Thursday, September 30, 2010

Europa League Preview: Utrecht vs Liverpool

Liverpool travel to the Netherlands to take on FC Utrecht in the second round of fixtures in the Europa League on Thursday night, with both side's European form considerably better than their results on domestic duty.

Utrecht will have been pleased with their start to Europe League competition. Having overturned a two-goal deficit to eliminate Celtic 4-2 on aggregate in qualifying, the Dutch side started life in Group K with a resolute goalless draw against Napoli in Italy to secure a valuable away point.

Ton du Chatinier's side have not begun the new Eredivisie campaign looking like a Europa League side, losing four of their first seven games and kicking their heels in the bottom half of the table, 12th in a league of only 18 teams. They were overcome by AZ Alkmaar most recently, and also needed a penalty shootout to get the better of fellow strugglers De Graafschap in cup competition.

Utrecht made the home advantage count against Celtic however, and have proved difficult to beat at the Galgenwaard Stadium in domestic competition. They will be hoping to pile on the misery for Thursday's visitors.

The Reds have suffered an awful start to the season by their own high standards. Out of the League Cup at the hands of Northampton last week and sitting 16th in the Premier League after six games, the suggestions that manager Roy Hodgson is out of his depth have, perhaps prematurely, already begun.

Having bossed clubs around Europe, Hodgson knows his stuff on the continent, and the Reds will be hopeful of putting all their problems behind them in Holland on Thursday night, in their 300th Uefa club competition fixture.

All the omens are good for Hodgson's side, too. Having beaten Steaua Bucharest 4-1 in their opening fixture after a shaky spell, they now face a Dutch side and boast a fine record against teams from the orange nation, losing only once in 12 games, to Ajax back in 1966.



The hosts are carrying no new knocks following their loss to AZ Alkmaar, and could even opt to field a three-man attack, such is their positive outlook at home.

Possible starting XI: Vorm; Nesu, Wuytens, Schut, Cornelisse; Asare, Lensky, Silberbauer; Duplan, Van Wolfswinkel, Danso.


Hodgson will be without Paul Konchesky, who limped out of the 2-2 draw with Sunderland on Saturday, and with Fabio Aurelio still struggling for fitness, Daniel Agger is set to deputise at left-back.

The Reds boss has also suggest Raul Meireles, Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres could all start on Thursday, meaning David Ngog may miss out despite his goalscoring form in the competition this season.

Possible Starting XI: Reina; Kelly, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger; Poulsen, Meireles; Kuyt, Gerrard, Joe Cole; Torres.

Fernando Torres Is Fit And Ready To Fire On All Cylinders

Fernando Torres has overcome the persistent injury troubles which have plagued him for more than a year and is finally ready to return to his explosive best, according to Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson.

Two knee operations, as well as groin and abdominal injuries, hampered the Spain international last season, while his start to the current campaign has been affected by his recovery from a hamstring strain sustained just minutes after his introduction as a substitute in the World Cup final.

Though Torres has looked short of form and fitness this season, scoring just once, Hodgson has seen enough in recent weeks to convince him his totemic striker is getting his confidence back.

"Fernando is getting better and better," said the Liverpool manager. "He was behind our last four goals, two against [Manchester] United and two against Sunderland, and he will get confidence from that. I said all along it was just a matter of time and it is good to see him getting closer to his level.

"He trains every day like everyone else, he plays at the weekend like everyone else, so there is no reason now to separate him from the group. The injury problems are behind him. We have been keeping a close eye on him and we did not want to throw him in too often or too soon, but I would not dream of playing him tonight if I did not think he could play on Sunday.

"There is nothing wrong with his confidence – of course he would like a goal, because everyone knows goalscorers thrive on goals and when they dry up it affects them. But the thing with top goalscorers is you know that it will come again."

Hodgson has not yet decided whether the Spaniard will start at the compact Stadion Galgenwaard but two players he will definitely be without are Daniel Agger and Steven Gerrard.

Agger is rated as a doubt for Sunday's visit of Blackpool because of a groin injury, while Gerrard has been granted a rest by his manager as he recovers from a back strain, though Hodgson dismisses concerns that his captain's age is catching up with him.

"He suffers from back pain and we did not want to exacerbate the situation," he said.

"But Gerrard is the least of my concerns. I'm not in the slightest bit worried I will have to [rest him] regularly."

The Liverpool manager admits his decision to omit the 30 year-old was made significantly easier by his side's good start to the group stage – they beat Steaua Bucharest 4-1 – but that should not suggest Hodgson is taking his opponents lightly. Far from it.

While on paper this may have the air of a mismatch – Utrecht have never won a league title in their current incarnation, while Liverpool are one of Europe's most decorated teams – Hodgson is evidently a firm believer that all history is bunk.

"There is no point talking about respective histories," he said. "We are both here on merit. There is no point saying we won the league in 1970 or whatever and Utrecht has never won one. They serve no purpose. This is Liverpool 2010 versus Utrecht 2010."

Reds Linked With Danish Trio

Liverpool are reported to be keeping tabs on three players at Danish club Lyngby.

Emil Larsen is believed to be the Reds' top target and the 19-year-old midfielder has also attracted interest in Holland.

Kim Aabech, 27, and fellow forward Lasse Rise, 24, have also been impressing Anfield scouts with the newly-promoted top-flight club.

And Aabech has admitted he would welcome a move in the January transfer window.

"I would like to move during the winter and try something new," he told

Liverpool Join Napoli In Chase For Auxerre Ace

Liverpool have joined Napoli in the race to sign Auxerre's Slovenian playmaker Valter Birsa.

