cross to Gerrard at the far post which the England international could not keep in.

Mascherano was booked for a foul on Iulian Apostol as Liverpool continued to labour.

Martin Skrtel should have put the home side ahead in the 71st minute but he headed over Aurelio's inswinging corner from five yards.

Benitez sent on reserve team striker Daniel Pacheco, making only his second appearance in Europe, for Alberto Aquilani with quarter of an hour remaining.

Mascherano was caught in possession by Apostol, who charged forward 20 yards before curling a shot woefully wide.

With nine minutes to go the breakthrough finally came, with Pacheco playing an important part.

The diminutive Spaniard out-jumped his marker at the far post to head back across goal for Ngog to nod in from five yards.

Gerrard fired just wide in the closing stages as Liverpool pushed for the second which would give them a cushion ahead of the second leg.

Joleon Lescott Has A Pop At Liverpool

Manchester City star Joleon Lescott has cranked up the pressure on Liverpool ahead of Sunday’s massive Eastlands clash.

The former Everton defender saw City leapfrog Liverpool to reclaim fourth spot in midweek and he said: “The pressure is all on you!”

After an unimpressive 1-1 draw at Stoke, Lescott insists it is Liverpool who should be feeling the heat.

The two meet head-on in a game that is sure to have a huge bearing on which side goes on to claim fourth place and the all-important final Champions League spot. City sit one point ahead of the Reds and have a game in hand on Rafa Benitez’s rejuvenated side but Lescott says they have to kick on.

He said: “At the start of the season we wanted to get into the Champions League and we still believe we can do that.

“Personally I think all the pressure will be on them. We are confident because it is in our own hands now so we have to go and push for it. We don’t want to let them back in.”

Benitez will be keeping his fingers crossed that goal ace Fernando Torres is back in his line-up and Lescott admits he will be studying videos of the Spanish star just in case.

He added: “If Torres is going to play then I will be watching videos studying his strengths and weaknesses.”

Europa League Will Be Hard To Win, Says Rafa Benitez

Liverpool FC manager Rafa Benitez reckons the quality of the Europa League has been underestimated this season.

Liverpool FC dropped into UEFA’s second-tier competition from the Champions League, along with the likes of Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Marseille, Wolfsburg and Thursday night’s opponents Unirea Urziceni.

They supplemented a competition which already boasted clubs such as Valencia, Villarreal, Hamburg and Sporting Lisbon - not to mention Premier League sides Fulham and Everton FC.

And although the Europa League is not where Liverpool FC expected to be, Benitez believes it will be a difficult trophy to win.

"To be fair, if you analyse the teams that are in the competition there are some very strong teams," he said.

"It will be a difficult competition, the only one we can win now, so we will try to do our best from the beginning.

"We have to progress, we have to win the first round and go forward because we might have Juventus, Valencia or Atletico Madrid.

"Any club in the Europa League which reaches the semi-final will be good enough to be in the Champions League too.

"To win a European competition against top sides is important and if you cannot be in the Champions League you have to do your best here and try to bring something for the fans.

"The response of the players to being knocked out of the Champions League was fantastic and we have to keep doing the same."

Liverpool FC last won this competition, in its former guise of the UEFA Cup, against Alaves in 2001.

Of the players who featured in that final, only captain Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher remain at Liverpool FC.

Benitez, who also won the UEFA Cup with Valencia, believes all the players have to draw on what European experience they have to ensure a good run in the competition.

"We know what it means to win the UEFA Cup, Carra and Gerrard have this experience and I was at Valencia so I know," he added.

"The players have experience in the Champions League and although the names of the clubs now are not familiar, when you play quarter-finals and semi-finals you will see big names.

"They know it (the Europa League) is the only way to do something important."

Last season’s Romanian champions Unirea actually finished their maiden Champions League campaign with a better points tally than Liverpool FC and enjoyed victories away to Rangers and at home to Sevilla.

And Benitez knows they are not to be taken lightly despite being an unfamiliar name.

"Maybe the people don’t know but they (Unirea) were doing very well in the Champions League," said the Spaniard.

"Romania have some good players but normally their weak point is the tactical organisation of the teams, but with this one we were surprised because they were well-organised, so it will be tough.

"We know they are a difficult team to beat so the main thing for me is to tell the players to approach the match like a final."

Unirea’s Israeli manager Roni Levy, whose Maccabi Haifa team were defeated by Liverpool FC in a Champions League qualifier in 2007, is optimistic.

"It is a very important game for us," said the 43-year-old.

"We hope to defend well, maybe counter-attack, maybe expose them on the pitch and maybe score - that would be great."

Real Madrid, AC Milan And Juventus In Potential Three-Way Summer Fight To Land Liverpool Manager

Beleagured Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez could face a three-way summer fight for his services.

Real Madrid head coach Manuel Pellegrini and AC Milan's Leonardo have both been told they must do better after defeats in Europe this week - and both are said to see Benitez as the man who could transform their fortunes.

Sportsmail were the first to reveal that Juventus were lining up the Spaniard as their next manager. Alberto Zaccheroni has been put in charge of the Bianconeri till the end of the season following the dismisal of Ciro Ferrara, but the Serie A side will move for Benitez at the end of the season.

The former Valencia boss has also been linked with the San Siro, where Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi has criticised the team's performance in the 2-1 Champions League defeat by Manchester United.

'Milan are a great team, but only if they allow the players to play properly,' said Berlusconi in an apparent swipe at Leonardo's tactics.

'Even this year Milan have everything to win, only if they let them play well though.'

