Thursday, April 29, 2010

Europa League Preview: Liverpool vs. Atletico Madrid

Liverpool's 4-0 victory over Burnley in the Premier League on Sunday afternoon propelled them to seventh in the table with 62 points from 36 matches, just two points off the fourth and final Champions League place. The Reds are five points clear of Everton, who are eighth, meaning that next season the former European champions will more than likely feature in Europe.

However, this season has largely been a disaster for the Premier League giants and the Europa League remains their only hope of salvation. Dumped out of the Champions League in the group stage, Rafael Benitez's side have done well to reach the semi-finals of the Europa League, but Liverpool need to do something special against Atletico Madrid on Thursday night if they want to reach the final of what is essentially Europe's second most prestigious club competition.

Liverpool's win at Burnley will certainly have boosted their confidence and Benitez will fire up his men for another special night at Anfield.

Atletico Madrid are already in the Copa del Rey final, and progress to the final of the Europa League will mean that between now and the end of the season the Mattress-Makers will have the chance to win two cup competitions.

This is indeed a great occasion for the 'other club' from Madrid, who have won no major trophies since 1996, when they did the league and cup double in Spain. Like Liverpool, Atletico were relegated from the Champions League to the Europa League at the end of the group stage, but before their victory over the English giants at home last week, the former European Cup finalists had won just once in Europe since their Champions League qualifiers against Panathinaikos back in August.

Atletico are struggling in the Primera Division at the moment, but they did win 3-1 against Tenerife at home at the weekend. Atleti have no hope of getting a Champions League spot, but they would certainly like to remain in the hunt for European silverware after the match against Liverpool at Anfield.



April 25 v Burnley (A) - WON 4-0 (Premier League)

April 22 v Atletico Madrid (A) - LOST 1-0 (Europa League)

April 19 v West Ham United (H) - WON 3-0 (Premier League)

April 11 v Fulham (H) - DREW 0-0 (Premier League)

April 8 v Benfica (H) - WON 4-1 (Europa League)

Atletico Madrid

April 25 v Tenerife (H) - WON 3-1 (La Liga)

April 22 v Liverpool (H) - WON 1-0 (Europa League)

April 17 v Villarreal (A) - LOST 2-1 (La Liga)

April 14 v Xerez (H) - LOST 2-1 (La Liga)

April 11 v Espanyol (A) - LOST 3-0 (La Liga)



Fernando Torres will be out of the second leg just as he missed the first. Midfielder Maxi Rodriguez is ineligible and while Alberto Aquilani started against Burnley in the Premier League at the weekend, it is likely that he will be on the bench on Thursday night. David Ngog, who complained of a back problem after the game at the Calderon, should be fit for Thursday night's fixture.

Probable Line-up (4-2-3-1): Reina, Agger, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Johnson; Mascherano, Lucas; Gerrard, Benayoun, Kuyt; Ngog

Atletico Madrid

Tiago and Ibrahima are ineligible for the Europa League. Tomas Ujfalusi has recovered from a groin strain and will start at Anfield. Sergio Aguero returns from suspension and will partner Diego Forlan upfront. Mariano Pernia and Pablo Ibanez have not been selected for the trip to Anfield by Atleti coach Quique Sanchez Flores.

Probable Line-up (4-4-2): De Gea, Ujfalusi, Perea, Antonio Lopez, Alvaro Dominguez; Simao, Paulo Assuncao, Raul Garcia, Reyes; Forlan, Aguero


Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

Thursday night will be one of those nights when Liverpool need inspiration, and who better than 'Captain Fantastic' Stevie G to provide them with that. The England international midfielder had one of the few clear chances for the Reds last week at the Vicente Calderon and with Liverpool missing striker Fernando Torres yet again, Gerrard, placed 91st in the Castrol Rankings, will be the Reds' main hope.

Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid)

Although Atleti looked the better side in the attacking department at the Calderon last week, there was something missing, and that something was Sergio Aguero. The Argentina international returns for the second leg of this mouth-watering semi-final clash and his presence upfront will be a headache for the Liverpool defenders. The 21-year-old, placed 64th in the Castrol Rankings, has struck 12 times in the league this campaign and his partnership with Diego Forlan is likely to breach the Liverpool citadel at Anfield.

Ryan Babel Happy To Play The Lone Front Man For Liverpool Against Atletico Madrid

Liverpool's forward Ryan Babel is ready lead the club's frontline in the Europa League showdown with Atletico Madrid on Thursday, if called upon by manager Rafael Benitez.

The mantle could fall to the Holland international to reprise the role he fulfilled during his Ajax days, with Fernando Torres sidelined for the rest of the season and both David Ngog and Dirk Kuyt still major doubts for the semi-final clash.

