Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Europa League Preview: Liverpool vs FC Utrecht

Not too much has been predictable about Liverpool's season so far. Pre-season optimism was quickly snuffed out by a terrible start to the campaign while boardroom machinations considerably complicated the situation at Anfield. Just as the crisis was picking up steam, Roy Hodgson's side enjoyed an unlikely victory against Chelsea and the revival began. Just as things started to look up though, Newcastle put the brakes on the Reds' upturn in fortunes.

However, the Europa League has provided a curious degree of stability to Liverpool's season so far. Hodgson has generally deployed a side full of younger talents and fringe players during the competition. The motley crew has already qualified as winners of Group K and should they defeat Dutch side FC Utrecht on Wednesday, they will equal a club record of nine successive home victories in Europe.

FC Utrecht themselves cannot qualify for the next phase of the competition and the trip to Anfield will be their farewell to European football for this season. Having said that, travelling to Liverpool is most probably the highlight of the competition for Ton du Chatinier's side and they will hope for a memorable victory. Utrecht has failed to reach the heights of last season so far this term, but are in a handy eighth position in the Dutch Eredivisie. They also boast one of Europe's in form strikers in the shape of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel .
While Hodgson is almost certain to play the kind of inexperienced side that has served him so well so far in the competition, Utrecht will most likely field a strong team including plenty of internationals in addition to star man Van Wolfswinkel. Technically, Wednesday's clash is a dead rubber, but Utrecht will hope to rescue some pride with a glamorous victory while Liverpool will be very eager to get back to winning ways in advance of a busy period of fixtures.

Strangely some of Liverpool's best performances this season have come when they have been missing key players. Roy Hodgson was full of praise for the young side that brought back a point from the trip to Steaua Bucharest in the last round of Europa League matches, while their comprehensive victory over Aston Villa at Anfield last week was achieved despite the absence of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Jamie Carragher.

Carragher is a long-term absentee with a shoulder injury while Gerrard is expected to return at the weekend against Fulham. Although it was thought that Torres is almost certain to be rested ahead of a batch of fixtures against the likes of Blackburn, Wolves and Blackpool, Hodgson has now indicated that the Spaniard will play.

Although the exact line-up is difficult to predict, three youngsters have been consistently impressive during the European campaign so far and should be given the chance to impress again. Defender Martin Kelly has looked very composed, not only in the Europa League, but also deputizing for Glen Johnson in the Premier League. Meanwhile, Jonjo Shelvey has given reason to believe that he may well fulfill his youthful potential and Spanish striker Dani Pacheco did well at Steaua Bucharest last time out in the competition. There is also every chance that Scottish centre-back Danny Wilson will come into the side in place of Martin Skrtel or Sotirios Kyrgiakos.

Hodgson has made it clear that David N'Gog will not be risked, having had stitches in a cut to his eye and so Ryan Babel should start up front. Milan Jovanovic scored at Steaua Bucharest and may also be given a chance. It will be interesting to see if Joe Cole plays a role and is given the chance to put in a confidence-boosting display.

Meanwhile, Dirk Kuyt is hoping that he will get to play against his former club, having starred at Utrecht between 1998 and 2003. He commented, "We play a lot of games in a season and obviously you can't play in every game but it would be nice to play against Utrecht at Anfield."

Tom Du Chatinier's side have enjoyed mixed fortunes of late. Two wins, two defeats and a draw in their last five games sees them in eighth place in the Eredivisie. On their day, they are capable of giving teams a bit of a hiding, as they showed in defeating NEC 4-0 last month. On the other hand, they have managed just two away victories so far this season. Utrecht can no longer qualify for the next stage of the Europa League, but have lost only once in the competition, away at Steaua Bucharest and two draws against Napoli and a goalless game at home to Liverpool in September show that they are to be taken seriously in European competition.

