Thursday, March 11, 2010

Europa League Preview: Lille vs Liverpool

The Europa League round of 16 gets underway with Lille and Liverpool facing off for the first time ever in competitive play.

The French outfit does, however, have plenty of experience against English opposition - namely Manchester United - against whom they have played six times with a record of one win, three draws and two losses.

Les Dogues' home record in Europe is impressive; they have lost just once in their last 16 encounters on their own patch and have won five of their last six Europa League clashes at the Lille Metropole, their most recent being a 2-1 win over Fenerbahce in the previous round.

In Ligue 1, meanwhile, the team from Nord-Pas de Calais presently sits just outside the European places in fifth, their form having tapered off somewhat after a winning streak that lasted from November to the middle of January.

Still, Lille are faring better domestically than Liverpool, whose loss to Wigan Athletic on Monday has left them languishing behind Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the race for a top-four finish in the Premier League.

But the Reds can take heart from their last outing in the Europa League, in which they dispatched Unirea Urziceni 3-1 in Romania to claim the tie 4-1 on aggregate.

That result is indicative of the Merseyside giants' away form in continental competition, as they have lost only once - a 2-0 defeat at Fiorentina - in their last 10 road trips.



Mar 6: St-Etienne 1-1 Lille (Ligue 1)
Feb 28: Lille 1-2 Auxerre (Ligue 1)
Feb 25: Fenerbahce 1-1 Lille (Europa League)
Feb 21: Rennes 1-2 Lille (Ligue 1)
Feb 18: Lille 2-1 Fenerbahce (Europa League)


Mar 8: Wigan Athletic 1-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 28: Liverpool 2-1 Blackburn Rovers (Premier League)
Feb 25: Unirea Urziceni 1-3 Liverpool (Europa League)
Feb 21: Manchester City 0-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Feb 18: Liverpool 1-0 Unirea Urziceni (Europa League)



The French side has been without star striker Gervinho (knee) and deep-lying playmaker Mathieu Debuchy (broken ribs) since their win over Rennes last month, while Tulio de Melo recently returned to Brazil for surgery on a torn meniscus.

Last starting XI (vs. St-Etienne): Landreau, Beria, Ricardo Costa, Chedjou, Emerson Conceicao, Balmont, Mavuba, Cabaye, Hazard, Frau, Dumont.


Rafael Benitez's main concern is in defence, with Martin Skrtel and Fabio Aurelio sidelined while Daniel Agger remains in doubt with a knee knock.

Right-back Glen Johnson is available once more, however, having made his return off the bench at Wigan.

Last starting XI (vs. Wigan Athletic): Reina, Mascherano, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Maxi, Gerrard, Lucas, Benayoun, Kuyt, Torres.


Lille - Eden Hazard

The Belgian teen - the reigning Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year - is one of the continent's hottest prospects. Lightning quick with tricks aplenty, he'll hardly get a better chance to impress his (allegedly numerous) English suitors.

Liverpool - Alberto Aquilani

Still on the fringes after his summer move from Roma, the Italian's second-half cameo on Monday was one of precious few positives on what was otherwise a horrendous night for the Reds. His class is undoubted, and the travelling Kopites will be hoping they see some of it here.

Uefa Partners Welcome Champions League Changes But Lament Liverpool Exit

Some of Uefa’s most influential commercial partners are delighted with the changes made to the scheduling of this year’s Champions League, according to the World Football Insider.

For this year’s tournament, Uefa has spread the tournament’s second round over eight matchdays instead of four and moved the final from Wednesday evening to late Saturday afternoon. May’s final at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid will be preceded by a week-long celebration of soccer, including the inaugural Uefa Women’s Champions League final.

Uefa marketing manager Gabrielle Saubran said that the governing body had looked to other sports for ideas on how to promote its showpiece final, but added: “We will monitor it. We will see if it meets the expectations of our sponsors, broadcasters and fans, but it’s something we want to do in the future.”

Both Niall Sloane, head of sport at British Champions League broadcaster ITV, and Paul Meulenjijk, head of sponsorship at long-term partner Mastercard, found it easy to see the benefits offered by the new format.

