Thursday, March 10, 2011

Match Preview: Braga vs Liverpool

Andy Carroll could make his full Liverpool debut in Thursday’s Europa League visit to Portugal to play Braga.

The £35million January signing came off the bench in the 3-1 win over Manchester United on Sunday after overcoming the ankle problem that had delayed his bow since his move from Newcastle United. Now, there is a chance that he might get his first start in the first leg of the last 16 tie with the Portuguese challengers, or he may yet once again begin the game among the substitutes if manager Kenny Dalglish opts to be cautious.

Carroll’s fellow January addition Luis Suarez cannot play at the AXA Stadium as he is ineligible, while Steven Gerrard has been left out of the travelling party, as the club assesses a niggling groin problem.

Dirk Kuyt scored the winner against Sparta Prague in the last round and will be hungry to get out on the pitch once again after his hat-trick against rivals United, while further back Glen Johnson should start at right back with Danny Wilson set to get the nod across the field and Raul Meireles a likely starter on his return to his home nation.

Other full backs Martin Kelly and Fabio Aurelio will both miss the next month with hamstring injuries, while Daniel Agger has a calf problem. Reserve full backs John Flanagan and Emmanuel Mendy have made the trip, but there is no Raheem Sterling this time.

Braga have already had some decent scalps in Europe this term with Celtic, Sevilla (twice) and Arsenal all among the sides they have earned wins against before bowing out of the Champions League. They reached this stage after getting the better of Lech Poznan in the round of 32.

In all they have lost seven of their ten previous meetings with English opposition, but have made a concerted effort to expand on last season’s fine second-placed finish in their own league and edged second-placed Benfica in a tough encounter on Sunday, their last outing before their first ever meeting with the Reds.

In Brazilians Rodrigo Lima, Alan and Paulo Cesar they have several threats to Liverpool’s consistent habit of playing out 0-0 draws in their away games in this competition, while former Newcastle man Hugo Viana is among their other creative threats.

Prepare For A Different Liverpool In The Europa League

It is fair to say that Liverpool have not exactly approached their Europa League campaign this season with boundless enthusiasm.

A club that has been European champions five times is bound to see the competition as a consolation prize to Champions League football.

Stuck on Channel Five and playing the likes of FK Rabotnicki and Trabzonspor was always going to leave the Liverpool fans uninspired in the early stages of the competition.

Such is the format of the tournament and the poor quality of opposition, Liverpool knew their progress to the knockout stages was little more than a formality.

Even in the last 32 clashes against Sparta Prague, there was a sense of deflation, a hint of sorrow that it was not them facing a team like Barcelona or AC Milan in the Champions League.

But Liverpool is a club founded on a winning mentality, and the Europa League remains a prestigious competition – you just have to wait until the latter stages before it becomes interesting.

Both Reds managers this season, Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish, have fielded weakened teams in Europe, using it to rotate the squad and blood youngsters.

Four goalless draws in the Europa League suggests following Liverpool this season has hardly been full of excitement.

The two games against Sparta – a tie which the Reds eventually won 1-0 on aggregate – could easily be prescribed as a sleeping aid for insomniacs such was the tedium.

But Liverpool is a club built on winning things, Dalglish is a manager who knows the value of a major trophy.

And fans will remember fondly back to 2001, the last of three triumphs in this competition – then the Uefa Cup – which was sealed with a 5-4 victory over Alaves after extra-time.

On Thursday, the Reds travel to Portugal to face Braga for the first leg of their last 16 tie and the sense is that this is the stage where the Europa League really gets going.

The likes of Ajax, Porto, Villarreal, Benfica and Manchester City are all still in the competition and all of a sudden it no longer looks so inferior to the Champions League.

Liverpool will now put the borefests behind them and go for glory as they look to build on the confidence of their fine form in the Premier League.

Andy Carroll is expected to feature against Braga after making his debut as a substitute in Sunday's 3-1 victory over bitter rivals Manchester United, but Steven Gerrard has been ruled out of the clash.

Luis Suarez, an instant hit with the Kop, is cup-tied but Dirk Kuyt will start after his hat-trick heroics at Anfield on Sunday.

And with midfielder Raul Meireles also in great attacking form, the Reds will step up their game at this stage of the competition and show they are taking it more seriously through a positive approach.

They will have to, of course. Braga is a far better team than any that Liverpool have faced in the Europa League this campaign.

Just ask Arsenal. The Gunners lost 2-0 at Braga in the Champions League in November as they came up against a well-drilled, well-organized side.

The Portuguese outfit may not boast star names like Liverpool, but it promises to be a very tricky tie, especially with Gerrard absent.

Carroll's presence could be enough to ignite Liverpool as he looks to make an impact after his £35 million switch from Newcastle on the last day of the January transfer window.

The Reds insist they are focused on winning the Europa League, the only trophy now available this season.

