Thursday, April 22, 2010

Europa League Preview: Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool

The green light has been given and Liverpool will tackle Atletico Madrid this week in the first leg of the Europa League semi-finals.

The volcanic ash clouds had threatened the postponement of Thursday's European fixtures due to travel complications, but UEFA has confirmed that both this tie and Fulham's trip to Hamburg will take place as planned.

Thus, it is after a lengthy overland journey - at least to Bordeaux, from where they fly to Madrid - that the Reds will step out onto the Vicente Calderon, but they have cause to feel confident of securing a result nonetheless.

The Merseyside giants boast an excellent record against Spanish clubs; particularly in the old UEFA Cup, where twice they bested Barcelona over two legs and in 2001 went on to defeat Alaves in one of the all-time great finals in Dortmund.

It could be a good omen for Liverpool that this year's decider will also take place in Germany, at the HSH Nordbank Arena in Hamburg, but first they must negotiate an Atletico side who - like their English counterparts - will be determined to add some gloss to what has been an otherwise frustrating campaign.

For while the Reds are in danger of missing out on a top-four finish in the Premier League, the Rojiblancos' hopes of qualifying for Europe's upper crust are dead. They sit 10th in La Liga, some 15 points shy of fourth-placed Mallorca and nine adrift of sixth-placed Villarreal with five games to play.

Quite how the capital outfit are still kicking on the continent is something of a mystery when you consider that they have won just three of their 14 European clashes this term - two of those against Panathinaikos back in the Champions League play-offs.

And yet, remarkably, Quique Sanchez Flores and his charges could end the season with two trophies, as they are also through to the final of the Copa del Rey.

Whatever angle you take, this should be a fascinating struggle between two stumbling giants with a hell of a lot to prove - and a tight one, if the pair of 1-1 draws they shared in the Champions League group stage last term are any indication.


Atletico Madrid

Apr 17: Villarreal 2-1 Atletico (La Liga)
Apr 14: Atletico 1-2 Xerez (La Liga)
Apr 11: Espanyol 3-0 Atletico (La Liga)
Apr 8: Atletico 0-0 Valencia (Europa League)
Apr 4: Atletico 3-0 Deportivo (La Liga)


Apr 19: Liverpool 3-0 West Ham (Premier League)
Apr 11: Liverpool 0-0 Fulham (Premier League)
Apr 8: Liverpool 4-1 Benfica (Europa League)
Apr 4: Birmingham 1-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Apr 1: Benfica 2-1 Liverpool (Europa League)


Atletico Madrid

With the build-up dominated by speculation over whether a certain Spaniard would make a dramatic homecoming this week, rather overlooked has been the fact that Atleti will be without their own superstar striker as Sergio Aguero sits out through suspension.

Young midfielder Ignacio Camacho is still some way short of full fitness, but Tomas Ujfalusi and Luis Perea are available once more in defence.

Last starting XI (vs. Villarreal): De Gea, Alvaro, Ujfalusi, Perea, Lopez, Assuncao, Tiago, Simao, Jurado, Reyes, Aguero.


Will he or won't he? That was the question surrounding Fernando Torres as he strove to make himself available to face the club with whom he spent 14 years. Regrettably, another operation on his knee means 'El Nino' will play no further part this season.

Nor will Maxi Rodriguez return to his old stomping ground, as the Argentine midfielder - who left Atleti only in January - is ineligible for the Reds' Europa League campaign.

Defenders Fabio Aurelio and Emiliano Insua (both thigh), Martin Skrtel (foot) and Martin Kelly (knee) are out injured, but Ryan Babel returns after serving a ban for his red card at Benfica in the quarter-finals.

Last starting XI (vs. West Ham): Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger, Lucas, Gerrard, Maxi, Kuyt, Benayoun, Ngog.