Sloane, speaking at last week’s Soccerex European Forum in Manchester, credited Uefa with showing “a flexibility and willingness to work with broadcasters that is not always present in other sports associations and indeed football bodies.” However, he admitted that the disappointing showing of English club Liverpool had been a minor setback for UK broadcasters, saying: “The extension of the round of sixteen from four match nights… would have been even better for ITV and [UK broadcast partners] Sky to see Liverpool get through to get significant domestic interest every [match] night. But even so I think the idea is right and it should work very well for us.”

For Meulenjijk, the change to the date of the final creates new challenges, with the earlier weekend kick-off likely to neccessiatate a greater focus on an Asian television audience and cause a change in the European viewing demographic. Ultimately, though, he was broadly optimistic. He said: “The final is now on a Saturday and that allows us to look at it from a different angle as well. During the week we can take people out, but [on a Saturday] it’s a family event – kids can come at weekends and it’s a lot easier to do that. From that perspective it’s a welcome change.”

Arsenal and Bayern Munich became the first teams to qualify from the expanded second round last night. 11,000 tickets for this year’s final went on general sale this week via the Uefa website, Uefa are keen to encourage families to attend the game, and have introduced youth packages comprising a ticket for a child and an accompanying adult.

Rafael Benitez Desperate To See The 'Real Liverpool' In Lille

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez wants his team to show their true ability when they travel to Lille in the Europa League on Thursday night.

The Reds go into the game on the back of a dispiriting 1-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic on Monday night and Benitez was frustrated that his team did not manage to fire in the way that they have been doing recently.

However, the Spaniard is confident that the result at the DW Stadium was merely a blip and his men will be back to winning ways again soon.

"In the last five to 10 games [before Wigan] we were showing real character and you could see everyone was working really hard, helping each other and working together to try and get results," the Spaniard informed reporters at a press conference at the Reds' Melwood training ground.

"It was a surprise the other day, but hopefully it was just a blip and we will see the real Liverpool on Thursday."

Benitez does know though that the defeat to the Latics make reaching the top four of the Premier League that bit harder this season.

"It was really difficult before and will be more difficult now, so we know we cannot make too many mistakes," he acknowledged.

"We have to carry on and try to get three points in the next league game against Portsmouth. But first we have the Europa League."

The Spaniard does see the game in France as a real opportunity to put things right, however.

"It is very clear this is an opportunity for us to do things right, try to get a good result and be ready for the next game," he affirmed.

"In football sometimes you prefer to have some time to rest, but now I think it is better to play games quickly."

Yossi Benayoun Faces Liverpool FC Europa League Fitness Deadline

Yossi Benayoun must prove his wellbeing in training today to stand any chance of being involved in Liverpool’s crucial Europa League tie with Lille.

The Israeli midfielder picked up a knock to his ankle during Monday night’s 1-0 defeat at Wigan Athletic and was unable to take part in yesterday’s warm down session.

He will be monitored closely at Melwood today – and will have further treatment – before boss Rafa Benitez decides whether to include him in his travelling party.

Benitez is already without Maxi Rodriguez (ineligible) and Fabio Aurelio (thigh) for the round of 16 clash and is considering making several changes to his starting line-up.

Not surprisingly, Benitez is still livid about the performance at the DW Stadium that has dented Liverpool’s hopes of a top four finish and is demanding a reaction in France.

“We were poor in the first half but we improved a little in the second,” said Benitez, who has Daniel Agger available again after he was ruled out of the Wigan game with illness.

“The positive for me is that we showed a better attitude and some character in the second half at Wigan and we have show it again in the Europa League.”

As Liverpool had only lost one Premier League game in 2010 and had show gradual signs of improvement, Monday’s display took Benitez completely by surprise.

But, as he points out, there is no point dwelling on the disappointment and he has urged his players to show the spirit that had put their campaign back on track.

“We had done well in the last 10 games and showed in games against Stoke, Blackburn and Bolton that we knew how to battle,” said the manager.

“We have just got to make sure we move forward quickly. It was always going to be difficult to qualify for the Champions League and it is even more difficult now.

“We just have to carry on and make sure that we are ready to get three points in our next game against Portsmouth.

“Sometimes in football it is better to rest but it is good that we have got a game so quickly; we will stick together and work hard.”

