Friday, February 26, 2010

Match Report: FC Unirea Urziceni 1 - 3 Liverpool

Liverpool FC came from behind to beat FC Unirea Urziceni 3-1 on the night and 4-1 on aggregate to book a place in the UEFA Europa League round of 16.

Though Rafael Benítez's charges did ultimately ensure the natural order, they did so the hard way. The first-leg advantage handed to them by David Ngog's late strike at Anfield was quickly wiped out by Bruno Fernandes, but Javier Mascherano's first goal of the season restored parity in Romania. Ryan Babel and Steven Gerrard then gave the Reds a three-goal cushion that proved enough for the Premier League side to cruise through to a last-16 date with LOSC Lille Métropole or Fenerbahçe SK next month.

Unirea were not cowed by their visitors' European pedigree, deservedly going in front inside 20 minutes. Liverpool's defence were caught flat-footed by Răzvan Pădureţu's corner and Bruno Fernandes climbed highest to ignite the tie. Gerrard had already chanced his arm from range, to no avail, by the time Mascherano showed his captain how to do it, rifling in from 20 metres to draw the Reds level.

Unirea were unbowed, however, Pădureţu's artistry and set-piece delivery continuing to cause trouble. Gerrard, though, came to the fore five minutes before half-time, delivering a free-kick that found its way to Babel, who controlled with aplomb, swivelled and finished.

Another Gerrard set piece prompted Unirea goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis into action soon after the break, but it was from open play that the England midfielder put the tie to bed once and for all. Yossi Benayoun did the legwork, snaking his way through the Unirea defence before cleverly feeding his midfield colleague, whose finish spun in via Arlauskis' legs. Marius Ioan Bilaşco was somehow denied by Pepe Reina late on but the damage had long since been done.

Liverpool Face New Fight To Land Spanish Starlet

Liverpool could face a transfer battle with Manchester City this summer in the race to land Spanish youngster Javi Martinez.

The Athletic Bilbao youngster has been on Rafael Benitez's for some time, and the Liverpool boss was reportedly considering a bid for the player last summer.

Martinez welcomed the interest back in the summer of 2009, saying: "Any player would want to be part of such a good squad."

A deal never materialised however, and now other clubs are reportedly showing an interest in Los Leones' talented youngster.

Signed for €6 million in 2006, Martinez made the switch from Osasuna to the Basque club without playing a senior game at the Reyno de Navarra stadium in Pamplona. He became a regular in his first season at San Mamés, and has since made well over 100 league appearances for the La Liga side.

The Spanish U21 international helped Bilbao to the Spanish Cup final in 2009, and his form on that run played a large part in the speculation of a move to Anfield.

Valued at £10 million in the summer, it has recently been reported that City are considering preparing a £26 million bid to meet the buy-out clause in Martinez's contract.

If Mancini does make the move, the Reds will be unable to match the financial muscle at City and lose out in the race to sign one of the hottest properties in Spanish football.

However, the player's previous admission about playing football for Liverpool will leave the Reds with half an eye on a potential summer move. With the additional interest, a bid in the region of £15 million might be needed to prize this starlet from his homeland.

Teenage Keeper Trains With Reds

Teenage Swindon goalkeeper Jamie Stephens is to spend next week training with Premier League side Liverpool.

The 16-year-old has been invited for a stint at the Reds' Kirkby Academy after impressing scouts from the Anfield outfit.

Stephens' potential was spotted during his appearances for the Robins' youth team and he will now rub shoulders with Liverpool's emerging talent.

Swindon manager Danny Wilson has agreed for the youngster to head to Merseyside, but the club have stressed that there are no plans in place for a transfer.

"We had an approach for Jamie to spend a couple of days training with Liverpool," youth team boss Paul Bodin told the Swindon Advertiser.

"They had heard about his potential, invited him up, and the gaffer agreed to let him go up there.

"It is a great opportunity for everyone - this gives Jamie a fantastic experience and also helps us build links with a huge club like Liverpool.

"There is nothing at the end of it though - it is purely a week's training.

"We don't want to go overboard about it, but it's great that a club like Liverpool is showing a bit of interest in our players.

"It's a nice little pat on the back and a bit of recognition, not just for myself and Jeremy Newton (Centre of Excellence director), but for everyone else who has had an input in to Jamie's development during his time at Swindon."

Liverpool Protestors Latest Plan Revealed

Liverpool fans protesting against Hicks And Gillet have a public relations wall.

The Liverpool Echo they claim, isn’t doing enough. The reality is that in a city divided by only two clubs they will never get it right. Everton could win 8-0 and if they Echo run a match report they get a trail of telephone calls from disgruntled Reds bemoaning bias.

The reality for Liverpool is that Man Yanited’s scheme to infiltrate Old Trafford with Norwich City scarves is a hard act to follow. Whatever you may say about it, it has the media’s attention.

The latest report into The Tavern is a mass unfurling by hurling of toilet rolls.

Benitez: Stevie Role Good For Us

Rafa Benitez believes captaining England next week will bring the best out of Steven Gerrard.

