Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Europa League: Liverpool FC v Udinese

On Thursday night at Anfield Liverpool play their first Europa League group game against Italian side Udinese. ECHO Sport's Neil Jones runs the rule over a team punching well above their weight in recent seasons - and a club with ambitions beyond their own borders.

For a club with an average attendance of around 15,000, from a city of just 100,000 inhabitants, Udinese have been making quite a splash over the past few years. Tomorrow, they head to Anfield looking to strengthen their bid for a place in the Europa League knockout stages.

And despite an indifferent start to their league campaign, which has seen them take six points from their first six games, the Bianconeri will arrive on Merseyside confident they can spring a surprise. Brendan Rodgers and his side have been warned; the 'Little Zebras' should not be underestimated. It has been a transitional few months at Stadio Friuli, but then it often is.

Italian football is a place dominated by the traditional powerhouses – chiefly, the Milan giants and current champions Juventus. The likes of Udinese, ostensibly a small club with a modest following, are rarely expected to compete. And if they do, then they usually see their best players picked off by the big boys.

That was exactly what happened this summer. Having finished a barely-credible third in Serie A last season, ahead of the likes of Roma, Lazio and Inter, Udinese saw their immensely promising squad picked apart in the close-season.

Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah were both pinched by Juventus, whilst highly-rated goalkeeper Samir Handanovic joined Inter. That trio were plucked from obscurity, at staggeringly low cost, yet earned the club well in excess of €25m.

It is not a new thing. Udinese's scouting network has tentacles across the world. It is both thorough and impressive. Their South American connections are especially strong - they found both Isla and Alexis Sanchez in Chile as teenagers - whilst the club itself has earned a reputation for providing one of the best shop windows in European football.

With the likes of Sanchez (Barcelona), Gokhan Inler (Napoli), Cristian Zapata (Villarreal), Simone Pepe and Fabio Quagliarella (both Juventus) all having moved on in recent seasons, and players of the calibre Sulley Muntari, Asamoah Gyan, Aleksandar Lukovic and David Pizarro all having passed through, the turnover of talent at the club has been huge.

Francesco Guidolin, a nomadic coach with a lengthy list of former clubs, lost his first four league games following his arrival at the club from Parma in 2010, but has qualified the club for the Champions League in each of his two full campaigns in charge. They were fourth in 2010, and went one better last season, despite a significant overhaul of the playing staff in the interim.

Regrettably, they have since been unable to take that next step by sealing a place in the Champions League group stages. They were beaten by Arsenal in the play-off round last season, and this year fell to a penalty shootout defeat to Braga of Portugal at the same stage.

And so they find themselves with 'only' the consolation of the Europa League. They needed a last-minute strike from Antonio Di Natale, their captain and talisman, to secure a 1-1 draw with Anzhi Makhachkala, the emerging Russian force, in their opening game last month, but they have the talent to challenge in what is perhaps the strongest group in the competition.

Di Natale, a European Championship finalist with Italy in the summer, is the heartbeat of the side. At 34, his career is in its twilight, but his record in North East Italy is phenomenal. He was Serie A leading goalscorer in both 2010 and 2011, and has scored at least 28 goals in each of his last three campaigns. His overall record at Udinese is 162 goals in 312 games.

Beyond him, the supporting cast is solid, rather than spectacular. The Colombian full-back Pablo Armero and the Moroccan Mehdi Benatia are expected to be the next to move on from the club for a big profit, while Roberto Pereyra is an Argentine midfielder of immense promise.

They may not have the quality of recent incarnations but, as a business model, Udinese provide the blueprint for a lot of clubs. It will be interesting to see how the latest crop cope in the Anfield spotlight.

Alberto Aquilani was a given and, though his was a rather forgettable spell on Merseyside, most would remember Andrea Dossena (a player who, coincidentally, was signed from Udinese). But the other? It had plenty scrambling for their history books. Yet on Thursday, the chances are the player will be staring them straight in the face. He is likely to line up in goal for the Italians.

Daniele Padelli is a name that slunk quietly into a forgotten corner of Liverpool's past. Signed on loan from Sampdoria in January 2007, he would make just a single appearance for the Reds; a 2-2 draw with Charlton on the final day of the 2006-07 league season, just ten days before Rafa Benitez's side faced AC Milan in the Champions League final in Athens.

It was a debut to forget. Padelli was at fault for both Charlton goals, and returned to Italy soon after. He joined Udinese on a permanent basis this summer, and will be hoping to create a better Anfield memory this time around.

Liverpool Want Permanent Madrid Star Deal

Liverpool will look to make Nuri Sahin’s loan deal at Anfield permanent in the summer, according to Marca.