Atletico Madrid - Diego Forlan

Liverpool were among the few clubs against whom Uruguay's star striker found the net during his Manchester United days, but since moving to Spain he has established himself as one of Europe's elite goal-getters. If he gets half a yard in the box, he'll find the net more likely than not.

Liverpool - Alberto Aquilani

The Italian playmaker has been sneaking into the first team more often of late, and on those occasions he has not disappointed. A big chance to start in Madrid and show his boss what he is capable of on the big stage.

Martin Skrtel Hoping To Give Liverpool A Boost With Europa League Return

Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel hopes to play a part in the remainder of the club's Europa League campaign as he gradually gets back to full fitness.

The Slovakian international has been out of action since breaking a metatarsal against Unirea Urziceni at the end of February, but is targeting the second leg of the Reds' semi-final with Atletico Madrid to return to action.

"I am working hard with the physios and I hope to play again before the end of the season," Skrtel told Liverpool's official website.

"I am feeling much better now and I can't wait to get back on the field again.

"A few days ago I started working with the ball again and the foot was better. I'm still not ready to join in full training yet but I'm getting there.

"I have missed two months and I'm not happy when I can't play. It's been very frustrating because when I first got the injury, I couldn't drive or do anything so it was hard, but I have had great support from my family, teammates and the physios."

Rafael Benitez's side must do without Skrtel for the first leg, which takes place at the Vicente Calderon on Thursday. Despite an unconventional trip to the match - mostly by train thanks to volcanic ash grounding flights from the UK - Skrtel is confident the team will put themselves in position to win the tie at Anfield next week and progress to the final in Hamburg.

"I am confident the lads can do a good job and beat Atletico," he said.

"We have the second game in front of our fans and I think we will beat them at Anfield.

"It's the second most important competition in Europe after the Champions League and we want to win it. It would be special to win my first medal with Liverpool and I hope to get back and try and help the team."

Ryan Babel Returns For Liverpool's Atletico Madrid Clash

Ryan Babel has returned to Liverpool's squad for their Europa League semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid on Thursday.

The Holland international has served a one-match suspension for his sending-off in the last-eight first leg against Benfica and provides a welcome boost to manager Rafael Benitez, whose Liverpool squad has been ravaged by injury.

A big blow for the Reds was striker Fernando Torres knee operation ruling him out for the rest of the season, while defenders Fabio Aurelio, Emiliano Insua (both thigh), Martin Skrtel (foot) and Martin Kelly (knee) were all left behind in Merseyside to continue their rehabilitation.

The Dutch forward provides some respite to Benitez's team selection problems and many will be glad to have the 23 year-old's mercurial attacking threat back in the frame. Babel already has a Europa League goal to his name this season in three appearances.

Rafa Does His Homework

Rafa Benitez hopes his inside information on Atletico Madrid will help to prolong Liverpool's European adventure.

The Reds tackle Spanish opposition in the semi-finals of the Europa League, with the first leg at Vicente Calderon scheduled to take place on Thursday.

Liverpool's preparations for the game have hardly been helped by the travel chaos sweeping the continent, caused by the volcanic ash problem, but they will be ready for action by the time kick-off arrives.

Benitez has also been doing his homework on a dangerous Atletico side, keen to make sure he is prepared for whatever the Primera Liga giants throw at him.

He has quizzed former Atletico aces Fernando Torres and Maxi Rodriguez on what to expect and feels Liverpool are now fully equipped to deal with the challenges which lie ahead.

Benitez said: "They have a very good offensive team. People always talk about Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan but they also have Simao and a good attacking mentality as a team.

"Aguero is a good player for them and is out of the first game. That could be good for us, but you never know. I am sure they will be dangerous anyway.

"I spoke with Maxi and Fernando about them. They have some friends there so we managed to get some information about them. We have some ideas of how to stop them."

Benitez is also hoping that Liverpool can take strength from their unusual travel arrangements, which have seen them make the journey to Madrid by coach, train and plane.

