Friday, March 18, 2011

Match Report: Liverpool 0 - 0 Braga

Liverpool exited the Europa League with a whimper after a goalless draw at home to Braga, dealing a blow to their hopes of returning to the competition next season.

Trailing 1-0 from the first leg of their last-16 tie, even a first start for record signing Andy Carroll could not turn things around as the visitors employed every trick in the book to hang on to their advantage.

The Reds have not failed to qualify for Europe since 1999 but having lost the chance of entering as defending Europa League champions, they must now look to their domestic form.

However, they trail fifth-placed Tottenham by six points and have played one match more, and it will take an impressive run of results for them to reel in the Londoners.

With Liverpool low on creativity and even shorter on chances, the watching Reds owner John Henry, who sanctioned the £35million January purchase of Carroll, must have left wondering just how much it costs to buy a goal at this level.

The 22-year-old striker had his moments but very few were in areas in which he could utilise his talent.

Liverpool's defence looked for him at every available opportunity - although sometimes he was not necessarily the best option - and his aerial prowess was soon in evidence.

An early flick-on put Joe Cole through on the left of the area and his shot was parried by Artur back into the path of the former Newcastle striker but his shot was deflected behind.

Carroll headed behind Raul Meireles' corner and it was only set-pieces which really presented him with anything approaching a chance.

Too often the England international was asked to win long diagonal balls 30 yards out with his back to goal.

Liverpool's supposed wide players - in truth the Reds have lacked genuine width for a long time - Cole and Maxi Rodriguez never got themselves into what could be described as threatening positions in which to deliver crosses for Carroll to attack.

The big front man soon discovered everything would not go his way, though, as he was penalized when Paulo Cesar pushed him into Miguel Garcia at another Meireles corner.

Danny Wilson's unfamiliarity at left-back was often exploited by Alan, the goalscorer in Portugal last week, but aside from Rodrigo Lima's drilled 35-yard shot straight at Jose Reina, making his 300th appearance, they were content to soak up the pressure.
However, the methods the Portuguese side used to frustrate their opponents, rolling around on the floor to waste time, required a firm hand and Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi was found desperately wanting as he allowed the game to get away from him before half-time.

Rocchi had no option but to get his cards out soon after the interval when Carroll, frustrated by Paulao's attempts to shepherd the ball out of play, swung a wild tackle at the defender and both players were booked.

Liverpool's first chance of the second half fell to Meireles when Dirk Kuyt crossed to the penalty spot but the Portugal international looped his header well over.

Tension was beginning to grow inside Anfield and the impact of Carroll, watched by England manager Fabio Capello who had arrived from watching Manchester City exit the competition earlier in the evening, was starting to wane.

As the match entered its last quarter Glen Johnson finally put in a dangerous cross but Meireles was just short of reaching it.

One late Carroll header appeared destined to find the net from a Meireles corner only for Kuyt to get in the way in the six-yard area.

That just about summed up his - and Liverpool's - night as they went out of the competition despite not losing a home match in Europe all season.

Braga Embarrassment Shows John W Henry It Will Take More Than Andy Carroll To Turn His Club Around

Liverpool owner John W Henry came to Anfield on Thursday expecting to witness a magical European night spearheaded by the man he spent £35 million to sign in January.

Instead, he saw Liverpool eliminated from the Europa League at the last 16 stage by Braga after producing a listless performance that once again raises questions about the quality of the squad.

The likelihood is that we are unlikely to see Liverpool in Europe again any time soon, with qualification for the Europa League a tough task that will probably require finishing fifth in the league by catching Tottenham, who sit six points ahead of Kenny Dalglish's side with a game in hand.

At the start of the season, many Reds fans were ready to write the season off and concentrate on ridding the club of its American owners.

With the ownership issue finally resolved, attention turned to events on the pitch. A topsy-turvy few months saw the Reds turn from a relegation-threatened bunch of no-hopers under Roy Hodgson to European contenders under Kenny Daglish.

But in between some encouraging displays, the weaknesses in the Scot's squad have been regularly exposed – and on Thursday night Henry was given a first-hand demonstration.