Meanwhile, reports in Spain suggest Pellegrini could be sacked if Madrid go out of the Champions League next month.

The Bernabeu giants were beaten 1-0 at Lyon on Tuesday night and Madrid's director general Jorge Valdano is said to have warned the Chilean that an exit at the last 16 stage will not be tolerated.

Pellegrini came under fire before Christmas when his team of Galacticos were knocked out of the Spanish Cup by lowly Alcorcon, but his side are just two points off leaders Barcelona in the hunt for La Liga.

Rafa: Torres Absence Has Hurt Us

Rafa Benitez admits the absence of Fernando Torres has been the key reason for Liverpool FC's faltering season - but believes his team can still ensure a silver lining to the campaign.

The Anfield outfit begin their Europa League campaign when they host Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni in the first leg of their round of 32 tie on Thursday.

Liverpool dropped into the competition after being eliminated from the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in six seasons under Benitez.

Torres started only half of the six group games and has been hampered for much of the season by a succession of problems.

The striker this week resumed light training, having been sidelined for more than a month following an operation on damaged knee ligaments.

And Benitez has pointed to the influence of Wayne Rooney on Manchester United in recent months as to how much Liverpool have missed Torres, who remains the club's leading scorer this season with 12 goals in 21 games.

"It's the same for every team," said the Anfield manager. "If you lose your top scorer for a lot of games then it will cost you. We lost a lot of players at the same time, players with quality - Agger, Johnson, Yossi, Gerrard, Torres - all at the same time, and we've lost Aurelio for much of the season.

"Any team would find it difficult to manage without those numbers and that quality. And it is more difficult if you lose your striker who can be such a difference.

"When you talk about a good player, at his best moment he can be a massive difference, but only for a good team.

"One player, without good team-mates around them, it will be impossible, but United are a good team, so if they have a good player in front like Rooney, it can make a difference."

Torres, along with fellow long-term absentee Glen Johnson, is expected to be back in full training next week.

Benitez has previously admitted that securing a fourth-place Premier League finish and qualification for next season's Champions League is the priority for his team.

"It's difficult to say what the motivation will be like," said Benitez yesterday. "Today the training session was good, with intensity and everyone focused.

"The problem with Unirea is that they are defensively good, play on the counter-attack, so it will not be an open game, and not a game you enjoy watching.

"We have to be patient, but if we start with a high tempo, our fans will be pushing us on. If we cannot do this, hopefully they can help the players."

Benitez added: "You have to understand the situation and move forward. As soon as we knew we were not in the Champions League we had to be ready for the Europa League and try to do our best.

"I was flicking between both Champions League games on Tuesday night, and watching the games I can say we are more or less at the same level.

"We have to be focused in the league, try to be in the Champions League next year and try to do well in Europe too to bring silverware.

"It's always important to win a trophy. The UEFA Cup has been good for our fans in the past, and the Europa League has to be important for us now.

"But I'm only looking as far as Unirea, I don't want to talk about winning the trophy now."

Albert Riera, Alberto Aquilani, Ryan Babel and Sotirios Kyrgiakos are all pressing for a recall, while Jamie Carragher resumed training yesterday after limping out of last Wednesday's defeat at Arsenal with an adductor problem. Yossi Benayoun is also available after missing the last month.

Kenwyne Jones: I Won't Walk, Its Just Talk

Kenwyne Jones admits all the talk of a January move to Liverpool upset his form but insists he wants to stay at Sunderland.

No approach was made by Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez but Jones says he was distracted by the transfer talk until boss Steve Bruce gave him a talking to.

“Mr. Bruce spoke to me and reassured me that the club still wanted me,” said Jones. “That is always nice to hear. Sometimes a big transfer story can make it hard for the manager to say anything.

“I never gave any indication that I wanted to leave or I was unhappy. There was a lot of stuff being said by whoever and you can’t stop that. But I didn’t have any part to play in that whole situation.

“If one of the world’s big clubs come in for you it’s understandable you might have the desire to go to that next level. Until you sign a contract with a new club it’s all just talk. January was a crazy time and now I will focus on our next games.”

Liverpool FC's Steven Gerrard Targets Europa League Record

Steven Gerrard has vowed to attempt to win Europa League, making Liverpool the first side to lift the trophy four times.

The Reds enjoyed spells as winners of the cup, formerly known as the UEFA Cup, in 1973, 1976 and 2001; when Gerrard scored in an enthralling final with Deportivo Alaves.

Only Inter Milan and Juventus, who dropped into the Europa League following their Champions League group stage elimination, have equalled the Anfield club's tally in the tournament but Gerrard believes that Rafael Benitez's side can become the leading winners with four crowns.

He said: "Anyone who underestimates the Europa League is not for me because I've lifted the UEFA Cup before. It's a special trophy, and was a superb final. Hopefully we can experience the same feeling this season.

"I've always found in Europe that Liverpool have more problems against less well-known teams because of the surprise factor.

"To play Liverpool is a big game for Unirea and they'll be looking for a big upset and will be very dangerous, but Rafa will make sure that the team is prepared."

Speaking ahead of tonight's clash with Unirea Urziceni, Gerrard warned that Liverpool will not be taking the Romanians lightly following an inconsistent season that sees them battling for fourth place in the Barclays Premier League.

He added: "It's very dangerous to bet against Liverpool [in Europe], especially when our backs are to the wall.

"This season has been inconsistent and hasn't gone to plan. But, for me as captain and for the team, we've got one more trophy to lift. So we'll be giving everything.