The Turkish international has immediately impressed on Merseyside, and has scored three times since securing his season-long loan from Madrid over the summer.

Sahin scored twice in the Capital One Cup as Liverpool secured their place in the fourth round with a 2-1 win over West Brom during the week, while he also found the net in Liverpool’s first league win of the season, a 5-2 defeat of Norwich on Saturday.

Liverpool are not believed to have an option to make Sahin’s loan deal permanent at the end of the season, but remain confident of landing their man, who is contracted at the Bernabeu until 2017.

The Reds, who paid a £5 million fee in order to pip Arsenal to the signature of Sahin, will have to negotiate with Madrid over a potential transfer, while the player himself is said to be keen to return to Spain at the end of the season and prove his worth to Madrid coach Jose Mourinho.

Palace Admit They Can't Keep Zaha As Liverpool Circles

Crystal Palace manager Dougie Freedman has given Liverpool a boost in their pursuit of Wilfried Zaha by claiming he will let him go when the time is right.

Zaha is seen as Palace's next best prospect and is tipped to follow previous Eagles starlet Victor Moses into the Premier League, and he proved his credentials again on Tuesday night with both goals in Palace's 2-1 win over Wolves.

Scouts from many top-flight clubs have watched the 19-year-old in action for more than a year now and Newcastle wanted him back in the summer. Recently, Wigan manager Roberto Martinez has spoken of his admiration for Zaha but that only served to anger chairman Steve Parish.

Nevertheless, manager Freedman admits there will come a time when Zaha will have to move on - with Liverpool already circling ahead of the transfer window re-opening.

"When he's ready and when I think he's ready to go to the right club, I will tap Wilfried on the shoulder and tell him I can’t help him any longer," Freedman said.

"It’s a little bit different with my kids, the relationship has been there a long time.

"Wilfried can play at the top level if he continues going with his movement, he’s got wonderful technique and ability. His all-round game is coming together."

Atletico Madrid Want Liverpool Star

Atletico Madrid have reportedly identified Liverpool star Luis Suarez as the player to replace Falcao, should the Colombian striker be sold to Chelsea.

Falcao has been in magnificent form since joining Atletico Madrid from Porto in the summer of 2011, and has already found the net on ten occasions this season, to add to his 36 goals last term.

The 26-year-old has frequently been linked with a move to Stamford Bridge following the departure of Didier Drogba, with speculation increasing after Falcao scored a hat-trick against Chelsea in the Super Cup.

According to Spanish publication AS, Atletico Madrid are already making plans for the possibility of Falcao joining Chelsea, and Liverpool forward Suarez tops their list of replacements.

Suarez scored a hat-trick for Liverpool in the weekend defeat of Norwich, and has scored 27 times in 58 appearances for the Reds since moving to Anfield from Ajax in January of last year.

Liverpool, however, would be loath to sell the 25-year-old Uruguayan, even if Atletico Madrid approach the club with a substantial offer.

Agger To Play On Despite Injury

Daniel Agger has vowed to continue playing for Liverpool despite sustaining a minor fracture in his kneecap.

Agger has been plagued by injuries since joining Liverpool in 2006 and it was feared he faced another lengthy spell on the sidelines when he was stretchered off during the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United last month.

The 27-year-old was injured when he collided with team-mate Glen Johnson but fortunately the injury was not as bad as first feared and the defender has vowed to play through the pain barrier to help Liverpool’s push up the Premier League table.

“I feared the worst when it happened. When I tried to get up the muscle in my knee just didn’t work. I felt really unsteady and the medical staff thought I had done my ligaments,” Agger told the Liverpool Echo.

“I felt really comfortable and I’m enjoying it. I think I deserved a bit of luck after the problems I’ve had in the past.”

Liverpool recorded their first league win of the season against Norwich on Saturday and Agger believes the 5-2 scoreline is just what the Reds need to push them on for the rest of the season.

“We’ve played well like that in a number of games but the difference last Saturday was that we got the goals,” he said.

“We could have had even more because we created a lot of chances but five was enough. The win was good for confidence and we needed the three points.

“The only disappointment was the goals we conceded. That’s something we definitely have to work on. It’s always easier to win games if you keep a clean sheet. Even when we’re playing good attacking football we have to be able to keep the back closed.”

Enrique Playing Through Pain

Liverpool defender Jose Enrique has revealed he has been playing through the pain barrier so far this season.

The Spaniard picked up a knee problem prior to his side's Premier League opener against West Brom and has since struggled through two months' action.

But after a recent injection, the full-back is hopeful of a swift return to full fitness and is determined to prove his worth to new boss Brendan Rodgers.

