Thursday, March 17, 2011

Europa League Preview: Liverpool vs Braga

Liverpool welcomes Braga to Anfield for the second leg of their last-16 Europa League clash aiming to overturn their first-leg defeat.

The Reds slumped to a 1-0 defeat in Portugal last week thanks to Alan's penalty and they will need a big performance to reach the quarter-finals.

Liverpool will have to do it without captain Steven Gerrard as he continues his recovery from a groin operation.

Danish defender Daniel Agger could be back in the squad after missing the last three games with a knee injury.

Midfielder Jonjo Shelvey is back in training, but the game has come too quickly for the player.

Defensive duo Martin Kelly and Fabio Aurelio remain on the sidelines with respective hamstring problems.

Striker Luis Suarez is ineligible for the hosts meaning Dirk Kuyt is likely to lead the attack.

Andy Carroll is set to have to content himself with a place on the bench again after two substitute appearances in the last two games after recovering from a long-term thigh problem.

Braga is boosted by the return of captain Vandinho after a month on the sidelines with a thigh injury.

Kaka and Alan are both expected to shake off slight knocks to take their places in the starting line-up.

Custodio and Elderson, who both missed the first meeting with Liverpool with thigh injuries, are again missing for the Portuguese side.

European Status At Risk, Says Dalglish

Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish is well aware the club's proudly-held European status could hinge on their result against Braga.

The FA Cup semi-final draw was not kind to the Reds' hopes of retaining an interest in continental competition beyond this season. An all-Manchester semi-final means that unless either United or City finish outside the top four, the European place allocated to the FA Cup winners will go to either Stoke or Bolton.

That leaves fifth place in the Premier League as the remaining qualification spot - unless Liverpool can win the Europa League and thereby enter next season's competition as defending champions.

With fifth-placed Tottenham six points ahead with a match in hand that may be the likely scenario for Liverpool, although Dalglish will not give up on catching Spurs in their remaining nine league matches until it is mathematically impossible to do so.

Overcoming a 1-0 deficit from the first leg of their last 16 tie is well within their capabilities as Braga did not suggest a week ago that there was anything to fear from them at Anfield.

''We can only deal with this game. We can't think too far ahead,'' said Dalglish. ''We want to be playing at the highest level we possibly can. To do that we have to win matches, starting with the game tonight.

''We've got to win by two goals to maintain our European status this year. Every game for us is really important. That starts tonight and continues until the end of the season. Where we get to after that will only be determined by how well we do.

''European football and this football club are synonymous. We'd love that to continue.''

The five-time European champions and three-time UEFA Cup winners last failed to qualify for continental competition in 1999, when they finished seventh in the league.

They bounced back to make the Champions League the following year and have been a regular on the European circuit ever since, famously winning their fifth crown in Istanbul in 2005 and reaching the final again in 2007.

However, with the domestic balance of power having changed somewhat with Tottenham's increasing strength and Manchester City's vast wealth, a swift return to the elite competition appears a distant dream at the moment.

But that is not an issue which concerns Dalglish, who can at least take solace from the fact his side cannot play as badly tonight as they did in their opening 45 minutes in Braga.

The Reds boss knows his team will be expected to take the game to the visitors at an expectant Anfield and is confident they can do that.

''I don't think they were too offensive at home,'' he added. ''I would expect Braga to be pretty much how they were in the first leg, that seems to be their style of play home or away.

''On the night they were probably just a bit better than us but we were very disappointed with the way we played. We'd like to think we can play a lot better than we did and if we do it's up to Braga to step up to the plate and lift their game.

''If they don't they could be in a bit of trouble. But the state of the tie won't influence how we go about the game. We'll approach the game as professionally and as determined as we would whatever the score was.''

Dalglish Still Fuming Over Braga Defender Kaka's Elbow On Andy Carroll

Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish is still fuming over the elbow from Braga defender Kaka on striker Andy Carroll.

The young forward was only just returning from a thigh injury during the first leg in Portugal, and was greeted with an elbow from the opposition side's defender in his first appearance in a European competition.

The Reds gaffer remains baffled by Uefa for not taking any retrospective action on the transgressor, and now believes that the towering hitman should channel his anger towards securing a victory for his team in the reverse fixture at Anfield on Thursday.