Their solidity begins at the back with goalkeeper Michel Vorm between the sticks. He is considered to be one of the best shot-stoppers in Holland and is also good in one-on-one situations. Although at only 6ft, he does not command his area as he might, Vorm has impressed enough over the last couple of years that he forced his way into the Holland World Cup squad, although he did not play in South Africa. At the back, Du Chatinier is likely to use a conventional back four with the experienced Alje Schut partnering Belgian centre-back Jan Wuytens at the heart of defence and Romanian international Mihai Nesu at left-back.

Utrecht can also call upon a talented midfield, which Liverpool will have to get to grips with. Danish international Michael Silberbauer is an elegant midfielder with an eye for a pass and he is likely to provide much of the creativity to make Utrecht tick. Dries Mertens will also provide a very real threat to the Reds' goal. The Belgian international is a dangerous attacking midfielder, who enjoys cutting in from the left. What's more, Mertens is in excellent form, having scored seven goals and provided ten assists already this season.

Talking of form players, look no further than striker Ricky Van Wolfswinkel. The 21-year-old poses an obvious physical threat at 6ft tall. But, more importantly perhaps he has a knack of being in the right place at the right time. He recently made his international debut and has a stunning nineteen goals to his name already this season.

Players To Watch

Liverpool – Jonjo Shelvey

Perhaps it is no wonder that Shelvey has progressed at a more rapid rate than most of Liverpool's promising youngsters, given that he has plenty of experience under his belt already. He became Charlton Athletic's youngest ever player at 16 years and 59 days and soon became their youngest ever scorer too.

Shelvey rejected the interest of Chelsea before Charlton finally cashed in on the youngster, Liverpool paying a not insignificant £1.7 million for the player last April. He has since gone on to captain the England under-19 side and has made an impact on Roy Hodgson's first team squad, playing three Premier League appearances and anchoring the midfield in the Europa League.

Shelvey's style brings about automatic comparisons to Steven Gerrard. Time will tell whether that eventually serves to help or hinder him. He has a real dynamism to his game and possesses the energy to be a very effective box-to-box player. Shelvey also has an eye for goal and can make things happen going forward. Considered something of a set-piece specialist, Shelvey is also capable of playing as a second striker. All in all, that £1.7 million could prove to be a real bargain for Liverpool in the long run.

FC Utrecht - Ricky Van Wolfswinkel

No question that Van Wolfswinkel is the star man for the Dutch side. He scored nine goals last season and has begun this term on fire, including a hat-trick against Celtic earlier in the competition. He also scored twice in Amsterdam to hand Utrecht victory at Ajax in October. This term is already guaranteed to be his best goalscoring season so far. There is a touch of Ruud Van Nistelrooy about him. Not only is Van Wolfswinkel a handful to deal with as a physical presence, but he has the same ability as Van NIstelrooy to be in the right place to score goals.

Newcastle United was linked to Van Wolfswinkel over the summer and Liverpool too were rumoured to be sniffing around the 21-year-old. His stock continues to rise and should he cause damage on Wednesday, don’t be surprised if the Reds are linked with him once more. Van Wolfswinkel has worked his way through the Dutch under-19 and under-20 sides and was handed his senior international debut against Ukraine in August.

Roy Hodgson Says Europa League Is A Tonic For Premiership Woes

This time last year, Roy Hodgson had just about had his fill of the Europa League.

The intense schedule of Europe’s second club competition was proving a drain on the resources of his modestly-assembled Fulham side and, though his side were making solid progress on the continent, the challenge of juggling domestic and European commitments with a small squad was proving tough.

One year on, the landscape has changed significantly. Hodgson, of course, guided that small squad on a memorable run to the final. And though they would eventually succumb to Atletico Madrid, Hodgson’s side enjoyed epic wins over the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and Hamburg en route. His reputation as a European specialist soared.

At Liverpool, this form has continued. Hodgson’s men ensured their place at the top of Group K with a 1-1 draw at Steaua Bucharest a fortnight ago, and victory against FC Utrecht at Anfield this evening would equal a club record of nine European home games unbeaten, first achieved by Bob Paisley’s great side in the mid-late 70s.

