Thursday, March 18, 2010

Can Liverpool Keep Their Season Alive By Beating Lille In The Europa League?

It is probably too far to stretch it by claiming that Liverpool’s next two matches have the potential of redefining their season. First up on Thursday night is the arrival of Lille in the Europa League, followed by a meeting against their old adversary Manchester United on Sunday at Old Trafford.

Looking to end the season on a high which has been lacking for the majority of the campaign, the Reds will head into their second leg with Lille with an uncharacteristic gentle spring in their step this week. Monday night’s swashbuckling 4-1 victory over Portsmouth was up there with Liverpool’s finest attacking displays of the season. Their devastating six minute spell in the first half in which they crashed home three goals to kill the match before the interval was a real confidence booster, in which the Merseysiders passing was top-notch and the team’s morale appeared to be visibly growing on the pitch.

Eden Hazard’s late free-kick handed Lille a slender advantage after their first leg, leaving Liverpool to walk a tightrope knowing that should they concede an away goal at Anfield, then the Reds will need to score three to book a place in the Europa League’s last eight.

Benitez will be forced into at least one change. Maxi Rodriguez is ineligible for European competition, and his place on the right of midfield is likely to go to either Dirk Kuyt or Yossi Benayoun, both of whom were rested as the Reds ran riot against Pompey.

Liverpool’s midfield may be shaken up further as, after netting his first goal since arriving at Liverpool last summer against Pompey, Alberto Aquilani could also be forced to watch from the sidelines with news that the Italian has been struck down with a virus. In Aquilani’s absence, Lucas Leiva will likely step into the breach.

Elsewhere, there is little selection news report. Martin Skrtel (foot) and Fabio Aurelio (thigh) will be out until at least next month. And although Javier Mascherano was limping towards the end of the Portsmouth match, manager Rafa Benitez has since dispelled fears that the Argentine picked up a serious knock. Liverpool’s defence, with Glen Johnson having returned to fitness, picks itself, as does the Reds’ attack which will be spearheaded by captain Steven Gerrard and Spanish super-striker Fernando Torres.

Liverpool, though, are unlikely to find Lille an easy team to turn over. After beating Grenoble 1-0 last weekend in Ligue 1, Rudy Garcia’s men are currently fourth in the French top flight, where they now have real ambitions of upsetting the odds to steal the title from under the noses of Bordeaux, Lyon and Marseille.

Lille will also undoubtedly pose a threat to the Scouse backline, being the top scorers in Ligue 1 with 51 goals in 28 matches this season. Unfortunately for the visitors though, star striker Gervinho will be missing with a knee injury, however having only failed to score in four matches this season the Ivorians’ absence should be managed by the Frenchmen.

The player Liverpool will be most concerned about is Belgian youngster Eden Hazard. A 19-years-old and having scored the winner in the first leg, Hazard has already forged himself a reputation to strike fear into the Scousers, being one of the most highly-sought after players of his generation. With his low centre of gravity, excellent technique and pace to burn, it would not be a stretch to place Hazard in the top bracket of players plying their trade in Ligue 1 this season.

Leading the Lille line will be Frenchman Pierre-Alain Frau, who has scored 13 goals in 31 appearances this season and is in the midst of his most productive season for some time. Alongside Frau, Polish winger Ludovic Obraniak, with five goals and four assists this term, will also look to join in the attacks from high on the left-hand side.

Looking more broadly around the Lille team, tough tackling Rio Mavuba will be employed as Lille’s enforcer in the middle of the park, while at the back Adil Rami, the giant centre-half, will not only prove himself robust in a defensive sense, but with three goals already this season he can also pose a threat from set-pieces at the other end of the pitch.

While Liverpool may be confident of claiming a win over Lille in front of the Kop, the bigger question will be whether they can shut out Lille to win the tie on aggregate. On that note the Liverpudlians have reasons to be slightly concerned as Lille have managed to score in every single away trip in the competition so far this season, and so a tense night of nail-biting may be in store on Thursday.

Rafael Benitez Urges Liverpool To Ignore Upcoming Manchester United Clash And Focus On Lille

Rafael Benitez has called for his Liverpool side to focus on the challenge facing them against Lille on Thursday, rather than be distracted by the forthcoming league clash against Manchester United.