"I honestly hadn't seen the incident during the game because Andy had his back to us, but when I saw it on television, you could see it was such a bad challenge," Dalglish said, according to The Mirror.

"If it was one of our players, or a British one, there would have been mayhem. Yet I've not seen much about it since.

"For something as deliberate as that, Uefa must surely have some sort of retrospective retribution. There must be something?"

Uefa have had extra officials for experimental purposes, and the Scot was bemused that not one of them had caught the incident when it took place.

He said: "They aren't referees are they? They're just Santa's little helpers! But to be fair, I've never seen them affect any of the games I've watched.

"But if you don't see it, there should be some form of punishment if it's totally clear."

Dalglish added: "There is one thing going up to protect yourself, it is another completely going up to hurt an opponent - and that was to hurt Andy.

"To do what he did last week, which was keeping his composure, is great credit to him. Now the best way for Andy to answer anything is to be on the winning side. The best way to vent our anger would be to get a good result."

Carra Out To Equal Record

Jamie Carragher will equal Emlyn Hughes's club record of 45 appearances in the competition if he figures in tonight's Europa League clash with SC Braga at Anfield. Here are all the rest of the big match stats.

Liverpool's European record (overall): Pld 327 Won 185 Drawn 71 Lost 71

Liverpool's record in Fairs/UEFA Cup/Europa League: Pld 116 Won 64 Drawn 28 Lost 24

The Reds have won 7 and drawn 1 of the previous 9 meetings with Portuguese opponents at Anfield. The only defeat they have suffered came in the Champions League in 2006 when they were beaten 2-0 by Benfica.

Sporting Braga are Liverpool's 113th different European opponent and the fifth from Portugal following Vitoria Setubal, Benfica, Porto and Boavista.

Liverpool is unbeaten in their last 10 home games in Europe since losing to Fiorentina in December 2009.

Pepe Reina could make his 300th appearance for Liverpool tonight. He will become the 6th Liverpool goalkeeper to achieve the feat following Ray Clemence, Bruce Grobbelaar, Elisha Scott, Tommy Lawrence and Arthur Riley. Pepe has kept 141 clean sheets.

Liverpool has gone into a European second leg at Anfield 12 times having lost 1-0 in the first game. On 8 occasions they have progressed.

Of the 4 they have failed to get through, 2 have come against Portuguese opposition. Vitoral Setubal lost 3-2 in the second leg of a Fairs Cup tie in 1969-70 but won on the away goals rule while Benfica in the Champions League in 2005-06 won 2-0 on the night to reach the quarter-finals.

4 Anfield ties have gone into extra-time in European competition. In 1968-69 Athletic Bilbao won on the toss of a coin after extra time had failed to produce a winner in a Fairs Cup First Round tie. The Reds famously defeated Chelsea on penalties in the 2007 Champions League semi-final while Dirk Kuyt's 117th minute winner settled the qualifying tie with Standard Liege in 2008.

Last season Atletico Madrid lost 2-1 in front of the Kop but became the second team to eliminate the Reds at Anfield after the extra period.

Liverpool have participated in 3 European penalty shoot-outs and won them all - all in the European Cup. They beat Roma and AC Milan in the Finals of 1984 and 2005 respectively and beat Chelsea in that Semi-Final in 2007.

Andy Carroll became the 32nd player used by Liverpool in Europe this season in the first leg in Braga. He has yet to start a European game in his career having played twice, also as a substitute, for Newcastle in their 2006-07 UEFA Cup run.

The Reds have conceded just 5 goals in 13 European games this season.

No team has scored more than 1 goal in a European game against Liverpool in the last 16 matches since Benfica scored twice in April 2010.

Dirk Kuyt has scored 15 goals for Liverpool in Europe (level with Terry McDermott) and is now 2 behind Roger Hunt who is in 4th place on the club's all time scorers list with 17.

David Ngog is the Reds leading scorer in Europe this season with 5 goals though he has not scored in his last 5 Europa League games.

Both Lucas and Christian Poulsen are a yellow card away from a one match ban.

The Reds have not lost in 14 Europa League and UEFA Cup games at Anfield since a 2-0 Quarter-Final loss to Celtic in March 2003.

Braga's European record (overall): Pld 73 Won 34 Drawn 10 Lost 29

Braga's record in Fairs/UEFA Cup/Europa League: Pld 51 Won 20 Drawn 9 Lost 22

They have never won the league title in Portugal and lifted the Cup once in 1965-66.