“It has been quite strange for me in recent years,” said Hodgson ahead of the clash, “Of all the European matches I have been involved with – and in my 35-year career I have been playing European games pretty much every year – probably about half of them have come in the last few years.

“I played 10 games with Viking Stavanger before I went off to coach the Finnish national side, I played almost 20 last season with Fulham, and we are already up to more than 10 this season, so I have certainly seen a lot of the Europa League.”

The game tonight, despite technically having no real relevance, should still attract a sizeable crowd to Anfield. Liverpool’s decision to allow under-17s into the game for free – as well as their distribution of free tickets to numerous local schools – has been widely applauded. Hodgson is eager to ensure his side delivers a rousing performance. Accordingly, he is expected to name a strong side.

“Yes, in terms of the group the game makes no difference,” he said, “If you are asking whether I would rather win the group by three points or on goal difference, I’d have to say I don’t really care.

“But this is Anfield, this is 40,000 people, this is a special occasion. I think great credit must go to the club for their decision to allocate free tickets for young supporters, but also great credit must go to the people of Liverpool. Their desire to watch the team, to watch matches here at Anfield is fantastic, and we will do our utmost to deliver a performance and a result to reward them.”

Hodgson has enjoyed a difficult start to his career at Anfield. Defeat to Newcastle last weekend leaves his side ninth in the Premier League table, but the former Fulham boss believes the Europa League represents a genuine chance to pick up a trophy, and says the Anfield atmosphere will ensure his side treats the game with the utmost respect.

“We have to take each game seriously,” he said, “It is important for us to win and to win well, but the only way you can win games and pick up trophies is by playing well

“As far as I am concerned, no matter what the game – whether it is a European game, a Cup game, or a friendly match – it is a privilege to be playing at Anfield. This is what people all over the world dream of; to play at Anfield in front of 40,000 people in a Red shirt is special.

“The message we drum into our players is that every game we play at Anfield is a special occasion. Tonight will be no different.”

Liverpool Eye January Move For Algerian Starlet Ryad Boudebouz

Liverpool's director of football strategy Damien Comolli will travel to France before the New Year to watch Sochaux star Ryad Boudebouz, UK can reveal.

The 20-year-old has emerged as the latest France-based target for the Reds as they look to rejuvenate their squad in January by signing potential stars.

Boudebouz has been watched by a number of top European sides this season and has most recently been linked with Tottenham and Lyon.

The Algeria international has been given a glowing reference by Steve Hitchin, the highly regarded scout that Spurs manager Harry Redknapp accused Liverpool of ‘nicking’ last month.

Now Comolli is set to cast his eye over Boudebouz in person as Liverpool step up their interest in a player he already knows well from his time as director of football at St Etienne.

Sochaux are reluctant to sell their star player but it is believed they would struggle to turn down an offer in excess of £4 million to take the player to Anfield.

“Liverpool have shown serious interest in him and Damien Comolli will come to watch him at a game in the next two or three weeks,” an insider told UK.

“It is looking very possible that he will sign for Liverpool – he is an exciting young player who needs developing but is capable of special things.”

Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson wants at least four new players in the January transfer window but it is believed Boudebouz would arrive at Anfield initially as a squad player and is considered one for the future.

Boudebouz is regarded as one of the most exciting creative midfielders in French football thanks to his close control, exciting dribbling and sweet left foot.

He featured for Algeria in the goalless draw against England at the World Cup last summer in a central position but is equally comfortable out wide. He has already scored some stunning goals in his career including a goal from the halfway line against Monaco last season.

Despite representing France at youth level, Boudebouz switched his allegiance ahead of the 2010 World Cup to Algeria, the country of his parents.

Steven Gerrard Battling To Be Fit For Fulham Clash

Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson has declared Steven Gerrard's return from a hamstring injury may have to wait an extra week.