The painful reality for the Liverpool owner is that this squad needs major investment in three or four players of the quality of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll, who cost a combined fee of £57.8m in the January transfer window.

Carroll made his first start for the club here after returning from a thigh problem – and in the early stages his strength, power and aerial threat caused Liverpool's Portuguese opponents some serious problems.

But while the qualities he will offer the squad were clear, the 22-year-old grew ever more frustrated as Liverpool failed to work out how to get the best from him, prompting the Geordie to eventually kick a Braga defender four feet into the air.

The Reds increasingly turned to long, aimless punts towards the big Geordie rather than produce the sleek passing football that brought a memorable victory over Manchester United in their last league outing at Anfield.

What Carroll desperately needed was some width, some quality delivery into the box from out wide, but the Reds lacked any penetration, with Joe Cole once again virtually anonymous after a bright first 10 minutes.

“Andy Carroll stayed on longer than we hoped he would have to,” reflected Dalglish on his striker's performance. “Necessity meant he stayed on the pitch because we needed the goal.

“He's got tremendous assets he can offer and we have assets that he can learn from as well.

“We're not at all disappointed with his performance, he was unlucky not to score. I think he can be very pleased with how he played.”

The reality is that Liverpool never showed any signs that they were capable of winning the Europa League this season.

And unless Manchester City win the FA Cup and finish fifth, Liverpool have only a slim chance of having another crack next season.

A lack of European football will not only dent the coffers, but it will make it harder to attract the vibrant young players the club so badly need to win games like this.

Braga came into the game with a 1-0 lead from the first leg and were quite happy to park the bus and ask Liverpool to break them down.

The home side started well, with Cole hitting a snapshot on target and Carroll heading just wide, but the last 75 minutes of the game was painful viewing for the Kop as they watched a group of players completely shorn of ideas.

The final whistle was greeted by little more than a shrug of the shoulders by most at Anfield, who had waited for a late rally that never came, who understood that the team was way below par in both games against a side that only occupy a mid-table position in Portugal.

It was fitting that Liverpool's Europa League campaign should end with their fifth goalless draw in the competition. It was equally appropriate that Henry was there to see that his work is far from done, that splashing £35m on one player will not restore former glories.

Henry will just be wondering how much it might cost him.

Kenny Dalglish Admits To Uphill Battle For European Football

Kenny Dalglish admits Liverpool have to overcome an uphill battle if they are to compete in Europe next season.

The Reds were recently knocked out of the Europa League by Braga, who beat the Merseyside outfit 1-0 in their own backyard before carving out a goalless draw at Anfield in the return leg.

Considering the FA Cup draw, Dalglish's charges now have to finish fifth in the Premier League to avoid missing out on a continental competition for the first time in over a decade.

"I don't know if it will be a help not being in the Europa League," said Dalglish.

"It [the Europa League] was an option for us to get back into Europe next year if we'd won it.

"But we know that in every league game we will have to try to get as much as we possibly can.

"We were going to do that any way, so I don't know if it will be a blessing or not.

"You only get in Europe if you win games. If you win enough games and get enough points we will get in Europe."

Andy Carroll, who was making his first start for the Merseysiders, came closest to levelling the aggregate. But the ball did not end up in the back of the net, and the Reds eventually bowed out of the tournament.

"He was a wee bit unfortunate not to score a goal," said Dalglish. "[But] considering it's his first start he can be pleased how he played."

Pepe Reina: Liverpool Can Still Finish Fifth In The Premier League

Pepe Reina believes Liverpool can still finish fifth in the Premier League and achieve European football.

Liverpool bowed out of the Europa League after losing 1-0 on aggregate to Portuguese Braga on Thursday evening, and now have to finish fifth in the league if they are to compete in a continental competition next season.

It would appear to be a difficult task with nine games to go, as current fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur are six points ahead with a game in hand over Kenny Dalglish's side.

"We have to keep going and of course fifth place is still achievable," Reina said, according to the Liverpool Echo.

"We have got nine games to play and a lot of points to play for.