They are nicknamed 'The Arsenalists' due to the resemblance of their home kit to that of the Gunners.

This is the 3rd time they have reached the last 16 of this competition - all in the last 5 seasons doing so previously in 2006-07 (losing to Tottenham) and 2008-09 (being eliminated by Paris St Germain).

This is their 7th successive season in European competition.

Braga have won 2 and lost 4 of their 6 away games in Europe this season. They won 4-3 at Sevilla in a Champions League play-off and 1-0 at Partizan in the group stages.

Lima scored a 32-minute second half hat-trick in Braga's 4-3 win at Sevilla in that Play-Off game.

Hugo Viana made one of his 61 appearances for Newcastle United against Liverpool in a 2-2 draw at Anfield in September 2002.

Last week Alan scored Braga's 100th goal in European competition.

Their biggest European defeat was the 6-0 reverse they suffered at the Emirates against Arsenal in their Champions League group back in September.

Liverpool is Braga's 6th different English opponent in Europe having already played West Brom, Tottenham (twice), Bolton, Portsmouth and Arsenal.

They have never won on English soil having lost 4 times and drawn 1-1 at Bolton in the UEFA Cup Group Stage in 2007-08, in their 5 visits.

Braga have never reached the quarter-finals of this competition.

Braga have lost 3 of their last 4 European away games without scoring, conceding 9 times in the process.

Like Liverpool, Braga had the weekend off.

Away from home in league and cup they have lost 1 of the last 5 games - at Lech Poznan in the last round of the Europa League.

They have never been involved in a penalty shoot-out in Europe.

Liverpool Facing Madrid Battle For £13m Ivorian Ace

Liverpool striker target Gervinho is being linked with a move to Atletico Madrid.

The Ivorian international striker has been on the Anfield radar for some time now, with reports back in December claiming Liverpool made a bid in the region of £12 million for the player's signature.

Reports in Spain now claim that Atletico have joined the chase though, with both Bayern Munich and Newcastle also thought to be interested in the player's services.

With the player holding out on a new contract at Lille, the Ligue 1 side may be forced to sell one of their prized assets or face the prospect of losing him on a free next summer.

It's thought that Les Douges are hoping to command a fee in the region of £13 million for the player, a fee close to what Liverpool originally offered in January.

A striker who can also play in the wing positions, Gervinho has built an impressive reputation at the Stade Lille-Metropole, and also has 19 international caps to his name.

The 23-year-old is eager to develop further, and Liverpool could offer the player that opportunity with director of football strategy Damien Comolli a known admirer of the player.

Impressive performances against the Reds in previous Europa League outings are also thought to have player a factor in the interest of Liverpool, and the transfer battle could be fierce for one of the top strikers from Africa.

Dalglish Plans Double Summer Swoop For Crystal Palace Kids Zaha & Williams

Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish is preparing a double raid on Crystal Palace for hot prospects Wilfried Zaha and Jon Williams.

Anfield scouts have been monitoring Zaha during his first full season for Palace and Dalglish has had glowing reports about the 18-year-old striker, who is also interesting Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle.

Zaha has recently been called up to the England Under-19 squad.

Williams, 17, is a Wales Under-21 international but is yet to make his first-team bow at Selhurst Park.

The attacking midfielder has impressed for the reserves and Dalglish will try to tempt both teenagers to Merseyside in the summer.

Jay Spearing Aims To Seize Big Anfield Opportunity

Jay Spearing is hoping to seize his chance to replace Steven Gerrard in the Liverpool midfield, as the Reds prepare for tonight’s Europa League D-Day.

The Reds take on Portuguese outfit SC Braga at Anfield tonight looking to overcome a first-leg deficit and book their place in the last eight.

And while skipper Gerrard is expected to be out for at least four weeks after undergoing surgery on a groin injury, his 22-year-old understudy is eager to convince manager Kenny Dalglish that he is worthy of a regular first team place.

“In every game we play Stevie is a massive influence,” says Spearing.

“He showed that in this competition earlier in the season when he came on (against Napoli) and got a hat-trick. That showed the presence he has.

“With him out it’s up to us to step up and stake our claim for a regular place.”

