Thursday, October 25, 2012

Match Preview: Liverpool v. Anzhi

Europa League action is back underway, with Liverpool capping off the first round of group play by hosting Russian Premier League leaders Anzhi Makhachkala on Thursday night at Anfield.

A European night at Anfield and a Merseyside derby make for an exciting four-day stretch, and the importance of Thursday's date with Anzhi--joint top with Udinese, one point ahead of Liverpool--hopefully creates an atmosphere of urgency and excitement. We knew coming in that Liverpool were going to be tested in one of the more challenging groups of the competition, and Thursday night kicks off a month that will determine whether or not Liverpool will be playing European football past the first week of December.

Their approach to the competition has been mixed, with periods of droll, listless performances sprinkled among a string of positive results--the terrible twenty minutes in the second half against Udinese condemned Liverpool to their first defeat in the competition, the only time they haven't won aside from the 1-1 draw with Hearts in the second leg of the final qualifying tie. Complete performances from Liverpool have been few and far between this season, but if they can manage to put together the encouraging pieces we've witnessed in their last two outings, there's no reason to believe that they can't wrap up tomorrow in one of the top two spots of Group A.

If they can't manage to produce on Thursday could make for a long evening; Anzhi are the most impressive and successful opponent Liverpool will have faced in the Europa League, entering Thursday night's match with an impressive resume in the competition and a two-point lead in the Russian Premier League. They've only conceded one goal in Europe, an injury time equalizer by Antonio Di Natale in Italy in the first match of group play. Aside from that they've outscored the opposition 17-0, with 11 of those goals coming with Anzhi as the away side. It may be their first-ever appearance in the group stage of a UEFA competition, but on form they're among the strongest teams in the competition.

There's a litany of familiar Premier League faces for Anzhi, starting on the touchline with former Chelsea caretaker Guus Hiddink and extending into the squad with Yuri Zhirkov, Christopher Samba, and Lassana Diarra (who's a doubt with an injury) all starting each of the first two matches in group play. Samuel Eto'o will likely start up top after getting a brace against Young Boys last time out; the Cameroonian striker has seven goals in league and will be supported by Lacina Traore, the tall striker who's scored six of his own in Anzhi's league campaign.

Absentees for Thursday are largely the same as the weekend--Pepe Reina was confirmed as unavailable, and Fabio Borini, Martin Kelly, and Lucas all continue to be ruled out with no concrete return dates. No other concerns emerged from the Reading victory, but with the derby on Sunday it wouldn't be too surprising to see a handful of key names left out.

Reina's absence seems to make for a fairly straightforward selection of Brad Jones, even if third-choice Peter Gulacsi has continued to build off his impressive showings in the preseason. In front of goal it's easy enough to pick the central defensive pairing, with Sebastian Coates and Jamie Carragher the back-up pairing for cup competition. On either side we could see the original academy breakthroughs; Jack Robinson might be nudged out in favor of Jose Enrique, who impressed in a brief cameo on Saturday, but there's a good chance he features on the opposite side of Glen Johnson, who likely starts again with Jon Flanagan's fitness status unknown.

Unless Conor Coady ascends the ranks quickly, we're going to see one of Joe Allen, Steven Gerrard, or Nuri Sahin, and Allen seems the most likely. Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson both got minutes on Saturday, with the former playing a decent chunk of the second half and the latter on to see the match out. Both should start on Thursday and play a large role; this is a midfield three that really excites, and one that was very, very impressive in the first half against Udinese.

Both Stewart Downing and Oussama Assaidi seem in line for a start unless Rodgers opts to go very young, as I would think that Samed Yesil is one of the only options in the middle. Luis Suarez very well could start again, but after a busy international "break" and an active but frustrating 90 minutes over the weekend, a rest should be on the cards, especially with such a busy end to the year on tap. Dani Pacheco, Adam Morgan, and Joe Cole could all be in the mix as well, and Raheem Sterling and Suso could make substitute appearances if needed.

Pascoe: No Derby Distraction

Liverpool assistant boss Colin Pascoe insists the players will not be distracted by the upcoming Merseyside derby as they prepare to face Anzhi Makhachkala on Thursday.

The Reds will slip nine points behind Everton in the Premier League if they are beaten by their local rivals at Goodison Park on Sunday, but firstly they will try to get their Europa League campaign back on track.