"I don't know quite what the problem is but I have been playing with a lot of pain," he told Liverpool's official website.

"I had an injection in my knee so hopefully that will settle it down and allow me to find my form again because it is difficult playing with pain.

"It is something behind my knee and I have had to be very careful with it. I've been trying to play with it but it is not 100 per cent.

"I felt it in training before the opening day of the season at West Brom and since then it has been very bad. Hopefully the injection will sort it out.

"Obviously with a new manager at the club you want to be at your best, but I want to play to help us climb up the table. I want to get back as soon as possible."

Wisdom Impresses Rodgers

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers is backing Andre Wisdom and his other promising youngsters to make a big impression.

Wisdom is the latest product of the Anfield academy system to make his mark in the senior set-up, with a debut goal in a UEFA Europa League clash with Young Boys Berne announcing his arrival in style.

The 19-year-old is now looking to earn a regular run in the side, with it possible that an unfortunate injury to Martin Kelly could play into his hands.

Rodgers believes the talented teenager is destined for big things and is confident he can shine at right-back despite spending much of his career to date turning out at centre-half.

"When I came Andre had been at centre-half but he has the physical and technical capacity to play full-back," he said.

"The modern day full-back has a lot of the ball and has to have strength, pace and power - well Andre has that."

Rodgers is also looking for a number of other academy graduates to make the breakthrough this season, with the likes of Wisdom, Raheem Sterling and Suso having benefited from a lack of summer transfer activity on Merseyside.

Liverpool To Offer Young Trio New Contracts

Brendan Rodgers plans to reward his teenage stars Raheem Sterling, Suso and Andre Wisdom with lucrative new contracts.

Following the sale of a number of squad players during the summer transfer window, the former Swansea City manager has introduced the pick of the Liverpool's reserve and academy sides into the first team to admirable success.

17-year-old Sterling has made the biggest impact of the three, and Rodgers has already revealed that he has had discussions with the starlet regarding a new contract. The Mirror report that 18-year-old Suso and 19-year-old Wisdom will also reportedly enter talks with the club to ensure their long term future at Anfield.

After the club failed to bring in additional striking cover following Andy Carroll’s move to West Ham United and the departures of a number of players who enjoyed squad status under Kenny Dalglish’s reign, much had been made of the fate of Liverpool’s season. But after a rocky start, Rodgers is confident of the club’s progression.

“It’s funny how things work out. Maybe it’s fate. Maybe this is all part of the story. Sometimes things happen by design, others by necessity.

“Whichever way, the plan between the window closing and January was to see how many of the young, talented players are going to be able to come into our squad - and I’ve been very, very pleased by the impact they’ve made.

“They have played with no fear, but I always say young players will run through a barbed wire fence for you. You have seen that in games.

"It’s also a great demonstration that with talent and spirit and belief and hard work what you can achieve, not matter how young you are.”

Suso has followed Sterling into becoming an effective component of Liverpool’s attacking contingent. The youngster was close to leaving Anfield during the summer but Rodgers is now reaping the rewards of holding onto the talented attacking midfielder.

“He’s in the last year of his contract, and it’s something we will look at," the manager explained. "We did have a couple of offers for Suso in the summer, but I always said I didn’t want him to go.

Luis: We'll Help Young Stars

Luis Suarez has challenged Liverpool's aspiring youngsters to maintain their progress and pledged that the senior players will do everything they can to help make that happen.

The Uruguayan has been impressed by the performances of Raheem Sterling and Suso, among others, so far this season and wants his budding colleagues to prove their worth repeatedly.

"I'm a youngster too, I'm only twenty five!" Suarez joked to before giving his personal appraisal of how the young players have taken the opportunity handed to them by Brendan Rodgers.

"We've got a lot of quality youngsters here, such as Raheem, Suso showed what he could do the other day. [Adam] Morgan has to keep taking his chance to feature more and more, and [Jerome] Sinclair made his debut.

"They are all really good players and they are at Liverpool for a reason. The form that Raheem has been showing and Suso the other day, they are showing us that they want to help the team.

"And we so-called experienced players are always there to help them so let's hope that they continue to develop and don't just stand still but continue to prove exactly why they are at Liverpool."

At 25, Suarez is hardly old himself, but the Reds No.7 knows how to make an immediate impact at Anfield, having struck 27 times in 60 appearances, including a debut goal.

The forward explained that the first-team players in the dressing room will make themselves available to advise their younger teammates, although they have yet to approach him.

"Not really, maybe it's because I don't speak English or something," the former Ajax man explained.

"But I think it should be us who are offering advice to them, telling what they are doing well, and not so well, but I think they do realize that they have to learn things from the older players."