Expect them to now start to prove it – beginning on Thursday.

Gerrard Could Miss Rest Of The Season

Kenny Dalglish has admitted that Steven Gerrard could be forced to undergo surgery in order to cure his groin problem, with reports suggesting the Liverpool captain could miss much of what remains of the season.

Gerrard did not travel with Liverpool for their Europa League tie against Braga on Thursday evening as he continues to struggle with the injury, which has afflicted him for a month but did not prevent him from playing in the 3-1 win over Manchester United on Sunday.

It is reported on Thursday morning that Gerrard will be sidelined for three weeks at the very least if he does require surgery, meaning he would miss England's Euro 2012 qualifier against Wales on March 26. Dalglish says further tests are required before deciding whether his captain will be operated on.

"He's not suffered any aggravation - he's just got a problem with his groin," Dalglish said. "He's not travelled, we'll have a look at it, and should know on Friday what we will have to do.

"It's the same problem. And for us and Steven it's a big enough problem we have got to find a solution to. We'll know better on Friday, where we stand exactly, but it's nothing too serious. We don't want to speculate about anybody, especially Steven.

"It's a problem that's minimal, but it needs to be fixed, and if it takes some time to get it fixed, we'll get it fixed."

Though Dalglish has a long and storied history at Anfield, the Europa League campaign remains something of a novelty as it is the first time he has managed the club in a continental competition. However, the Scot says he has not attached extra importance to the Braga fixture as a result.

"It is no less an ambition to me than winning the next game,'' he said.”It is not about Kenny Dalglish and my ambition, it is the club's ambitions and they have an ambition to be in a much healthier position than they are at this time.

"We will strive to do our best to get as far up the [league] table as we can and also in the Europa League and we will see where it takes us. But we won't lose out on anything from a lack of desire."

Liverpool Target Alexis Sanchez Subject To Bid From Unnamed Club

Udinese winger Alexis Sanchez is still on the Liverpool radar, according to reports.

The Chilean international has been on the radar of Barclays Premier League teams for some time now, with Liverpool thought to be one of those keen to bring the player to England.

Damien Comolli, director of football strategy at Anfield, is a known admirer of the 22-year-old, although it's thought that Liverpool will face stiff competition from a number of clubs around Europe.

Juventus, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Barcelona are also thought to be keen on signing the player, and the zebrette have confirmed interest in their prized asset, who has been compared to Cristiano Ronaldo in the Italian press.

"Sanchez is of interest of British and Italian teams. Somebody has already offered (for Alexis Sanchez) a figure close to 30-35 million euros but I cannot say by whom (we have received it)," Udinese chairman Franco Soldati told Sky Italia.

Sporting Director Fabrizio Larini continued the player discussions on Calciomercato, stating: "A evaluation of €25 million for Sanchez? Looking at what has been paid for (Luis) Suarez, (Fernando) Torres and David Luiz in England, I think Sanchez will also apply to more than €25 million."

It's unknown if Kenny Dalglish has taken a keen interest on the player, but the Liverpool boss hinted at a number of squad changes come the end of the season.

NESV, the club's owners, proved in January that they are willing to back the manager financially and have set a remit of bringing young, attacking talent to Liverpool during their reign on Merseyside.

The flying winger would certainly add to the attacking options at the club and whilst it's unconfirmed, it's possible that the offer came from Liverpool in the past. Either way, it appears competition will be great for the Sanchez's signature in the summer.

Wendt Options Open

FC Copenhagen full back Oscar Wendt is flattered to be linked with Barcelona, but his agent thinks he will move elsewhere.

The Sweden international will be out of contract at the end of the season and is currently considering his options.

Spanish paper El Mundo Deportivo recently claimed that Barcelona have had a look at the 25-year-old, who has also been linked to Liverpool as well as clubs in France, Italy and Germany.

Wendt told Sportbladet: "That a club like Barcelona keep tabs of you is fantastic.

"I haven't heard anything, it's just wait and see. I know there is interest from Italy, France and Germany.

"There is nothing serious yet, but there is certainly interest."

But agent Niclas Jensen believes Barcelona would not be the best move for his client at present.

He told Fotbollskanalen: "That's not what we are aiming at, and Oscar knows that as well. Of course, it is flattering to be mentioned in the same sentence as Barcelona, but he is clever enough to understand that might not be the best move right now."

Jensen added several clubs have already been in contact about the defender.

"It's something like eight to ten clubs, and then some are more interested than others," he said.

"With some clubs the interest is strong and with some we haven't come that far. It's football, so a lot can happen. One day everything can be sorted out, just to fall apart the very next."

Asked what sort of club might be best for Wendt, the agent replied: "He of course wants to go to a club at the top level, where he can continue to grow and become as good as possible.

"Oscar wants to go to a good league and play for a good team."

