Thursday, February 25, 2010

Match Preview: Unirea Urziceni vs. Liverpool

Liverpool will look to press home a one-goal advantage as they visit Unirea Urziceni in the second leg of their Europa League round of 32 tie.

Rafael Benitez's men scraped a narrow victory in the reverse clash at Anfield last week, thanks to a late strike from French youngster David Ngog.

The Reds' performance in that game was roundly criticised, however, as was their showing against fellow Champions League chasers Manchester City in Sunday's 0-0 draw at Eastlands.

Nevertheless, the Merseyside giants have the upper hand heading into this week's cup date in the Romanian capital.

Unirea could be considered unfortunate to have left England with nothing to show for what was a determined and disciplined display on their return from the winter break, but now they must pick themselves up after also losing their top-of-the-table clash with domestic rivals Cluj.

Unfortunately for Ron Levy's side, the statistics are firmly against them: they have won just once at home in European play, while Liverpool have only lost once on the road in their last nine continental outings.


Unirea Urziceni

Feb 22: Unirea 0-1 Cluj (Romanian League)
Feb 18: Liverpool 1-0 Unirea (Europa League)
Dec 12: Unirea 2-0 Iasi (Romanian League)
Dec 9: Stuttgart 3-1 Unirea (Champions League)
Dec 4: Ceahlaul 2-3 Unirea (Romanian League)


Feb 21: Manchester City 0-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 18: Liverpool 1-0 Unirea Urziceni (Europa League)
Feb 10: Arsenal 1-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 6: Liverpool 1-0 Everton (Premier League)
Jan 30: Liverpool 2-0 Bolton Wanderers (Premier League)


Unirea Urziceni

Pablo Brandan is suspended after picking up a yellow card at Anfield last week, while Iulian Apostol, Marius Ioan Bilasco, George Galamaz and Ricardo Vilana are all a booking away from a ban.

Last starting XI (vs. Cluj): Arlauskis, Maftei, Galamaz, Fernandes, Brandan, Paraschiv, Onofras, Marinescu, Apostol, Frunza, Bilasco.


Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun are both available for selection after their substitute appearances at Eastlands over the weekend, but Glen Johnson is still out of action.

Last starting XI (vs. Manchester City): Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Insua, Mascherano, Lucas, Maxi, Gerrard, Babel, Kuyt.


Unirea Urziceni - Vasile Maftei

The right-back was Unirea's star outfield player in the first leg, stifling Albert Riera and using the ball well going forward. More of the same will be required this time around if the Romanians are to advance.

Liverpool - Daniel Pacheco

The young Spaniard's cameo last week showed just why he is so highly rated at Anfield, and it was his knockdown which led to the winning goal. Expect to see him get another run in Bucharest.

Riera Seeks Europa League Redemption

The memory of losing the 2007 UEFA Cup final with RCD Espanyol is driving Liverpool FC's Albert Riera in the UEFA Europa League: "The goal is to win a trophy – we have no other option."

Albert Riera needs no convincing of the merits of the UEFA Europa League. For the Liverpool FC winger, the tournament not only represents his team's sole remaining hope of avoiding another trophyless season but it also provides an opportunity to remove the lingering "bad taste" of the defeat he suffered with RCD Espanyol in the 2007 UEFA Cup final.

Riera came tantalisingly close to holding the cup that year, scoring Espanyol's first goal in a 2-2 draw with Sevilla FC in the all-Spanish final at Glasgow's Hampden Park that his old team eventually lost on penalties. He told "I will always remember that final, in truth it was great but finals are there to win and if you lose it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. People talk about third time lucky but let's hope it will be second time for me."

The 27-year-old Spanish international is keen to make amends now with a Liverpool side whose entry into the UEFA Europa League followed their elimination from the UEFA Champions League. If there were dark skies over Anfield following that failure, Riera believes the Merseysiders could yet find a silver lining. He said: "We weren't very good in the Champions League. We made mistakes there, and we paid for them. You have to keep looking forward and we are in this competition now and we want to win it.

"The goal is to win a trophy – we have no other option – and also to finish fourth in the league. If we can't win the league, then finishing in the top four is the objective. This season we didn't start well, we can give a lot more and we are trying to do that."

A definite cause for optimism looking ahead to Thursday's second leg against round of 32 opponents FC Unirea Urziceni in Romania is Liverpool's defensive improvement in recent weeks. Rafael Benítez's side conceded costly last-minute goals in three of their UEFA Champions League ties but they have kept clean sheets in six of their last seven outings, including the 1-0 first-leg victory against Unirea last week and Sunday's goalless draw at Manchester City FC.

Riera said: "It's important to end a game with a clean sheet. If you do that you have a big chance of winning games. We know with the quality of the players we have, we'll always have opportunities. We had problems defending earlier in the season, especially in dead-ball situations, but it's something we've improved on. We were conscious of this and now we're reaping the rewards."