"You have to try to find the positives when you are in this kind of situation and it is vital that everyone stays together when you have a problem," said the Spaniard.

"Of course this isn't ideal and we would have preferred to have flown but, you never know, maybe something like this can work in your favour.

"The players are all happy, staying really positive, even though they might be a little tired, and that for a manager is positive to see.

"It has been a bit different to what we are used to but the main thing is that we have been organised."

Yossi Benayoun Happy To Stay At Liverpool But Refuses To Rule Out Future Move Away From Club

Liverpool winger Yossi Benayoun has stated that an imminent move away from the Merseyside club is unlikely, moments prior to his side's clash with Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-final.

The 29-year-old Israeli feels that the club's future in European competition will not be a deciding factor with regards to his immediate plans, although Benayoun has not ruled out a future move away from the Anfield club.

"I have three more years left on my contract here at Liverpool but I’d rather concentrate on the present and see out this disappointing season," he told the Mail Online.

"As far as I am concerned, failure to reach the Champions League should not be a reason not to continue at Liverpool. At the moment, I’m at one of the world’s biggest clubs and I’m enjoying it here.

"I have a few good seasons left in me and hope that the pinnacle of my career is still ahead. I still might receive an offer in the future which could not be turned down. Who knows?"

Benayoun has made 130 appearances for the Reds in all competitions during his career, scoring 28 goals.

Benitez Move To Juventus Held Up By £16 Million Clause

Liverpool FC manager Rafa Benitez is on the verge of signing a pre-contract with Juventus according to Italian daily Tuttosport, however a conclusion to the deal is being held up by Benitez’s refusal to resign and relinquish his large severance clause in his Anfield contract, estimated at £16 million.

Rafa Benitez has been linked with a move away from Anfield following a poor campaign this term in which Liverpool FC are unlikely to qualify for the Champions League, with Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur the two main contenders for fourth spot.

On top of the poor on-field campaign Liverpool FC have been spiraling into chaos off the pitch, with George Gillet and Tom Hicks putting the club up for sale last week. Reports in Italy suggest that Juventus Chief John Eikann has told Juventus chief’s to wrap up a deal for the Spaniard with the Italian giants positioned seventh in Serie A.

According to reports in Italy Liverpool FC boss Rafa Benitez is refusing to resign and join Juventus as he would have to wave all severance clauses in his contract, missing out on a potential £16 million. The Anfield boss currently has four years remaining on his contract at the Merseyside club.

Benitez is reportedly expecting Juventus to agree to compensate him with the £16 million future earnings, before he signs a pre-contract with the Serie A club.

McMahon: Progress Has Been Made

John McMahon admits there are many positives to take from this season despite the last-gasp defeat by Everton ending their Barclays Premier Reserve League North title hopes.

Jose Baxter's stoppage time fierce drive which struck the underside of the crossbar and crossed the line took the three points for Andy Holden's side, but it was tough on Liverpool who created some decent openings in the second half.

"It's disappointing to be out of the title race but we have seen a lot of progression and development in these younger players," McMahon told

"The team in recent weeks has been different to the one that started the season and we have had to give a lot of the young lads a chance but they have done well.

"We feel as though we are going in the right way and hopefully some of these lads will have given the boss something to think about."

Reflecting on the defeat to Everton, McMahon admitted it was a good response by his side following Friday's poor showing at Burnley.

"It was disappointing to lose so late in the game as I thought we were the better side and dominated the game," he added.

"I thought the commitment was good and we competed well. We were exciting going forward and they showed good things out there.

"We had some young lads out there like Nicolaj Kohlert which did well. He is still only 17 and has not played much this season but credit to him and he kept going and working hard for us.

"We have two games left now and we want to finish as strong as possible with two good performances."

McMahon also had words of encouragement for David Amoo who was in great form during the mini-derby.

"David is capable of playing like that," he added.

"He is one of those lads who needs confidence and encouragement but on his day he can be a real threat. When he gets the ball he is really exciting."