The 24-year-old is the heartbeat of the Auxerre side that qualified for this season’s Champions League after eight years without playing in the competition.

And Birsa also starred at the World Cup during the summer as Slovenia caught the eye alongside England in Group C.

But with his contract at the Burgundy-based club set to expire in June, Birsa could cost potential buyers as little as £2m in January.

According to reports in France, Auxerre have confirmed that scouts have been tracking the player, who has refused to rule out a January move.

"It is normal that as professional football player I want to improve," he said.

"I do my work and if it turns out to be slightly interesting it will be in hands of the club."

Hodgson Denies Striker Link

Roy Hodgson insists Liverpool were never in the market for Utrecht striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel this summer.

The 21-year-old Holland international, who will line up against the Reds in the Europa League on Thursday night, was one of a plethora of players linked with a move to Anfield in the transfer window.

But asked about the speculation by reporters in Holland last night, Hodgson said: "There was no question of him coming this summer. You've hit me with a name that I didn't know we were linked with.

"He's doing very well now and having a wonderful time with Utrecht. But I'd be lying to you if I said he was a player we'd considered before this."

van Wolfswinkel has scored 13 goals in as many games so far this term, including a hat-trick in a 4-0 victory over Celtic.

Hodgson believes this result provides further evidence that Dutch football is on the up once again.

And the Liverpool boss is expecting a severe test in the Stadion Galgenwaard.

"I won't say Dutch football is having a renaissance but it is enjoying a very good period," said Hodgson. "I was at the Ajax game on Tuesday when they played very well against AC Milan and probably deserved to win the game.

"We've seen Twente draw at home with the European champions, and Utrecht beat Celtic 4-0. We're playing a very good team on Thursday night and we'll have to be very good if we're going to get a result in the game.

"We knew when we got to the group stage that it would be a tough group because this competition is full of good quality European teams.

"We've played five games and won all five. We've had difficult games - two matches against Trabzonspor, a game against Steaua Bucharest. These are tough opponents."

Reporters probed Hodgson on how many points he felt would be required to qualify from Group K.

He replied: "Nine or ten would be my guess but I wouldn't put a bet on it if I were you because I'm not very good at these 'How many points do you need' games."

Alberto Aquilani Reveals Inter Interest Before Making Juventus Move

Liverpool flop Alberto Aquilani has revealed Rafael Benitez wanted a reunion at Inter before he made the season-long loan switch to Juventus.

Aquilani, 26, endured a difficult debut campaign in the Premier League after moving from Roma and headed back to Serie A this summer, while ex-manager Rafael Benitez took up the reigns at the San Siro having also left Anfield.

Speaking to Mediaset Premium, Aquilani confirmed the Champions League holders were interested in his signature but never made an official bid.

Aquilani said: "Inter wanted me this summer, they tried to get me. There was something, but nothing more."

The Italy international reaffirmed his fond memories of Anfield and backed Benitez to continue Inter's imperious form.

"Last season with Liverpool has been positive for me, despite the injury, although it is not easy to adapt to a different style of football," he continued.

"I had a good relationship with the fans and I would have remained with pleasure, but some things convinced me to change and I'm very happy to have arrived at Juventus.

"I have good memories of Benitez. He allowed me to go to an important club like Liverpool.

"He's a very important coach who will do very well at Inter. To replace Mourinho would be difficult for anyone but Benitez is tough and the right man for Inter."

Sammy Lee Admits Reds' Season So Far Has Been A 'Mixed Bag'

Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee has acknowledged that the Reds have looked a little out of sorts so far this season, struggling to find form and consistency.

However, Lee is confident that things will turn round soon as the club adjusts the new management regime headed by Roy Hodgson.

"It's been a bit of a mixed bag so far," Lee told the club's official website.

"There are a lot of positives we can take from every game we've played and there have been some negatives, but we tend not to dwell on that.

"We know we are not 100 per cent right, but we are working very hard to try and perfect what we are trying to do.

"It is a period of transition and change. People need to embrace that change. It will take time and the boss has said that.

"The table is quite tight and only a few points separate a lot of the teams, but what we need to do is to start turning possession into goals. If we convert the chances we are creating then we will be okay.

"We can see what we are trying to get out of the players and it is very much a work in progress."

A win rather than a draw at the weekend against Sunderland would have seen Hodgson's team climb to seventh place in the Premier League table.

However, Lee admits that fine margins are crucial in the English top flight and it is up to the team to improve.

"That's what this league is all about. There's a fine line between success and mediocrity," he said.

"We are certainly working hard to make sure we are on the right side of that line.

"What we are trying to implement is difficult at this time but the fans are with us and have stayed with us. It's important for the players because once they know they have the supporters' backing them they will try to win even more for them."

Liverpool face FC Utrecht this week in the Europa League with Dirk Kuyt set to go back to the club where his professional career began.

Lee is expecting a tough test from a team that beat Celtic 4-0 on its way to the group stages of the competition.

"Utrecht are a very good side. They have pace throughout their team and are very well organized. It'll be a difficult game," he added.

"We've been well briefed on them. Any side that beats Celtic 4-0 are going to be a difficult proposition, especially at home. I think they've won five out of their last six there, so we know they are solid team.

"It will also be an emotional time for both Dirk and John Achterberg [goalkeeping coach] - whose family come from there. It will be good for them to go back there and hopefully we will come home with the right result."

Kuyt had been absent with a shoulder injury until the weekend game with Sunderland. Lee is pleased to have such an important player back in the frame for selection for the game in the Netherlands.

He explained: "You like to have all your playing staff back and to have someone like Dirk available again is important because the contribution and experience he brings to the team is vital. The work-rate he puts in is phenomenal."