Liverpool Face Competition From Aston Villa For Xherdan Shaqiri

Liverpool reportedly face competition from Aston Villa to sign Xherdan Shaqiri.

The Swiss international winger has been heavily linked with a move to the Barclays Premier League in the past, with Liverpool thought to be considering a bid for the player in the summer.

Former Anfield chief Roy Hodgson is thought to have taken an interest in the player first, and FootyLatest now reports that Kenny Dalglish is also interested in bringing the player to Liverpool.

Aston Villa boss Gerard Houllier is also thought to have taken a keen interest in the Basel youngster, whilst Villareal, Zenit St. Petersburg, Hertha Berlin and Borussia Dortmund lead the charge from the rest of Europe.

With over 50 appearances for the Swiss Super League champions and seven appearances for his country, Shaqiri is seen as the future star of the Switzerland national team. His goal against England showed a brief glimpse of his future potential.

Kenny Dalglish has hinted at a number of changes at Anfield in the summer, with the Liverpool legend keen to make his own individual mark on the Merseysiders' squad.

Valued in the region of £7 million, Shaqiri would add to the attacking options at Liverpool and fits the remit of bringing young talent to the club as set out by owners NESV.

Eriksen Would Reject Reds

Ajax starlet Christian Eriksen says Barcelona are the only club who could tempt him away from the Amsterdam Arena at present.

The Denmark international is being linked to a host of top clubs, including Arsenal and Liverpool, whose assistant manager Sammy Lee was recently spotted casting an eye over the midfielder.

But the 19-year-old, who has a contract to stay at Ajax until 2014, says the only club who could tempt him at present is Barcelona.

He told Danish media: "If I got an offer from Liverool right now, I believe I would reject it.

"Ajax is a good club for me at the moment and I believe it will be that for a couple of years.

"If I did move, it would have to be to FC Barcelona."

The teenager received rave reviews from the media following his performance in Denmark's 2-1 defeat to England last month.

However, he has previously stated that he does not feel that his game is suited to the Premier League.

Reds Pair Aid Kelly Progress

Martin Kelly has revealed how Liverpool greats Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard are pushing him to be the best he can be.

The 20-year-old full-back had made just one start for the Reds before the current campaign but he has truly made the first-team breakthrough this term.

Not only has the Whiston-born defender earned an extended run but his form has been such that he has remained in the side, racking up 22 starts already this season including 10 in the Premier League.

Some minor injuries have prevented senior pair Carragher and Gerrard playing as big a role as they have over recent years.

But they have been helping Kelly get to grips with what is expected at Anfield as the youngster aims to establish himself as a Reds regular.

"It has helped me having people like Stevie and Carra around," Kelly told the club's official magazine.

"They talk to you all the time - to try to test you out, see if you are mentally tough enough to deal with the expectations. It has been a good experience for me.

"It makes you realize quickly, if there was any doubt, the pressures of getting three points for a big club.

"They just want you to be the best and not give anything less than 100 per cent. It's nothing personal if they get on your back. It's the three points that count."

Kelly suffered a hamstring injury in last week's 3-1 defeat at West Ham, ruling him out of Sunday's 3-1 win over Manchester United.

But he played the full 90 minutes of the FA Cup defeat at Old Trafford while featuring in both wins against Chelsea, and the recent injury blow has helped keep Kelly's feet on the ground.

"Playing in the kind of games I have recently, then getting injured, has made me realise how short your career can be," he added.

"One minute you're in the team playing against Ryan Giggs in front of 75,000 people, the next you're in the treatment room and can't even play a game in the park.

"It will be over before I even know it so I need to make sure every match counts."

Former Liverpool Defender Sami Hyypia Hoping For Anfield Return

Former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia is dreaming of a Europa League return to Anfield.

The Finnish centre back became a legend during his time on Merseyside, spending a decade with Liverpool and skippering the side before Steven Gerrard took the armband.

Bayer Leverkusen signed the player on a free transfer in the summer of 2009, and Hyypia has enjoyed a successful spell with the Bundesliga outfit thus far. That said, Liverpool were reportedly keen on bringing the player back to Anfield last summer under Roy Hodgson.

A return to his former stomping ground could be on the cards this term though, with both clubs battling away in the Europa League and searching for qualification to the quarter finals, where a 'dream' draw could be on the cards.

"My big dream is to play Liverpool in the next round. It would be amazing to return to Anfield and play another match there," the defender told the SID news agency.

"There are only big clubs left in the competition now and these games are really exciting."

Leverkusen faces a tough task against Villarreal in their tie, whilst Liverpool must beat Braga to progress to the next stage of the competition.

The former Willem II player would undoubtedly receive a fantastic reception were he to return to the club that he holds in such high regard, but Liverpool would be keen not to extend too many gratuities as they chase a realistic trophy this term.