While Liverpool are excelling defensively, they struggled at the other end of the pitch against Unirea at Anfield until David Ngog made a belated breakthrough with nine minutes remaining. Yet Riera believes they may find it easier in Bucharest, given Unirea will have to commit men forward in search of a goal.

"They will have to come out and attack more, and can't defend as much or as deeply as they did so there will surely be more opportunities for us," he said. "We won't go there just to defend the result we got here, we will try to go there to win the game the same. We will surely get more chances, because they will be forced to play a bit more."

Lucas Thrilled By Torres Return

Liverpool midfielder Lucas recognises that Fernando Torres' return to fitness is a "massive boost".

The striker made his first appearance for several weeks when he came on as a substitute in Sunday's goalless draw against Manchester City.

He had been sidelined with a knee problem picked up in the FA Cup defeat to Reading, the latest of several injuries to blight his progress this season.

It has been a frustrating campaign for Liverpool as well as Torres but Lucas believes the Spaniard can inspire his team-mates to a strong finish.

"Having Fernando on the pitch is not only a massive boost for us but it is also a great advantage against the opposition," Lucas told the club's official website.

"Fernando is our main goalscorer and defenders know they can't give any chances away to him because he will take them.

"He gives us confidence because he scores a lot of goals and wins us games.

"Unfortunately he has been injured, but we hope he will be fit between now and the end of the season and help us finish in the top four."

Yossi Benayoun also returned to action at the weekend and, with Glen Johnson nearing full fitness as well, Lucas is looking forward to the next couple of months.

He said: "We know how important they are for us. Yossi creates a lot of chances for us. He has great skill and ability and we are happy to have them back.

"We will also have Glen back in the next couple of weeks which is another great boost for us.

"When we have our full squad available again I think we will be even stronger and that will be important between now and the end of the season."

Liverpool's immediate focus is Thursday's Europa League clash with Unirea Urziceni in Romania.

The Reds have a slender 1-0 advantage from the first leg at Anfield and Lucas is confident of finishing the job.

"We have the advantage and we didn't concede an away goal, which is so important in Europe," he said.

"We know it will be difficult as I thought they were well organised at Anfield, but they know they have to score and the game will be open. We hope to take advantage and score goals to take us through to the next stage.

"They have to attack us because if they don't we will qualify and be in the last 16 of the Europa League. Hopefully we will have more space to attack them and finish the game off."

Saric Uncertain Over Debut

Teenage striker Nikola Saric is uncertain when he will make his Liverpool debut, but he is remaining positive.

The talented Danish striker has yet to feature for the Reds after being plagued by injuries since his arrival at the club in 2008.

But the 19-year-old is remaining positive, believing he will eventually make Rafa Benitez's first-team if he is good enough.

Saric told "My plans were spoiled a lot when I was injured for eight months.

"The first year, you have to adopt to the playing style and get to know the team-mates, that is still new for me.

"I don't think so much about the first team. In case I am good enough, I will get there, but right now there are some players ahead of me."

Johnson 'Very Close' To Return

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has admitted Glen Johnson is close to a return, but he will not be rushed back.

The Reds defender has been sidelined since suffering medial knee ligament damage in December, missing his side's poor run of form this year.

The England international was a mainstay in the Liverpool team before his injury suffered against Aston Villa, making 17 appearances in the Premier League this season, scoring twice.

And like returning striker Fernando Torres, Benitez says he will be eased back into contention.

"Johnson is very close," he said. "I think next week he will be training with the team, or maybe at the end of the week, but it will be the same situation we have with Torres.

"He will need time and we will introduce him little by little."

The Reds travel to Romania on Thursday to face Unirea Urziceni in the Europa League.

Taking a lead into the away leg after a 1-0 win at Anfield, Liverpool will be favourites to progress, and Benitez hopes there will be more opportunities to attack.

"We have to believe that the away leg will be different because they will have to attack and that will leave more spaces, and maybe we can create more clear chances," he added.

"If they have to attack, they have to be higher (up the field) and the game will be totally different.

"The main thing now is that we know them. It will not be a surprise the next game and we have to be ready. We have to think about attack.

"If you play in the Champions League or Europa League - in a knockout competition - you can see a clean sheet is very important and not to concede away is the main thing because then you can manage at home."

Ryan Babel Reveals Heart-To-Heart With Rafa Benitez

Ryan Babel has revealed the heart-to-heart chat with Rafael Benitez he hopes can help salvage his Anfield career.

Babel has endured a hugely disappointing campaign to prompt talk of an exit from Liverpool in the summer, with the player the subject of a £9m bid from Birmingham City last month.