Club captain Gerrard has not played for Liverpool in more than a month since picking up the injury on international duty with England in a friendly against France.

The England international was expected to be fit for Saturday’s home clash against Fulham, with manager Hodgson claiming as early as last week that the midfielder would be fit, however his return appears to be on the line.

Hodgson told reporters: “Steven Gerrard is not fit and will be touch and go for Fulham. He is training every day and training harder than anyone and doing the work with the sports science and fitness people.

"If you look the statistics after training every day as to who has done the most running it is probably Gerrard and Daniel Agger [who has a calf problem], as they are the two trying to get back fit.

"But they are doing it in a controlled circumstance; the sports science people are controlling their movements, their running, their turning and certainly their kicking.

"At the moment the sports science/conditioning people have not said to me 'You can have these two back in your training sessions' and I am still waiting for when that will happen.

"I am hoping against hope it will be towards the end of the week and they will be able to be considered for the weekend, in particular Steven who is ahead of Daniel, but I don't know if that is the case."

Although already back training, Hodgson has stated that he will decide on Thursday whether to include his captain in the squad to face Fulham, however, he is weary of bringing him back too soon.

The Reds boss added: “We have to be careful there is no risk of the injury reoccurring and I am in the hands to some extent of the sports science people as to when he can come back.

"I take their word for it and I can't really push the subject because I would be devastated if we brought him back too early.

"Wednesday is a day off for those who won't be playing against Utrecht and if he is going to start the game against Fulham I definitely want him back training with us on Thursday, that's for sure. That's the deadline."

Jonjo Shelvey Happy To Play Mind Games For Now

Young Liverpool midfielder Jonjo Shelvey is ready to continue his rapid development against FC Utrecht this evening.

The 18-year-old has already made eight appearances for Roy Hodgson’s side this season, and is set to be handed another start against the Dutch outfit at Anfield tonight.

“It’s a big game for us young lads,” he says. “It’s another chance to leave an impression on the boss’s mind. Hopefully I’ll get a start and I can show him what I can do again.

“It’s on television and so you want to go out there and show people what you’re capable of and why a club has bought you.”

Shelvey’s ascent since his arrival at Anfield from Charlton Athletic this summer has been steady, and though he has shrugged off premature comparisons with Steven Gerrard, he admits the Liverpool captain remains the perfect role model for any young midfield player.

“He’s the best central midfielder of all time, I think,” said Shelvey, “That game against Napoli (in which Gerrard scored a hat-trick) just summed him up, his drive and his determination.

“I think he’s the benchmark for young midfielders – he is for me. Everyone has someone they look up to but he’s the one for me. Hopefully I can achieve just half of what he’s achieved.”

The Europa League has proven kind to many of Hodgson’s young charges. As well as Shelvey, the likes of Martin Kelly, Danny Wilson and Dani Pacheco could all feature this evening, and the England Under-19 international says there is an eagerness amongst the club’s youngsters to secure regular places in the first team squad.

“I should be pushing more and more,” he said. “I can feel myself getting better in training each day. Hopefully I can get a starting place in the team and keep hold of it.

“You know you’re not going to start sometimes but you’ve got to leave yourself in the boss’s mind.”

'I'd Love Chance To Lift Trophy'

Conor Coady admits it would be a dream-come-true to captain Liverpool to Youth Cup glory - but insists underestimating Notts County could bring a premature end to their hopes.

The Reds kick off their bid for a fourth ever title with a tricky trip to Meadow Lane on Wednesday night and the U18s skipper has called for caution from a squad he feels are capable of going far in this season's competition.

He told "It would be unreal to win it. It really would be the icing on the cake if I had the chance to lift the trophy at the end of the season.

"We'll have to take it one game at a time and if we get past Nott County, we will look forward to the next draw. I think we've got a good team and it's now up to us to prove that on the pitch."