With new skipper Rio Ferdinand injured, Gerrard is expected to take the armband in the friendly against Egypt.

Benitez thinks the occasion could boost Gerrard's confidence - benefiting both club and country.

The Reds boss said: "I think captaining England will be good for his confidence and could also have a good effect on him.

"We know he is important for us, and also important for England. I think he has to take the responsibility as a positive sign."

Aquilani: A Man With A Point To Prove

All eyes turned to the Europa League last night, and many Kopites gazed towards Romania as Liverpool took a trip to Unirea for their second leg clash. As Rafael Benitez draws away the pressure from his team using banter with the press, his £19m+ summer signing from Roma, Alberto Aquilani, knows he has to show what he is capable of.

At least Aquilani has acknowledged his failings during his short stay at Anfield. It has been reported in the English press that the midfielder has admitted he needs to prove himself, and that the support and banners made by the Liverpool faithful are all that he needs to spur him on to adapt to life in the Premiership.

Sure he has the talent, and starting off injured does not help his cause. Neither does the fact that he is seen as the ideal replacement for Xabi Alonso. However, when Aquilani has been picked, his performances have been lackluster to say the least. Misplaced passes, sloppy first touches, and a lack of strength have all been visible when he has taken his role of central midfielder. It is true that it takes time to adapt, particularly in the Premier League. But, I believe that Aquilani has the ability – and even more so, the character – to be a success at Anfield.

As already stated, the talent is there, and we have seen glimpses of his excellent passing ability and direct vision. You don’t just become an Italian international without having the ability. He has proved at Roma the threat he poses to other teams, and it is now time to show this at Liverpool.

Obviously, he hasn’t had much playing time and when he does get a decent run in the team he needs to grasp it with both hands – he is going to have to learn the hard way.

Liverpool Must Take Europa League A Game At A Time - Rafael Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is optimistic that his side can win the Europa League this season.

However, the Spaniard is refusing to get carried away and has insisted that his players focus on beating Unirea Urziceni on Thurdsday night and reaching the last 16 of the competition rather than dream of glory.

"For us it is an opportunity to bring silverware here so we will try to do our best," Benitez told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.

"People are talking about me saying we will win the final, but we have to win against Unirea in this game to progress.

"Again, it is one step at a time, so we cannot talk about wining the final - we have to win the next game."

Benitez is not underestimating his team's Romanian opponents. Unirea performed well in the group stages of the Champions League this season, collecting the scalp of Scottish giants Rangers at Ibrox.

"As a team we are doing better now. Unirea are a good team and I am sure they are really focused on our game. It will be difficult and tough," the Reds' manager continued.

"They did well at home in the Champions League, so we know that we will have to work very hard if we want to progress.

"We will take it one game at a time. Now we want to progress in the Europa League and afterwards we will think about Blackburn.

Europa League Run Can Help Liverpool Make Champions League - Javier Mascherano

Javier Mascherano believes Liverpool's continued progress in the Europa League can boost their hopes of a top four finish.

The Reds midfield dynamo, echoing the sentiments of boss Rafa Benitez, is confident Liverpool will finish the job they started at Anfield last week and knock Unirea Urziceni out of the competition.

Should that happen, it will set up a clash with Lille or Fenerbahce in the last 16 and Mascherano thinks the more Liverpool play, the better they will become as they pursue a Champions League spot.

Mascherano said: “We know that we have got some good games coming up.

"It is important for us to keep playing and keep improving our confidence. Before we lost to Arsenal, we had a seven game unbeaten run and we want to win against Unirea to get on another similar run.

“This is a really important game for us, we have been talking about it for the last few days and it is important we get to the last 16.”

Romanian Journalists Berate Liverpool Boss Rafael Benitez Ahead Of Europa League Tie

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez became embroiled in a bizarre pre-match press conference when Romanian journalists appeared to berate the Spaniard over his weight, according to a report in the Daily Mail.

The Reds boss was fielding questions relating to the club's concluding Europa League tie with Unirea Urziceni, yet reporters from Romania sought to get a rise out of the unswervingly diplomatic Benitez.

When probed as to whether Liverpool were underestimating Unirea, he said: "Not at all. I just had to work out what would be the best preparation for the team, and I just felt that working on formations and set-pieces at Melwood before, rather than after, a three-hour flight would be the right option.

"As for after the game, if it goes to extra-time, the plane will wait, because it is a charter. Don't make the mistake of thinking we are taking anything for granted," he warned.

He was then asked for his thoughts about chants from the terraces predicting his sacking in the morning.

"I don't listen to them. When you are on the sidelines, watching your team, you are not aware of anything else. You are in the zone and concentrating only on what is happening on the pitch. Anyway, I don't always understand. My English still isn't all that good."

Towards the end of the conference, one reporter opted for a more personal approach.

"The last time I saw you, Mr. Benitez, was at the 2005 Champions' League final, and your, erm, silhouette seems to have changed since then. Why is that?" One bold journalist asked.

"It is the stress of having to answer so many questions from the press. Thank you and goodnight."