After seeing his side defeat Portsmouth 4-1 on Monday, Benitez wants his players to maintain that same level of performance against the French side as they look to overcome a 1-0 first leg deficit, before they think about the trip to Old Trafford on Sunday.

"Now we have two important games. We have to concentrate on the first one [against Lille]," Benitez said on Wednesday.

"After that we will think about Man United but we cannot have an eye on the second one in case we make a mistake in this one.

"We will try to win because we want to progress in the Europa League and after that we will try to beat Manchester United."

Benitez believes the performance against Pompey on Monday has come at the right time for his side, and believes it will give them the belief to challenge for the Europa League - their only remaining chance at silverware.

"It will be positive to keep winning games, for the confidence of the players, but it's also an opportunity to win something," he said.

"We will try to do our best and we know we need to win to progress.

"I think they have quality, they also have some confidence now. The main thing is we will play at Anfield and we know what that means. We will have the fans behind us, so hopefully we will do our job properly and we can play well."

Alberto Aquilani Hands Reds Europa League Fitness Scare

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani missed training at Melwood today after suffering from a stomach upset.

The Italian turned in arguably his finest performance in a Red shirt to date when scoring his first goal for the club in Monday's 4-1 Premier League win over Portsmouth but was unable to take part in this morning's preparations ahead of the Europa League Round of 16 second leg against Lille.

The club are hopeful that Aquilani will be available for Thursday night's clash at Anfield, where the Reds must overcome a one-goal deficit to progress to the last eight of the competition.

Reina Set For New Deal

Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina will sign a new contract within the next month as he believes he can fulfil his dream of winning the Premier League with the Merseysiders.

Liverpool have not won the title for 20 years and another disappointing season saw them fall out of the race well before Christmas.

Reina has become a sought-after property after proving himself one of the best goalkeepers in the top flight.

However, he is more than happy to commit his long-term future to the club.

"It is really close and it (signing a new contract) is because they were good to me and I am grateful," said the Spain international.

"You will see something in a month or so. I am happy here and the club is happy with me so I have no problem at all.

"Talking to my family we believe there is no better place to be and that is why we will be here a bit longer, much longer."

Meanwhile Reina has also echoed team-mate Fernando Torres' calls for significant investment in players to make the club title challengers again.

At the weekend, in an interview with the Spanish press, Torres said the club needed to sign four or five quality players in the summer.

He intimated a failure to do so could be interpreted as a lack of ambition and may lead to him considering his long-term future.

Asked how long it could be before Liverpool would have a realistic chance of winning the title the Spain international said: "It is not a question I can answer.

"I can talk about the players but not the investment - that is not in our hands.

"But I hope we can compete with these kinds of transfers (by Manchester United and Chelsea) and spend some more money in the market, maybe go toe-to-toe with them.

"All I want and the team want is to be competitive as the others.

"There is nothing apart from winning the league with Liverpool once which makes me feel excited.

"That is a dream to get through and hopefully in a short period of time we will see it come true."

Reina's immediate future involves keeping a clean sheet at home to Lille on Thursday night as Liverpool try to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit from their Europa League last-16 tie.

The French side will be a difficult prospect, even at Anfield, but Reina insists the players are determined to turn things around as they are desperate to win some silverware to make up for a disappointing campaign.

"It is the only trophy we can lift this season so it is massively important," he added.

"A trophy is a trophy and it is always good. We are the first ones to know the season has not been good and we should have been better.

"But as long as we have got a possibility of winning a trophy it is important for the club and the players.

"Lille will play defensively with some pace and ability up front playing counter-attack and we have to be aware of that and manage that."

Dirk Kuyt: Liverpool Were Delighted To See Alberto Aquilani Score At Last

Liverpool forward Dirk Kuyt has revealed that the Reds' dressing room was a happy place after Alberto Aquilani scored his first goal in the 4-1 defeat of Portsmouth on Monday evening.

The game marked something of a return to form for the Reds after disappointing defeats at Wigan Athletic and Lille in the last week, and Aquilani's team-mates were also delighted that the Italian had at last found the net after a disappointing campaign for him.

"I was very happy for Alberto, as were all of my team-mates," Kuyt told his club's official website.

"He has been working hard all season to get fit and he wants to show his quality for Liverpool FC.