"Tottenham are still involved in the Champions League and they have some tough games.

"Everyone knows it’s going to be difficult but hopefully we will win enough games to get fifth.

"It’s always important for this club to be involved in European competition.

"And you can’t say we are not going to play in Europe next year because fifth place is still available."

Zenit St. Petersburg Eye Possible Alberto Aquilani Deal

Liverpool should have little problem shipping Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani out in the summer if they decide there is no place for the 26-year-old at Anfield, and the player could yet end up reuniting with a former coach.

Currently on loan at Juventus, Aquilani’s agreed asking price of €16.5M is proving too rich for the Serie A side to stomach, and alternatives are being considered. The Old Lady hope Liverpool could yet lower their demands however, and Aquilani himself is keen to remain in Turin.

The former Roma man though is already attracting attention from other clubs, with AC Milan linked just days ago and now Russian giants Zenit St. Petersburg believed to have sounded Liverpool out about the midfielder.

Current Zenit coach Luciano Spalletti knows Aquilani well, having worked with the player when he was Roma coach from 2005 until 2009. The 52-year-old is thought to believe he can tempt his countryman to Russia, a move which would represent a real coup for the current Russian Premier League champions.

Backed by Gazprom, Zenit would have little difficulty in paying the amount Liverpool requires. The only question mark hangs over whether Aquilani himself would head to Russia.

Kadlec - Reds Link Super

Michal Kadlec says he will wait until the summer before deciding his future after admitting it is 'super' to have been linked with Liverpool.

The Bayer Leverkusen left-back is rumoured to be a transfer target for Liverpool, who are short on options in the position.

Kadlec has a further two years to run on his contract with Leverkusen and is not currently thinking about an extension.

Liverpool are understood to have watched Kadlec earlier in the season and the Czech Republic international is happy to be on the Premier League giants' radar.

"There is a lot of speculation - we will see in the summer what happens," Kadlec told Sky Sports News Radio.

"It is super for me - when I heard that Liverpool have maybe heard of me, that I exist.

"We will see in the summer."

Liverpool Eye Spain Defender Monreal To Solve Defensive Problem

Liverpool's search for a left back has lead them back to Osasuna's Spain international Nacho Monreal.

Director of football strategy Damien Comolli watched the 26-year-old in action last week and was suitably impressed.

Monreal, who has four full caps, suffered a bad knee injury in December but has come back strongly. He was on Liverpool's list of summer targets and came under Arsenal's scrutiny prior to his injury.

Desperate to plug their problem left back position, Liverpool decided against a loan move for Aston Villa's Stephen Warnock in January and cooled their interest in Wigan's Maynor Figueroa but they have watched Newcastle's Jose Enrique and Celtic's Emilio Izaguirre.

Monreal would not come cheap, however, as Osasuna value him at about £9m.

Marcus Pedersen Still Monitored By Reds

Liverpool are reportedly keeping tabs on striker Marcus Pedersen.

The 20-year-old Norwegian has been impressing in the Eredivisie after joining Vitesse Arnhem in the summer, and tribalfootball claims Liverpool are again monitoring the player.

Pedersen had trials with Liverpool as a teenager, and the Reds have been monitoring his progress ever since. "It was a good experience," the striker recalls.

"I have shaken hands with all the big names, including Steven Gerrard and John Arne Riise. I think I have taken the right step in my career: Norway, then Holland and eventually England."

Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion have also taken an interest in the former Strømsgodset player, who has been capped internationally at every junior level for his country.

His previous stint with the Merseysiders puts them in pole position to land the player should they wish to make a move though, with the Barclays Premier League the self-confessed next stop.

Despite making two striker additions in the summer, it's thought that the Liverpool boss is keen to add another player in the position as cover.

Pedersen fits the bill of young, attacking talent set out by Liverpool owners NESV, and could go on to become a star of the future at Anfield.

Liverpool Target Rabiu Ibrahim Rejects Reds For PSV Eindhoven

Liverpool have reportedly missed out on Nigerian youngster Rabiu Ibrahim.