The 23 year-old has played in all six of Liverpool's European adventures this year and is anticipating another famous Anfield European night to fire his team into next month's final in Hamburg.

"Playing as a striker is a nice role because I spent all my youth there so that’s why I like it," he told reporters.

"It’s a very big game and another chance to win something and to make a success of this season, which is definitely important for the club and also for the players.

"It’s a good thing that the second leg is at Anfield also as we have come from behind before so I have confidence that we can do it again.

"For everybody, I think it’s clear that we have the fans behind us and an atmosphere that can make a very big difference."

Rumours spread in January about whether Babel would stay at Anfield much longer, after his omission from the squad that traveled to face Stoke City prompted an outburst at manager Rafael Benitez on Twitter.

However he has since had clear the air talks with his Spanish boss and now he is clear of his role within the squad, he is focused on the rest of the season and Liverpool's European ambitions.

He said: "I am happy because we have discussed everything and I have great things to look forward to. This is a big club and I am aware that I am a part of this.

"It makes it easier now I know what the club expects from me."

Babel remained coy on his World Cup prospects with Holland, refusing to comment on his chances of making the Dutch squad.

"To be honest, I am just focused now on Liverpool so the World Cup will be something I will think about at the end of the season."

Liverpool New Boy Jonjo Shelvey Will Be 'Ideal Replacement' For Steven Gerrard: Former Coach

Liverpool's latest signing Jonjo Shelvey can grow into the perfect long-term replacement for Steven Gerrard, according to the 18-year-old's former physical education teacher.

The Reds confirmed on Wednesday that the England Under-17 midfielder will join the club from Charlton Athletic on May 10, after undergoing a successful medical at Melwood earlier this week. The fee is believed to be an initial £1.7 million, rising to £3m depending on appearances.

Ackred Atkinson coached Shelvey at school, district and county level, and told UK in an exclusive interview that he feels the Romford-born starlet can be moulded into the ideal successor to Liverpool skipper Gerrard, and even has the potential to emulate his illustrious new team-mate.

"I would say Jonjo is in that exact mould," said Atkinson. "He would be the perfect replacement for a player like Gerrard. If you are talking about how far Jonjo can go in the game, I would say all the way; he is a fantastic player."

Atkinson added that Shelvey was always highly rated at Brentwood County High School, and revealed that the youngster possessed outstanding physical and technical attributes.

"For sure, he was always head and shoulders ahead of the other boys," he said. "We had a few lads of similar ability - a couple have gone to Leyton Orient and to West Ham United - but he was on another level.

"He had a real intimidating presence, being tall and strong, and he certainly used to stand out in every game he played.

"He began by playing as a centre-back, but his ability on the ball and with free-kicks - which he would smash in left, right and centre - meant he was quickly moved forward into midfield, where he has of course made his career so far."

Shelvey is said to have rejected a move to Chelsea upon signing professional terms at Charlton on his 17th birthday, and is known to be a huge West Ham supporter, so does his decision to leave London and join Liverpool surprise Atkinson?

"It does surprise me in a way," he said. "I think when he signed for Charlton, he wanted to show his loyalty to a lesser club. Of course he is a West Ham boy deep down, and it was always expected that he would end up there, but you never know whether they will be a yo-yo club.

"I think Liverpool, in the best possible way, still has that 'English-ness' that may have attracted Jonjo. Compared to the likes of Arsenal or Chelsea perhaps, Liverpool might seem a more appealing destination. Especially with someone like Gerrard there as the ideal role-model."

Atkinson also revealed that Shelvey keeps in touch with his old school, and supports the P.E. department on open days. He even texted his old school team manager to let him know of his move to Anfield, an indication of his growing maturity.

"He did have temperament issues as a younger player," says Atkinson. "But I think as he has grown and been immersed in a professional environment, they have been ironed out.

"He was always totally dedicated to his football, that was always clear, and it is always nice to see him when he pops back into the school. He often helps out with open days and things like that, and he sent me a message to say he was on his way to Liverpool on Monday.

"We are all delighted for him, and hopefully we will be hearing a lot more about him in the coming years!"

Jonjo Shelvey Agrees To Join Liverpool FC

Liverpool FC have sealed the signing of England under-17 international Jonjo Shelvey for an initial fee of £1.7m.

Shelvey has passed a medical and agreed personal terms and will complete his move to Anfield from current club Charlton Athletic on May 10.

Liverpool FC managing director Christian Purslow said: "Jonjo is an exciting young England international. His signing is part of our long-term strategic recruitment plan and we all look forward to welcoming him to Melwood (training ground)."