There is often concern of over-confidence when a topflight team is drawn to face lower league opposition - but not from Coady.

The England starlet has already heard good reports about the East Midlands outfit from some of his international teammates, as well as a Reds star currently on loan at Meadow Lane.

"When the draw was made I was away with the England U18s and a few of the lads told us that Notts County has some handy players so we know it's going to be a tough tie," he said.

"Tom Ince text me about it too. He told me that he had seen some of their kids play and that they shouldn't be underestimated.

"He said he was going to come along and watch the game at Meadow Lane so it'll be nice to have his support in the stands.

"It's possible it could be a very physical game. It's their game of the season playing against Liverpool so they'll give it everything they have got. It's up to us deal with that.

"I've heard a few of the lads may drop down from the reserves and that will only benefit us. I think our Youth Cup team this season will be very strong.

"We were all a bit gutted after the Watford game last year because we had high expectations after Leicester. We need to learn from that and take it into this season's competition."

Liverpool Star Torres 'Wants Out Of Anfield'

Fernando Torres does not want to play for Liverpool anymore - at least that's the opinion of respected football broadcaster Alan Green.

In his column in the Belfast Telegraph, Green points towards the performance of Torres in Liverpool's 3-1 loss against Newcastle on Saturday claiming the Spaniard was 'awful' and 'gave in far too easily'.

Green wrote: "One figure still stood out in a wholly abject Liverpool performance at Newcastle on Saturday evening and what was once a thought that was so outrageous it could never be uttered now needs to be said: should Liverpool sell Fernando Torres?

"I would not go so far as to claim that he didn’t try at St. James Park but he certainly gave in far too easily when confronted by an opponent, his touch was awful and his body language even worse.

"Unless he says something completely and convincingly different, it’s become obvious that he wants out of Anfield.

"Worse, so poor are the majority of his performances of late, his ‘market value’ decreases by the game. Torres is now nothing like the player that arrived and I’d love to know why."

Torres has hardly hit the heights of previous seasons at Anfield, but his performances for Liverpool in November - most notably his two goals against Chelsea - earned him the ESPN PFA Fans' Player of the Month Award.

And, despite criticism from some quarters, Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson has consistently outlined the complete faith he has in the Spain international - commenting that he expects him to be firing on all cylinders again for Liverpool in the not too distant future.

Likewise, Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard has stated that Torres' form in November showcased to everyone his potentially frightening ability.

Gerrard said: “He is showing why he’s considered one of the best strikers in the world. I love playing with him."

Torres is expected to get the chance to silence his critics tomorrow night as Liverpool take on Utrecht in the Europa League.

Roy Not Worried About Reds Job

Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson maintains that he does not have any worries over his future at the club and will carry on striving to turn things around.

The 63-year-old is under increasing pressure to deliver better results as his side languish in mid-table and are suffering from a woeful away record.

The Reds, who were in the relegation zone earlier this season, have won just one and have lost six away from Anfield despite their home form picking up.

New owner John Henry described the results as "unacceptable" in a fan phone-in on LFCTV, which has been seen as a thinly-veiled threat to Hodgson.

The former Fulham boss has bemoaned his team's lack of consistency and poor performances, and was in agreement that things needed to improve following their 3-1 defeat to Newcastle on Saturday.

However, he took a hard stance over questions about his job security, stating that he had no worries that New England Sports Ventures would keep faith in him.

"I don't have any fears, worries or concerns," he said.

"But if you put it to me 'You feel there is no chance whatsoever of you getting sacked' then I would be in a minority of one in that respect.

"It happened to Chris Hughton, it happened to Sam Allardyce, Martin O'Neill resigned - we are all in that situation.

"But as someone who prides himself as a professional, who knows his job and is comfortable with doing his job, then you would excuse me for not going down the route you want me to go down in terms of 'Who can we get rid of next?'.

"Because, basically speaking, unless there is a major inflow of cash into the club and the team is going to be changed from one moment to the next then whoever takes my place will be doing a similar job with similar players.