The Sporting Lisbon starlet rejected the offer of a professional contract with the Portuguese side, raising the hopes of Liverpool that they would be able to land the African ace.

However, reports in the Daily Star claim the player has rejected a potential Anfield move, selecting a switch to PSV Eindhoven over Liverpool.

It's claimed that the Merseysiders have been tracking the former Real Massamá loanee for several years now, with the Reds first taking notice of the player at the 2007 Under 17 World Cup.

Liverpool director of football strategy, Damien Comolli, has been receiving positive reports on the player's progress since arriving at Anfield, but the lure of first team opportunities appear to have drawn the player to Holland.

The move is another sign of the efforts being made by Liverpool to bring young, attacking talent to the club this summer.

Kenny Dalglish has been linked with a string of players in a similar mould, and the Liverpool boss will have to go back to his wish list after missing out on the 20-year-old.

Luis Suarez Reveals He Expected To Partner Fernando Torres When He Joined

Luis Suarez has revealed for the first time that he expected to play alongside Fernando Torres when he signed for Liverpool in the January transfer window.

In an exclusive interview with UK, Suarez said it was "a shame" that Torres joined Chelsea but insists he is not concerned about Liverpool losing more of their top players. Suarez conducted the interview at Melwood during a promotion for the adidas adiZero F50 range of boots.

The Uruguayan striker, who signed from Ajax in a £22.8 million deal, also revealed his desire for Kenny Dalglish to remain as Liverpool manager beyond this season and spoke about his decision to move to Anfield despite interest from top clubs across Europe.

Torres joined Chelsea in a £50m deal on the final day of the winter transfer window, just two days after Suarez passed a medical to complete his move to Anfield – and the 24-year-old admits he did not expect the Spaniard to leave the club.

“Yes, it's true I expected to play with Fernando,” Suarez told UK. “Fernando is a very good player. He's got great quality and it would have been nice to play with him.

“It's a shame that he's gone as he is an excellent player and has great qualities. But at the same time there are many other great players at Liverpool.

“When one top player goes, perhaps another great player comes in.”

Torres' departure allowed the Reds to complete a £35m swoop for Andy Carroll but speculation has increased over the future of goalkeeper Pepe Reina, who has suggested he may also seek a transfer.

Suarez believes it is inevitable that footballers may want to move on and is concentrating only on building a partnership with Carroll and improving under the guidance of Liverpool great Dalglish.

When asked whether he is worried about other players following Torres out of Anfield, Suarez replied: “This really is an issue for the club, not for me personally.

“Football is a game that changes on a daily basis so these things are going to happen. I just work hard to play for Liverpool.

"Carroll and Torres are very different players. Andy has had an injury and he's just starting to come back into the game. They have different qualities and ways of playing the game, so you can't really make comparisons.

"They have different styles - one might be better at one thing and the other better at something else. Andy is a big, strong player with many qualities and it will be exciting to play with him.

“Having a manager like Kenny Dalglish is really great for me. He is a person of great history and importance at the club. He's one of the best players the club has ever had and now he's correcting me and training me.

“I think it's really great for me to work with a legend such as Kenny and I have enjoyed it so far.”

When asked whether he wanted Dalglish to remain Liverpool manager, Suarez responded: “Yes, of course. I'm looking forward to working with him more in the future.”

Suarez has become an instant hero on the Kop after a highly impressive start to life on Merseyside and starred as he produced two assists in the 3-1 win over rivals Manchester United earlier this month.

Liverpool landed one of the hottest properties in Europe in Suarez, who had attracted interest from the likes of the Reds and Manchester United after scoring 49 goals in all competitions last season.

And the former Groningen and Nacional forward is satisfied he has made the right long-term decision for his career, despite the fact Liverpool sit sixth in the Premier League and may not even qualify for Europe next term.

He added: “I think you have to take hold of the opportunities in the moment and go with them. The opportunity to join Liverpool was there for me in January.

“I was aware of interest from other clubs but Liverpool trusted in me and they were the only ones who specifically asked Ajax to sign me.

“They wanted me a lot and that's why I decided to go with the decision in January. I didn't want to wait until the summer.”