Sunday’s goalless draw against Manchester City was his first Premier League start since lining up against the same opposition at Anfield back in November.

Babel was hauled off in the second half after an ineffective display, meaning the Dutchman has still only played the full 90 minutes once this season.

But the 23-year-old has held talks with manager Benitez aimed at bringing out his best as he attempts to prove he has a future at the club.

“I have had a good talk with the manager and I know what I have to do,” said Babel. “That is what I am going to concentrate on.

“I just have to try to be patient, keep working hard and doing my best.”

Babel will be part of the squad that flies to Romania this afternoon ahead of tomorrow’s Europa League return clash against Unirea Urziceni.

Benitez’s side will defend a slender one-goal lead from the first leg as they look to progress to the last 16 and a tie against either Lille or Fenerbahce.

And Babel believes Liverpool’s improving defensive form can bolster their only chance of silverware this season.

“Unirea may not be a well known team but the fact they are playing in Europe at this stage shows they are a good team,” he said. “I think it’s all about how you prepare yourself and as long as we do that then we should be fine.

“We have definitely improved over the last few weeks with a lot of clean sheets. The defence has been the basis of our better results.

“Slowly it gives more confidence and that is something that we have to try to keep hold of and hopefully we can be positive as we look forward.”

Alberto Aquilani Keen To Repay Liverpool Fans' Support For Him

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani is proud that the Reds fans seem to have taken him to their hearts so soon after his summer arrival from Roma.

One expression of that affection has been the banner which was unfurled at Anfield not long after his arrival bearing the legend 'Il Principino - A Hero has Arrived'.

Now the Italian, who has struggled to find full fitness all season, wants to repay the support he has received from the Kop.

"It filled me with incredible pride. I was already accustomed to the Roma supporters saluting me with their own songs and banners, but for the Liverpool fans to do the same, even though I had not proved myself in the Premier League, was amazing," Aquilani told his club's official website.

"It is now my job to repay their support and love."

Aquilani believes that the supporters of the Reds and Roma share a lot in common.

"Giallorossi fans are extraordinary and unique, the best in Italy for sure," he added.

"There are no more passionate fans in the country. But from what I have seen in England, Liverpool supporters come from the same mould.

"They have a great reputation in the world of football and I now know exactly why."

Liverpool Boss Benitez To Turn Down Real Madrid

According to Spanish newspaper 'Sport', Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez will turn down any move by Real Madrid to become coach at the Bernebeu.

'Sport' claims that the Spanish club sounded out Benitez several weeks ago when he was being linked with the Juventus job and urged the Liverpool manager to delay any decision on his future. Real Madrid’s interest in Benitez has reportedly intensified with current coach Manuel Pellegrini under pressure to deliver a successful Champions League campaign.

However, Benitez will reportedly turn down any approach by Real Madrid in favour of remaining at Anfield. 'Sport' claims that Benitez will not break his contract with Liverpool and if he were to take the reins at the Bernebeu, he would demand total control over footballing decisions – a condition likely to be unacceptable to Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. It would likely be equally unpalatable for sporting director, Jorge Valdano, who 'Sport' claims has a sour relationship with Benitez which "will not improve over time."

The only way that Benitez might end up at Real Madrid, according to 'Sport', is if Liverpool fail to qualify for next season's Champions League and Benitez is consequently sacked by the Anfield hierarchy.

Tommy Smith: Liverpool Need More Options In Attack

After all the hype about the impact Sunday’s game would have on fourth place it was no great surprise when it didn’t live up to expectations.

It was a poor, poor game and neither team deserved to win.

In fact, it looked as if they’d made some kind of pact not to encroach in each other’s half.

It confirmed what I’ve been saying for some time now, that we need somebody else up front.

That’s not in case Fernando Torres gets injured. It’s because we simply need someone else.

While Torres reminds me of a Roger Hunt; the one who puts the ball in the back of the net, we need a player who can go for the ball with big centre-halves and take a battering.

Some people say the game has changed and we have new formations and systems now.

But whether it’s today’s or yesterday’s game, whatever is going on at Liverpool is evidently not working.

Years ago we had John Toshack taking the onus off Kevin Keegan. Before that there was Ian St John and Roger Hunt. Later there was Rush and Dalglish.

At the moment we’ve got nothing up there without Torres.

Just two goals in our last four games says it all.

I’ve heard people saying Steven Gerrard has not been playing well. Maybe that’s because he’s got no-one to play up front with.

If Torres is up there, Gerrard plays a lot better. But if he doesn’t get any balls laid off to him when Torres is missing then what’s he supposed to do?

It’s all well and good keeping clean sheets but Liverpool teams have always been sent out to play and score goals not to defend, as appeared to be the case at City.

You’ve got to score goals to win games. I’d rather see us win 4-3 than draw nil-nil.