"The owners have made it perfectly clear they are in it for the long term and they are going to be patient; they realise it is going to take time.

"They realise we can't turn things around overnight and they also realize that the team I am working with is not the team I put together.

"You don't turn things around overnight and they are aware of the magnitude of the task but they are very focused on what needs to be done and I am convinced they will help me get it done."

Hodgson was speaking at a press conference ahead of what will be an ultimately meaningless visit of Utrecht in the Europa League due to his team having already qualifying for the next stage.

However, he became increasingly frustrated with the line of questioning about his job, and whilst accepting it was a part of the game, conceded that there was not much else he could say about the matter.

"Once again I come here to do a European press conference, playing Utrecht when we are top of the table, and I find myself answering questions about owners and whether I am safe - it is a sad situation," he added.

"I came here to do a European press conference, which I am forced to do for UEFA, when really and truly I am doing a phone-in with you

"That is the nature of the game, it seems to be the major preoccupation of the mass media because they want to see change.

"It doesn't bother me because I can't do more than I am doing, I can't work harder, I can't work better.

"I have great confidence in my ability, I don't think there is any reason not to have.

"I know the players are working as hard as they can to win matches for Liverpool and therefore me as manager.

"But if you have situations like last night when you have phone-ins to the owners you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know how that is going to go because we are not top of the league.

"Had we been top of the league it might have been different but we are not, we are ninth and we are Liverpool Football Club.

"You don't have to be Albert Einstein to work out more people will be unhappy with that than are happy with it."

Dirk Kuyt Takes His Lawyers To Court After Being Sued Himself

Liverpool FC midfielder Dirk Kuyt is taking his own lawyers to court after being sued for allegedly refusing to pay contractors more than £50,000.

The World Cup finalist was served with a writ by property managers Knight Frank after it oversaw an overhaul and extension of his south Liverpool home.

The firm managed the £400,000 contract and expected to be paid 11% of that sum for its fees.

But Kuyt is accused of not paying.

Knight Frank’s solicitors lodged papers at the High Court in March, saying the company planned to sue the 30-year-old Dutch international.

But five months later, Kuyt also issued a writ to law firm Withers.

It said if for any reason Knight Frank won its case against Kuyt, which he is staunchly defending, Withers should pay him damages or cover his losses.

A hearing about the case was due to take place at the Royal Courts of Justice tomorrow.

Kuyt’s lawyer Steve Morris, a partner at DWF, told the ECHO: "Confidential negotiations are progressing.

"It is ongoing. I do not think at this stage I can say any more than that.

"It is an ongoing piece of litigation that is currently still going through the courts."

The saga dates back to August 2008, when Kuyt asked Knight Frank to oversee work being done on his plush Woolton home.

The papers filed by Knight Frank said: "The claimant claims the sum of £50,600, being fees owed to the claimant for acting as contract administrators for a construction contract for refurbishment and extension works.

"The claimant acted as contract administrators until the conclusion of the works.

"At no time during the administration of the contract did the defendant [Kuyt] express dissatisfaction with the claimant’s services.

"Following the submission of the invoice, the defendant’s Dutch legal representative expressed surprise at the fees, being calculated on a percentage rather than hourly time-spent basis.

"Subsequently, vague and entirely spurious allegations have been raised about the claimant’s services and the defendant has failed and refused to pay the invoice."

Knight Frank claimed its fee was due to be £44,000 plus VAT. The firm also wants interest on the debt charged at 8% a year from April 29, 2008, to March 24, 2010, bringing its total claim to £54,248.61.

The counter-claim issued by Kuyt’s Manchester-based lawyers against Withers said that – while he denies any liability to Knight Frank LLP – if he is found to be liable then he should be entitled to damages, and/or indemnity from Withers due to its alleged breaches of duties to him.

Neither Knight Frank nor Withers said they could comment on the cases they are involved in.