The fee also contains a number of potential add-ons, relating to domestic and international appearances.

Shelvey has made 48 appearances for Charlton since becoming their youngest ever player when he made his debut aged 16 years and 59 days in April 2008.

He is also their youngest goalscorer in both the league and FA Cup and established himself as an important part of the League One side’s first team this season, scoring four goals in 27 appearances in all competitions.

Charlton chairman Richard Murray said: "It’s with the greatest reluctance that we have accepted an offer for Jonjo from Liverpool.

"No club likes to lose such a talented prospect, but the overall package is one we couldn’t refuse, and one which was very attractive to Jonjo.

"As a club, we have never stood in the way of any of our young players moving to ’bigger’ clubs, and this also applies to Jonjo.

"Liverpool are going to develop him over the next few years to be a top player, and I can’t think of a better place for him to go."

The two clubs also revealed that they are in talks over "a strategic partnership involving the development of players in both directions" following Shelvey’s move to the Barclays Premier League.

Liverpool Readying Sensational Bid For Man City Hit Man

Rumours have been circulating over the last few days that Carlos Tevez is far from happy at Man City and that he is on the verge of demanding a transfer with Liverpool seen as a likely destination.

At first the story was seen as pure gossip but now both the Spanish and Italian media are also running with the story and in fact the Italians are fairly confident that Tevez will be at Anfield next season partnering up with his old mate Javier Mascherano and forming a world class partnership with Fernando Torres.

The story goes that Liverpool can afford to pay up to £18 Million and that Man City may well be interested in accepting the bid rather than keep a player that is unhappy in the dressing room, they may even use Tevez has bait to tempt Liverpool to sell Anfield captain Steven Gerrard to City.

With other rumours linking Benitez with the manager’s job at City next season and repeated speculation linking both Gerrard and Torres with moves to City also one can expect that there will be a lot of communicating going on between Man City and Liverpool in the close season.

Chelsea Wants Thomas Ince To Shape Future

Chelsea want to poach Paul Ince’s teenage son Thomas from Liverpool as part of their drive for youth this summer.

Talented winger Thomas, 18, has been at Liverpool’s academy since he was 16 and is one of their most highly rated prospects. He is expected to make it into the first-team soon, at the club where his father spent two years.

Thomas has a year left on his Anfield contract and Chelsea scouts, under orders to bring bright young talent to Stamford Bridge, have watched him regularly. The club are trying to put together a deal to persuade Ince to come to London for the start of next season, but Liverpool are desperate to hang on to him.

Chelsea have also targeted two of Spain’s brightest starlets. Under-17 winger Pablo Sarabia, who plays for Real Madrid’s B team Castilla, has been watched extensively and could be signed for nothing at the end of the season, as he is currently involved in a contract dispute.

Sarabia is also on Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger’s wish list and the Gunners have already made inquiries, while Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola is also keen.

The £16million-rated Under-21 midfielder Javi Martinez of Athletic Bilbao, linked with a move to Liverpool last summer, is also a Chelsea target, with Blues owner Roman Abramovich wanting to place the emphasis on younger, cheaper talent.

Rafael Benitez Growing Frustrated With Juventus Link

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is growing tired of the rumours surrounding his future at the club, with constant speculation the Spaniard will jump ship to Juventus in the summer.

Benitez has been forced to prepare for Thursday's Europa League semi-final second leg against Atletico Madrid amid the constant distraction of rumours and admits the speculation is starting to frustrate him.

"I don't like [the rumours]," Benitez told reporters ahead of the game at Anfield.

"I would like to see news in the press about trophies, or goals or fantastic performances about players but you cannot control everything.

"My future is Atletico Madrid. We have to concentrate on this game and try to win because it is the best for the club."

With the club having signed 15-year-old Raheem Sterling from QPR earlier in the season, Benitez expects further English additions in the near future as he follows a carefully prepared transfer plan.

"We have been working for years; I was trying to sign Gareth Barry before and Glen Johnson was the same idea - we were trying to bring in British players with passion," he said. "Players who could feel what it means to be a Liverpool player."

Benitez Free To Pursue Potential Juve Move

The attitude of the Liverpool hierarchy towards Rafael Benitez is that they will not stand in his way if the well-trailed offer from Juventus is finally put to their Spanish manager, but both parties regard that situation as still a long way off.

The pressure has been building this week, with more leaks from Italy suggesting that Benitez, who has four years left to run on his Liverpool contract, will be the subject of a £16m, four-year deal from the Italian club. While the Italians are not yet near to putting a formal request to Liverpool there is the sense that the move will speed up over the next few weeks.