"He has already been part of a few good goals with assists this season and now he has got his first goal in front of the Kop. We are really pleased for him and hopefully there will be many more goals to follow.

"We were really happy for him in the dressing room after the game and it was a happy place to be. He has been waiting for this moment and it was a great goal. He deserved it.

"Alberto put in a really good performance and the assist for Fernando's second goal was of the highest quality. Hopefully he can keep this going and we are sure he can."

Kuyt was rested for the game against Portsmouth, remaining on the bench as an unused substitute. He was glad of the break ahead of testing games against Lille and Manchester United in the next few days.

"It was very important to get back to winning ways on Monday after a bad week for us," he added.

"Over the last two or three months we have kept lots of clean sheets and we know we can play better. We have to keep doing these things.

"It was a good performance from the team against Portsmouth and we scored some good goals. We can take a lot of confidence from it to take into Thursday's Europa League game with Lille."

Dalla Valle Seals Final Spot

Lauri Dalla Valle and Daniel Pacheco were on the mark as Liverpool Reserves reached the final of the Lancashire Senior cup after a 2-0 win over Wigan Athletic on Wednesday afternoon.

The Finn netted the opening goal with a clinical header from a corner just past the hour mark. It was a sweet moment for the No.9 after he scored in last week's Liverpool Senior Cup semi-final victory over Tranmere Rovers.

The corner came after Jay Spearing had almost scored with a rasping 25-yard drive that was brilliantly saved by Wigan's Serbian stopper Vladimir Stojkovic.

Dalla Valla had a quiet game overall but John McMahon has labeled him a natural goalscorer and that's what he does best. He had two chances, had one superbly saved and scored the winner from the other.

The second goal arrived two minutes from time when Pacheco scored after a jinking run and superb finish. The Spaniard was making his return to action after missing first-team games with Wigan and Lille last week because of a training camp with Spain Under-19s.

It was a hard-fought victory and John McMahon's side, with skipper Jay Spearing a calming influence in midfield, worked their socks off against good opposition.

The Reds are aiming for a possible treble this season with the league title in their sights, a place in the final of the Liverpool Senior Cup and now a chance to win the Lancashire Senior Cup.

Since the opening day 3-2 defeat at Blackburn McMahon's side have now gone 13 games unbeaten with 12 wins in the process.

The Reds also meet the Latics in the Barclays Premier Reserve League North next Thursday. McMahon was without the injured Chris Mavinga so Steven Irwin took over at left-back while Spearing and Damien Plessis linked up in central midfield.

Wigan also fielded a team with several experienced players and with former Liverpool and Everton defender Dave Watson in joint charge of their side alongside Graham Barrow, the Latics made a bright start to the game.

Left-winger Rachid Bouaouzan in particular caused Emmanuel Mendy endless problems with his trickery, until the Senegalese defender was forced to leave the field with an injury in the 34th minute.

Liverpool's best chances in the first half fell to Dalla Valle and Pachecho with the Spaniard missing two great clear chances.

After nine minutes Pacheco's superb pass gave Dalla Valle a chance. The Finn showed great strength to hold off the experienced Steve Gohouri but was denied by a superb stop from Serbian stopper Vladimir Stojkovic.

The game was developing into a physical battle with Dalla Valle and David Amoo in particular on the end of strong tackles.

Wigan were always dangerous going forward with the classy Joe Holt and Polish schemer Tomasz Cywka casuing the Reds problems.

Cywka had two great openings - the best of them came from a sloppy Pacheco back pass that cut his defence wide open.

A misplaced pass then gave Pacheco a clear opening just outside the box but the Spaniard could only drag the effort wide of the goal.

Peter Gulacsi then showed his qualities when the Hungarian stopper produced a brave save to deny Cywka.

Bouaouzan then had the best chance of the half after 26 minutes when his curled effort beat Gulacsi but came off the post.

McMahon's side then had a golden opportunity to break the deadlock on the stroke of half-time when Irwin's brilliant cross from the right caused all sorts of problems. The ball fell to Pacheco who had a clear sight of goal but unfortunately he fired wide of the goal.

Liverpool stepped it up after the break and took their goals brilliantly. Wigan had their moments in the second half but the Reds held firm at the back with Daniel Ayala and Victor Palsson outstanding.