No Reds Bid For Stephens

Swindon Town's promising young goalkeeper Jamie Stephens looks set to stay with the League One club, after Liverpool failed to follow up their interest.

The 16-year-old enjoyed a trial spell with the Anfield club, but has since returned and the Robins have not been contacted by the Premier League outfit since.

Swindon boss Danny Wilson has told that the youngster has all the credentials to be a top class stopper.

"He has got a lot potential, as a lot of young lads have, with his age and size he ticks a lot of boxes," he said.

"Whether he can realise that potential in the long-run remains to be seen, but we rate him very highly for a boy so young and hopefully we can nurture that talent so that he becomes a great professional footballer.

"He went up for the experience more than anything, but he has come back and really enjoyed himself.

"We wanted him to go up and get a taste for what it is like at a top club like Liverpool then come back and get his head down again.

"He has done just that and as far as we are concerned nothing else will happen in terms of Liverpool coming in for him, but time will tell."

The Robins slipped to their second consecutive defeat on Tuesday night at play-off rivals MK Dons and Wilson insists there was no room for sentiment against one of his former clubs.

"There is no sentiment for me because it is a totally different club from the one I left. There has been a mass change in personnel since I was there and I think there are only two people that remain from my time there.

"Things have progressed very quickly for them and they have done very well, so there is a professional respect there as there always is when going back to one of your former clubs, but it has changed a lot."

Liverpool Legend Ian Rush Urges Rafael Benitez's Team To Stop Sulking

Liverpool striking legend Ian Rush believes that Rafael Benitez's team need to take a hard look at themselves after the disappointment of losing at Wigan Athletic on Monday night.

The Reds conceded valuable ground in the fight for a fourth-placed finish in this season's Premeir League, and Rush feels that the answers to the current problems lie within the players' minds.

"Liverpool managed a feat on Monday that many would have thought impossible – they lost twice on the same night," Rush told The Liverpool Echo.

"If it was not bad enough seeing Wigan Athletic take three precious points, the defeat at the DW Stadium effectively saw us relinquish pole position in the race for the Champions League; things, from this moment, are going to be exceptionally hard.

"How, then, does Rafa Benitez turn the tide? He has got to do everything in his power to lift the squad, as if they are starting to feel sorry for themselves, they really won’t finish fourth – teams that sulk head in only one direction.

"I still believe there is sufficient talent at Anfield to get us out of this tight spot and maybe we need to get into the mindset where teams worry about us, rather than us worrying about keeping things tight.

"Should we start showing a bit more adventure going forward and the players have just got to roll their sleeves up, work hard and believe they can do it."

Rush does feel that the return of England full-back Glen Johnson to action was one of the few positives to be taken from the defeat at the DW Stadium.

The Welshman believes that Johnson will add more thrust and dynamism to the Reds' right flank.

"He will give Liverpool’s attack an edge and there is no doubt we have missed his drive down the right flank," Rush added.

"Johnson gets in a lot of crosses and shots and is able to produce great moments of skill, as we saw at the beginning of the season. Hopefully we’ll see it at the end, too."

Whelan Critical Of Reds' Owners

Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan feels Liverpool fans are being short-changed by their American owners.

The Latics secured their first-ever Premier League win over the Reds on Monday thanks to Hugo Rodallega's first-half goal.

Liverpool produced one of their worst performances in recent times at the DW Stadium, with numerous passes going astray while Wigan keeper Chris Kirkland went untested throughout.

Whelan believes the Merseysiders, who were expected to challenge for honours this season, are in a mess and that American owners George Gillet and Tom Hicks do not feel the passion of the supporters.

"The big sympathy I have is for the Liverpool supporters because they are a fantastic lot," he told Sky Sports News.

"Liverpool are in a mess. The owners, being American, I don't think they feel what we (British club owners) feel.

"I'm really, really sorry for their supporters. We went to Anfield earlier in the season and there's absolutely no atmosphere and no heart at all at present.

"The supporters feel that and I think the players are starting to feel it."

Dalla Valle Fires Reds Into Final

Lauri Dalla Valle was on the mark as Liverpool Reserves reached the final of the Liverpool Senior Cup after a 3-0 win over Tranmere Rovers at the Kirkby Academy on Wednesday afternoon.