The Wirral-born midfielder has enjoyed the most productive season of his fledgling career so far, making a total of ten appearances – including a surprise start against Everton in Dalglish’s first home game in charge back in January.

And though ankle and foot injuries have limited his involvement over the past three months, Spearing is determined to continue his ascent towards a regular senior spot.

“Obviously it was frustrating getting injured,” he says. “When the manager picked me for the derby it was a massive confidence boost for me.

“To play in that game and then pick up an injury so soon after coming back was a blow, but I’m over that now.

“I got a few games in the Europa League under Roy Hodgson, and then the new boss has come in and shown confidence in me. Kenny has given me a few games and now I have got to keep going.

“It’s a big time for me to show what I am capable of doing.”

Spearing played 90 minutes in north west Portugal as the Reds were beaten 1-0 by Domingos Paciencia’s side seven days ago.

And while the youngster admits last week’s performance was disappointing and that Braga remains a formidable opponent, he insists confidence is high at Anfield.

“The Europa League is a massive competition for ourselves,” he says, “especially as we’re out of the FA Cup and Carling Cup.

“It is a chance to pick up some silverware. Hopefully that can start in this game and we can get through to the next round.

“Braga showed in the first game what they can do. They put us under a lot of pressure in the first half. We weren’t happy with the way we played.

“But in the second half we improved and put them under pressure. Andy Carroll, with the presence he has, caused them a lot of problems.

“We all believe we can win at home.”

His manager, meanwhile, has paid tribute to the midfielder and says the emergence of the likes of Spearing and fellow academy graduate Martin Kelly is good news for the club.

“Jay started the Merseyside derby and we didn’t know he was injured at that stage,” said Dalglish.

“It was disappointing for him to come back in and find out he was injured.

“Jay is a fantastic character. From working with him I’ve seen things I didn’t notice about him before.

“Martin, too, was fantastic before he pulled his hamstring.

“To get a young boy in the squad challenging for positions is great for everyone connected with the football club. It gives everyone a lift.

“We’ve always said it doesn’t matter where you were born, but obviously to see local, home-grown lads coming through is great for the club.”

Brazilian Starlet Denies Liverpool Switch

Wolfsburg midfielder Diego says he has no intention of joining Liverpool.

The 26-year-old has been strongly linked with a move to England after a difficult season at the Volkswagen Arena with the club on the verge of relegation from the Bundesliga.

Despite the disappointing season, the Brazilian midfielder is refusing to think about a move away.

"I’m very happy at this moment to be here in Wolfsburg. I have a good contract and I feel very happy as a player," he told The Independent.

"I have too much respect for Wolfsburg as a club to let anything distract me at the moment. We have some very important games coming up and I’ll be doing everything I can to help the team win."

"At the end of the season maybe things will change but right now I’m 100 per cent concentrated on playing for Wolfsburg."

Muntari Holds No Suarez Grudge

Sulley Muntari will happily shake hands with the man who shattered his World Cup dreams when Sunderland host Liverpool this Sunday.

Muntari and his Ghana team-mates looked to be heading into the semi-finals in South Africa last summer when, with the score at 1-1 in the final seconds of extra-time, Uruguay striker Luis Suarez handled on the line to deny Dominic Adiyiah a dramatic winner.

Suarez was dismissed and the Ghanaians were awarded a penalty, but as a whole continent held its breath, Asamoah Gyan fired against the crossbar from the spot, and his side eventually bowed out of the competition after a heart-breaking shoot-out.

Both Muntari and Gyan could meet their World Cup nemesis at the weekend Suarez, a £22.8million January signing from Ajax, arrives at the Stadium of Light with Liverpool.

However, while Suarez's intervention that night at Johannesburg's Soccer City may have presented him with one of his most painful moments in football, Muntari, who had earlier scored his side's goal, is not bitter.

Asked if he would shake the striker's hand, he said: "Yes, of course. Why not? He is a fantastic player.

"If it was me on the post, that's what I am going to do. I am not going to get it with one hand, I am going to get it with two hands and then I am going to go out and make way for Ghana.

"Definitely, I am going to shake his hand. It's part of football.

"Personally, I have no bad intention towards him, I haven't any grudge against him.

"What about if I was the one who got the ball and he didn't win? Am I going to be his enemy?