Steven Gerrard & Fernando Torres Are Special - Alberto Aquilani

Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani has hailed captain Steven Gerrard and striker Fernando Torres as he aims for a Champions League place.

The Italian scored one and made another for Torres during the Reds' 4-1 destruction of Portsmouth on Monday night.

And the emphasis is to continue moving forward with the help of the star duo.

"It's such a pleasure playing with Torres. Everything becomes easier with him. And with Gerrard. [They are] two special champions," he told La Gazzetta Dello Sport, as reported by

"I have waited plenty, but I am happy for the win that has taken Liverpool up to fifth place.

"We are hoping to finish in the Champions League places, and we must continue winning like this."

Liverpool clash with Manchester United on Sunday, but before that they take on Lille at Anfield in the Europa League on Thursday needing to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg.

Tom Hicks And George Gillett Take Liverpool Further From New Anfield

There are many bridges to cross before Liverpool's co-owners must decide whether to accept the Rhône Group's £110m offer for a 40% stake, but the bid lays bare the icy state the club is in.

The proposal's key detail is that not a penny of all those millions would go to Tom Hicks or George Gillett but, instead, would reduce Liverpool's £237m debts to Royal Bank of Scotland and the American bank Wachovia. Liverpool are only carrying that debt burden, or at least £185m of it, because the two Americans, who arrived as purported saviours in February 2007, borrowed the money to take over, then loaded the club with the responsibility to repay it.

Hicks and Gillett had said they would not "do a Glazer" and saddle the club with their own borrowings. But they did and now the new stadium they promised to build "as soon as reasonably practicable" cannot be contemplated until the debts they imposed are dramatically reduced.

Rhône's bid, the first firm investment offer the chief executive, Christian Purslow, is known to have received, would reduce Hicks and Gillett to a 30% stake each and pay nothing to them for the 20% they have ceded. Intimations from Hicks that the deal is not lucrative enough for him are unlikely to wash if no other firm bids are prompted by Rhône's offer. Hicks and Gillett are pinned to a deadline because RBS, which is 70% owned by the British public and last month announced a £6.2bn operating loss for the 2008-09 financial year, insists Liverpool must reduce their exposure to it by £100m by July.

Hicks and Gillett only ever came to Liverpool because of the unconvincing idea that to build the new stadium on Stanley Park, which has grown barnacles over a decade on the architect's drawing board, rich individuals were needed to stand behind the financing. Arsenal built the Emirates Stadium, a hugely more complex project in inner-city Islington than digging up a Victorian park will be in Liverpool, with no such personal funding or guarantees.

The Emirates was financed with £260m borrowed on the stadium's commercial merits, a genuine mortgage‑style investment recognised as the stand-out sensible Premier League borrowing in a morass of "living the dream" and leveraged buyouts. Having reduced their net debt steadily to £190m, Arsenal are scampering to the end of their fourth season at the Emirates with a Premier League title in realistic sight, while Liverpool, whose takeover dragged them back far behind where they were in 2007, are scrapping earnestly for fourth place.

In their official offer document, Hicks and Gillett set out that they were paying £174.1m for Liverpool, plus £11m that the professionals, including NM Rothschild, the bank, were charging for their services. Hicks and Gillett borrowed all £185m from RBS and took on further borrowing facilities of £113m for investment in the club: £298m potentially borrowed in total. Before their takeover, Liverpool had net debts of £44.8m.

"The families are well aware of the importance of investment in new players to achieve on-pitch success," Gillett and Hicks said of their intentions, "and as such are prepared to commit resources to make appropriate investment in the playing squad."

Of the stadium they said: "Kop [the families' holding company] shares the wishes and ambitions of the fans for the club to be playing top-quality football in a new stadium … Kop recognises that the new stadium will be a catalyst for the regeneration of the local area … Kop has indicated its intention … to commence the process of building one of the leading stadia in Europe as soon as reasonably practicable. Both George Gillett and Thomas O Hicks have experience in developing and/or operating sports stadia."

Among those warm, woolly intentions was one firm commitment relating to the millions Hicks and Gillett had borrowed to buy Liverpool: "The payment of interest on, repayment of or security for any liability due under the [borrowing] facilities will not depend to any significant extent on the business of Liverpool."