Blues Stun Young Reds

Jose Baxter struck a dramatic injury-time winner as Liverpool Reserves slumped to a 1-0 defeat against Everton in the mini-derby at Prenton Park on Tuesday evening.

A tense contest saw little by way of clear cut chances, but the Reds' second-string turned in a battling display against a Blues side that contained several first-team fringe players.

And it was one of those, Baxter, who fired home a volley in the 90th minute to harshly condemn Liverpool to a fourth successive defeat.

The result means Liverpool's outside hopes of being crowned Barclays Premier Reserve League North champions are over, but John McMahon will no doubt be pleased by the character shown by his men after suffering three back-to-back losses which derailed their title charge.

Ahead of the game, the second-string boss acknowledged his side's hopes of lifting the Championship had been all-but ended by the disappointing Friday night defeat in Burnley.

That loss at Turf Moore had been described by McMahon as one of his team's worst performances of the season - and the gaffer demanded a response from his troops against their Everton counterparts, particularly as it was still mathematically possible for his charges to end the term with the trophy.

His team selection included several promising youngsters such as 17-year-old Czech defender Jakub Sokolik, John Flanagan, Nicolaj Kohlert and Lauri Dalla Valle.

The Blues, meanwhile, selected a powerful starting XI that included the likes of Philippe Senderos, Victor Anichebe and Baxter.

The opening exchanges were typically frenetic and Gerardo Bruna fired an early warning shot, curling wide of Ian Turner's far post from a difficult angle inside the opening two minutes, while at the other end, Baxter drilled over from distance.

However, chances were proving scarce for both sides in a gritty first-half contest, with neither able to enjoy a sustained period of possession.

It was David Martin who was forced to pull off the first save of the evening when the Liverpool goalkeeper got down well to palm Baxter's stinging low free-kick around the base of the post on 27 minutes.

The Blues went closer still moments later as Victor Palsson's misplaced pass allowed Nathan Craig to send Anichebe bearing down on goal. The striker's low shot beat Martin, but lacked power allowing Palsson to make amends by clearing the danger from inside the six-yard box.

Everton quickly regained possession and Craig swung in a cross from the left, which was met by a downward header by James Wallace, but Martin was able to gather.

The Blues were beginning to build up a head of steam and Anichebe steered an effort narrowly wide after plucking Senderos' cross out of the air on 38 minutes to ensure the game remained scoreless at half-time.

Liverpool should have broken the deadlock six minutes after the restart as Nicolaj Kohlert's flick played Bruna into space in the left channel of the box, but the former Real Madrid starlet's low drive was repelled by the legs of Turner.

Back came the Blues and only a fine challenge by Palsson prevented Anichebe from getting a clear strike on goal. With Martin out of position having attempted to close down the forward, Craig delivered a cross back into the area, which was nodded wide of the open goal by Baxter.

There was suddenly a much more open feel to proceedings and Bruna cannoned a volley against the legs of Senderos when well positioned as the Reds took their turn to attack.

Amoo then powered past Luke Garbutt on two occasions, but both times his low cross to the near post intended for Dalla Valle was cleared by Everton defenders.

Liverpool were in the ascendancy and after Bruna's jinking run had fashioned a shooting chance for Kacaniklic, whose effort was blocked, Amoo drilled into the side netting.

Amoo's influence was growing and his powerful surge from the halfway line resulted in the youngster hammering a strike narrowly over the bar on 68 minutes.

With eight minutes remaining, the livewire winger caused havoc in the Everton defence once more, and his low centre found Kohlert in space, but the strike was blocked brilliantly by the diving Turner.

As time ebbed away, Bruna clipped a free-kick over the right edge of the box as the home side pressed in search of a winner, but it was Everton who won it in stoppage-time when Baxter's stinging volley struck the underside of the crossbar and bounced over the line to leave the young Reds heartbroken.