"It's part of football. But I am not going to be playing against only Suarez, it is going to be Sunderland against Liverpool and we want to win the game, so we have got to make it bad for them here."

Gyan's memories of the game remain understandably raw, but he too insists he has no problem with Suarez.

The 25-year-old, who scored in the shoot-out moments after missing his first effort from 12 yards, said: "Every time I see him I just remember what happened at the World Cup. But life goes on.

"I am a good sportsman. People ask me if I am going to shake his hand when he comes to the Stadium of Light, and I say, 'why not?'

"It's football. I wish him well and he is doing well. He is a young lad who is coming up.

"He did what he should have done at the World Cup. He took his country to the semi-finals.

"Life goes on."

Defender John Mensah also played against Uruguay and all three men could line up for the Black Cats against the Kenny Dalglish's side on Sunday.

Muntari joined his compatriots on Wearside in a loan move from Inter Milan in January, and although a deal is in place to make the switch permanent if it suits all parties at the end of the season, he is not even thinking about his future yet.

He said: "Right now, I want to concentrate on Sunderland and these nine weeks that are left.

"We are doing well at the moment, but not really what we wanted. We want to be in the top six and it's not finished yet, we want to be there.

"After that, I will start thinking about my future, but right now, it is not about me, it's about the team. That's the most important thing."

Dalglish Hails Reina

Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish has hailed goalkeeper Jose Reina as possibly the best in the world.

Reina is set to make his 300th appearance for Liverpool in Thursday' Europa League last-16 second-leg tie at home to Braga.

The 28-year-old has established himself as a key player at Anfield since arriving from Villarreal in 2005 and Dalglish is a big admirer of the Spain international.

"In my opinion Pepe Reina is one of, if not the, best keeper in the world," said Dalglish.

"I know he doesn't get in his national side, but if it's my opinion you're asking for that would be my shout.

"He has been fantastic for this football club and is a great asset to us.

"That is reflected in that if Stevie (Gerrard) or Carra (Jamie Carragher) are not playing, he is our captain."

Last-Gasp Gunners Sink Reds

Pep Segura's first match in charge of Liverpool Reserves ended in disappointment as they went down to a last-gasp 2-1 defeat at Arsenal on Wednesday night.

The Reds had looked to have salvaged a point when Tom Ince cancelled out Luke Freeman's stunning first-half effort in the final minute.

However, the Gunners striker powered home a fine header deep into stoppage time as the away side were ultimately made to pay for their profligacy in the final third.

The result means the reserves have now lost two of their last three matches but Segura will have taken many positives from an improved second-half display which will leave them confident they can regroup in time for next week's mini derby against Everton at Anfield.

The showdown with the Gunners provided the second-string with a real test of their credentials and the Spaniard will have been happy with the fast start his side made at Underhill.

Indeed, the visitors could have gone in front as early as the second minute when Nikola Saric's clever run took him in behind the Arsenal rearguard, but the Dane's first touch forced him away from goal and his low shot was easily blocked by James Shea.

Next, some clever feet from Toni Silva saw the Portuguese ace burst into the penalty area from the right-hand touchline but his rushed effort dribbled harmlessly wide of target.

The Reds had looked relatively comfortable in the opening half hour but saw all their good work undone on 32 minutes when some sloppy play led to an opening goal for the home side.

A stray pass caused a mix-up between Alex Cooper and Andre Wisdom, allowing Freeman to seize upon possession, cut inside Stephen Sama and smash an unstoppable 25 yard drive into the top corner.

The goal gave the Gunners an immediate lift and nine minutes later they should have doubled their advantage from the penalty spot.

Wisdom was adjudged to have felled Roarie Deacon in the area but Rhys Murphy crashed the resulting kick against the post.

It was a huge let-off for the away side and they began the second period in the ascendancy.

First Ince went close with a mazy run and shot before Saric somehow contrived to fluff a gilt-edged chance inside the six yard box following some superb work down the right by Silva.

The Reds continued to dominate and after Sama looped a header just over the top Ince saw another shot well blocked by Shea.

With time running out Segura opted to introduce Michael Ngoo to try and force a deserved equaliser and it was his presence that led to an error from Shea that allowed Ince to fire into an empty net on 89 minutes.

However, the hosts piled forward in stoppage time and eventually stole the points courtesy of Freeman's powerful header from a left-wing corner.