That, we now know, did not turn out to be the case. The £237m still owed to RBS and Wachovia is, strictly, due from the holding company, but Kop owns no other business except Liverpool. The club is without question being made to pay the interest and service the debt. In the most recent accounts, for the year to 31 July 2008, interest of £36.5m was paid by Kop, and Kop's income was wholly derived from the club – from television, commercial activities, and enraged supporters.

At 31 January 2009, the total owed to the banks was £313m, which still included the £185m Hicks and Gillett borrowed to buy the club in the first place. Uncertainty over whether the pair would be able to extend their bank loans led to the auditors' famous warning of "a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt" over whether Liverpool would even be able to "continue as a going concern".

That the club's debt is now stated to be £237m indicates that Hicks and Gillett have been forced to put solid money in to reduce it, including £60m as part of last summer's refinancing. Their cash investment is now understood to be £130m, much more than they must have hoped when they borrowed all that money in the sunny bubble of the borrowing boom. Now, in a credit crunch, RBS insists it must reduce the outstanding debts burdening its own hideous balance sheet.

Purslow, a former banker appointed last June to break the Anfield deadlock and find new investment, is understood to have five other parties from around the world who have inspected Liverpool's books, and he will hope Rhône's shrewdly calculated offer prompts others to bid.

Under their proposal, the New York-based Rhône Group would not receive interest payments on their £110m, because it is real investment, for shares, not more debt. Purslow's plan is that Liverpool, with the debt thereby reduced, may then be able to finance building the stadium, which Liverpool predict would have an Emirates-like effect on the club's earning power.

Hicks and Gillett were, in truth, only ever intending to borrow for the new stadium; there is no chance of that until the club's existing debts are reduced and, all the while, the cost has been rising, now to an estimated £450m.

First conceived more than a decade ago, woven into wider regeneration plans for the Anfield and Breckfield neighbourhoods, the new stadium is a more distant prospect for Liverpool now than it was when Hicks and Gillett arrived three years ago promising to build it. The debts with which their takeover saddled the club have to be reduced, to restore the club closer to where it was financially before they arrived, so that money can finally be borrowed to finance a new era.

Such are the charms of the leveraged buyout, at Anfield and Old Trafford, about which the Football Association and Premier League remain resoundingly silent.

Manchester United Angry As Liverpool's Steven Gerrard Escapes FA Probe

Steven Gerrard has escaped disciplinary action over for the use of his forearm against Portsmouth's Michael Brown in Liverpool's 4-1 win on Monday. The decision has incensed Manchester United and led to allegations that the Football Association has employed double standards. Had he been found guilty of violent conduct, Gerrard would have been banned from Liverpool's trip to Old Trafford on Sunday. The collision with Gerrard knocked Brown to the floor.

United's anger stems mostly from the fact that the defender Rio Ferdinand was banned for three games for swinging an arm into the face of Craig Fagan during a 4-0 win against Hull in January. That punishment was increased by one match after Ferdinand appealed. The champions will not make official comment on Gerrard's case but privately they have admitted to being surprised by the verdict and not understanding why the Liverpool captain has been let off. The ruling is also likely to go down badly among Liverpool's rivals for the fourth Champions League place.

The FA says it cannot act because the referee concerned, Stuart Attwell, has maintained that Gerrard's offence did not merit a booking or a red card.

In Ferdinand's case, the incident was missed by the referee, Steve Bennett, who said that he would have shown a red card had he seen it. Attwell has told the FA that he was satisfied with how he dealt with the incident, by awarding Portsmouth a free-kick and speaking to Gerrard.

The United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, feels that his team are punished more severely than other clubs. At Ferdinand's hearing United's legal team cited the FA's failure to charge Liverpool's Javier Mascherano over a similar incident involving the Leeds striker Jermaine Beckford at Elland Road in September.

Attwell's view that he was in control of the incident is unlikely to improve his reputation. The youngest Premier League referee by some distance, at 27, he has become known for mistakes, most notoriously the award of a "ghost goal" in a match between Watford and Reading in September 2008.

Gerrard escaped punishment from the FA last week after making a two-fingered gesture towards the referee Andre Marriner in a 1-0 defeat at Wigan. Rafael Benítez, the Liverpool manager, responded to Monday's incident by substituting his captain.