Senior figures at Liverpool have indicated that – unlike in the past when Benitez has parlayed his popularity with the fans into improved contracts and greater influence at the club – this will not be the case should Juventus’ offer turn out to be genuine.

Benitez was in a much stronger position in March last year when he signed his existing deal at Liverpool – a four-year extension to 2014. With the club's American co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks desperate to keep some semblance of stability to attract potential buyers, Benitez was regarded as untouchable 11 months ago.

His agent, Manuel Garcia Quilon, is considered by the club as a prime mover in the attempts to broker an agreement with Juventus, although not everyone in English football is really convinced that they have the resources to complete the deal. It is likely that there will be some interest from Real Madrid in Benitez this summer, although the Juventus president, Jean-Claude Blanc, would push for a quick answer should the club put together an acceptable deal.

Rafael Benitez: Daniel Ayala Can Be A Great Defender For Liverpool

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez believes his young Spanish centre-back Daniel Ayala has the potential to become a "great defender" over the coming years.

The teenager impressed during his second league start of the season in the 4-0 win over Burnley on Sunday.

His first-team call up during a defensive injury crisis at Anfield follows an impressive season at the back for the reserves.

"Daniel has been really good for the reserves through the whole season and now he has had his opportunity in the first-team," Benitez told the club website.

"He is good in the air, he is focused all the time and he has the potential to be a great defender."

Benitez is seemingly thrilled with the 19 year-old's development and was quick to emphasise his contribution against Burnley

"We are really pleased with the progress he has made. Steven Fletcher is a good player and you could see that he had targeted Daniel and he tried to challenge him.

"But he got on with it and you could see that in the second half Daniel's game improved."

Daniel Ayala arrived on Merseyside from Sevilla at the start of the 2007/08 Premier League campaign and has made four league appearances this season.

Rafael Benitez Pleased With Steven Gerrard's Reaction To Recent Off-Field Gossip

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is impressed with the way Steven Gerrard has handled himself in the wake of recent rumours surrounding his personal life.

The midfielder's marriage has been the subject of much speculation in the past week, with some outlets reporting he had split from his wife Alex Curran, and moved into a Liverpool hotel.

After denying any truth to the reports, Gerrard showed his performances on the pitch would be unaffected by the distractions, scoring two goals in his side's 4-0 Premier League win against Burnley at the weekend.

After that display, Benitez is confident his captain will continue to be on top form for the club's remaining challenges of the season — starting with Thursday's Europa League semi-final clash with Atletico Madrid.

"It was important for him to score with all the rumours and he was playing well," Benitez said in his pre-match press conference.

"I think it has been very good for the team. Now we can concentrate on our game and try to do the best, like Gerrard the other day scoring two goals.

"We have a lot of belief and everyone is ready so we have to show this on the pitch.

"If he is a leader on the pitch the rest of the players will follow him."

The Reds are currently 1-0 down after the first leg against Los Colchoneros, but are hoping victory at Anfield will see them progress to the final in Hamburg.

Benitez is even hoping to channel the memory of a past Anfield success to ensure his side get the right result.

"I was talking with the laundry man before I left Melwood and he told me 'I think about the game against Olympiacos','' Benitez revealed, referring to Gerrard's stunning late strike which secured a 3-1 win and the two-goal cushion needed to progress out of the Champions League group stage in 2004. The Reds went on to win the competition.

"We will take this, 3-1. The people believe so the staff have to believe and the players have to have belief too. It will be massive to be in another final so I think everyone will be pushing.

"These games are easy for me in terms of preparing the team talk. It is just to give two or three ideas about the game plan and then leave them to it as they are so focused to succeed.

"We have some players with experience in very important games. The main thing will be to push from the pitch and the players have to go there and show character, commitment and quality.''

Steven Gerrard’s Wife Alex Curran Dismisses Rumours Of Split

The wife of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has dismissed “ridiculous” suggestions that her marriage to the England player is on the rocks.

Alex Curran, 27, hit out at gossip which was fuelled by pictures of her out and about without her wedding ring. The Liverpool-born Wag told OK! magazine she was now keen to “set the record straight” and insisted the couple “don’t even argue”.

“There have been loads of rumours going around Liverpool saying that me and Steven have split up, that he’s moved into a hotel and ridiculous things like that. This always comes up every couple of years,” she said.

“It’s funny because we were saying the other day that we’ve never been happier.”

The model and fashion columnist insisted suggestions that her marriage was in trouble were completely unfounded, adding: “It doesn’t bother me too much as long as our close friends and family know the truth – that’s all that matters.”