The Finnish starlet was making his first start of the season for the second string and he netted after 42 minutes with an excellent finish from a seemingly impossible angle.

The move was instigated by Damien Plessis when his astute pass sent Alex Kacaniklic racing away down the left. His cross found David Amoo whose strike was well saved by Joe Collister, but Dalla Valle was quickest to react and the No.9 netted.

David Amoo and an own goal completed the scoring for John McMahon's side in the second half against a Tranmere side that finished the game with 10 men.

Another great boost for the squad was the return of Spanish starlet Francisco Duran also made his first appearance since November 2008, when he came on as a 73rd minute replacement for Chris Mavinga.

The former Malaga midfielder has battled back from three cruciate ligament operations - two on his right knee and one on his left.

Also back from injury were Nikola Saric and Gerardo Bruna who both enjoyed 45 minute run-outs.

The Liverpool Senior Cup holders will now face Everton or Skelmersdale in the final.

After four games postponed, John McMahon's side were playing their first game since February 1, and they were being watched by Rafael Benitez and Sammy Lee before the pair headed to John Lennon airport for their flight to Lille.

Reds heroes Kenny Dalglish and Phil Thompson were also in attendance.

For McMahon it was a match of sentimental value as he spent eight years at Prenton Park having been brought to the Wirral club by Kop hero John Aldridge, and also had a spell as caretaker manager of Tranmere.

Rovers fielded former Liverpool FA Youth Cup winner Charlie Barnett in midfield and had the experienced Chris McCready alongside the returning Ash Taylor in defence.

Playing on a superb playing surface at the Kirkby Academy, Liverpool quickly got into their stride with skipper Jay Spearing spraying some great passes around the field.

David Amoo and Alex Kacaniklic were always dangerous down the wings but the final ball and some good defending from Shaun Garnett's side was proving a tough barrier to break down.

The Reds went close when Spearing's clever header from a corner was hacked away in the six-yard box, but persistence was the key and the breakthrough came on 42 minutes when Dalla Valle pounced.

The second half started in dramatic circumstances when Tranmere were reduced to 10 men three minutes after the restart. Aaron Cresswell was shown a straight red card for a late challenge on Steven Irwin.

The Reds then nearly doubled their lead when Collister produced a great save on the stretch to deny Kacaniklic, and Bruna could only put the rebound wide.

Collister was called into the action again on the hour mark when he kept out Spearing's rasping low drive which seemed destined for the net.

However, McMahon's side weren't to be denied and Amoo made it 2-0 with a low finish from the edge of the box.

Dalla Valle could have made it 3-0 but slotted wide after a great move involving Bruna and Kacaniklic. However, the third goal duly arrived courtesy of a Tranmere boot when the Finn combined with Spearing whose cross was deflected into the net.

Overall, it was an excellent display from McMahon's side and Dalla Valle will take a lot of confidence after netting his first goal for the reserves.

Rafael Benitez: Pepe Reina's Passion Make Him The Perfect Leader For Liverpool

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has praised the leadership skills of his goalkeeper Pepe Reina, asserting that the Spanish shot-stopper sets a fine on-field example to his team-mates.

Reina's passion for the club is that of a supporter, Benitez asserts, and that level of enthusiasm can only have a positive effect on the shot-stopper's team-mates.

"Pepe is the man closest to the fans on the pitch," the coach told the Reds' official website.

"He listens to what they are saying and he knows what they are thinking and you can see the passion he has in the way he plays and the way he directs things.

"He is a fantastic character and he is proud to be here. He has a strong mentality and you can see that in the way he is in the dressing room and around the training ground. He is someone who always wants the best for this team.

"I think he has been playing really well and we are pleased with him. He is a top goalkeeper and has broken a lot of records since we signed him from Villarreal. We are delighted he is with us."

Reina, 27, is reportedly closing in on signing a new deal to extend his stay at Anfield and Benitez can only see him improving as time passes.

"Pepe will continue to get better," the Reds boss added.

"When you talk about goalkeepers who play for top teams, they don't tend to have that much to do during games.

"What sets them apart is being able to make important saves after they have not been busy and we have seen Pepe do that lots of times."