Liverpool is third in Group A after the 3-2 defeat by Udinese in their last fixture and Pascoe says the Reds are focusing their efforts on toppling leaders Anzhi at Anfield.

"With the next game, it is always the same," Pascoe said. "The boys are looking forward to Anzhi.

"Everton against Liverpool is a massive game, but it hasn't been talked about and isn't being thought about at the moment.

"We are thinking just purely about the game on Thursday."

The Merseysiders will be without goalkeeper Jose Reina, who is struggling with a hamstring problem, and Pascoe admits it is touch and go whether he will be fit enough to face Everton.

"We are not quite sure at the moment," he said. "Hopefully not too long. He is doing his rehab at the moment and is working hard in training.

"So we will just have to assess him over the weekend and we will see then."

Brad Jones will deputize for Reina and admits the Reds will have to keep a close eye on Anzhi's former Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o.

"Obviously Eto'o is a fantastic player and has been for a number of years, playing at the top," he said.

"You know you are going to have to be on top of your game, but I have to do that every day with the likes of Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard anyway.

"It is just about making sure you concentrate and do the right things."

Liverpool Join The Race For Dutchman

Liverpool has reportedly joined the chase for Dutch forward Klaas Jan Huntelaar, who’s dwindling contract could see him become available at a cut price before January.

The striker is contracted to Bundesliga side Schalke, who will take on Arsenal on Wednesday evening, but continued delays in talks over a new contract have thrown his future at the club in severe doubt, with his current deal set to expire next summer.

Liverpool and any other club who possess an interest in the 29-year-old’s services would be able to begin negotiations regarding a pre-contract agreement as early as January, but Schalke may choose to cut their losses by that point if all hopes of agreeing on a new deal are extinguished, and listen to offers for Huntelaar.

The Daily Star reports that Brendan Rodgers has identified the Dutchman as a viable target. Rodgers is desperate to secure the services of at least one other forward as soon as the January transfer window opens to ease the burden on Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan is the club’s only fit striker following the news that Fabio Borini will be ruled out until the New Year.

Huntelaar carries a reputation as a fearsome goal poacher, particularly as Ajax’s leading man, where he plundered 76 goals in 92 appearances between 2006 and 2009. Subsequent moves to Real Madrid and AC Milan have proven to be less productive, although the Dutch international has rediscovered his scoring touch in the Bundesliga, where he was the league’s top scorer last campaign.

Chelsea has also been linked with a move for the Schalke striker in recent weeks, as his contract negotiations with the German club have continued to falter. Aside from Daniel Sturridge, who also looks to be eager to leave Stamford Bridge, the club are short on cover should Fernando Torres struggle with fitness.

Liverpool Eye Up Finland Under 21 Striker

Liverpool has got their eyes on HJK Helsinki’s Joel Pohjanpalo to solve their striking crisis.

Fabio Borini is out for three months and Andy Carroll is on-loan at West Ham United, making Luis Suarez their only fit first-team striker.

Pohjanpalo is only 18-years-old but has been tipped for a bright future outside of his home country.

He has also attracted interest from Borussia Monchengladbach of the Bundesliga following impressive performances in Finland’s top flight.

The Finland Under-21 international first appeared in Helsinki’s reserve ranks as a 16-year-old where he scored a record-breaking 33 league goals in 21 appearances.

He earned a new contract in December 2011 keeping him in the Finnish capital until 2015.

Brendan Rodgers tried to sign Pohjanpalo in the summer but the striker turned down a three-year contract with the Merseyside club.

Liverpool has also failed in their bid to sign Hamburg striker Son Heung-min.

No Liverpool Contact For Lens

PSV Eindhoven striker Jeremain Lens' agent has played down talk linking him with a possible move to Liverpool.

Reports have suggested Lens is on Liverpool's list of targets as they plan to bolster their attacking options when the transfer window reopens in January.

The 24-year-old recently admitted that he would be interested in a move to a major league to take the next step in his career.

Juventus have also been credited with an interest in the Dutch international, but the player's agent, Kees-Ploegsma, claims he has had no contact with either club and has ruled out a move for the player in January.

"Juventus and Liverpool interested in Lens? I have had no type of contact with them, but I cannot know if they have spoken directly with PSV," Ploegsma told

"Lens still has a three-year contract with PSV and I think it is not intended to leave in January, but in football anything can happen.

"At this time he is a 100 per cent a PSV player, with which he'll play also the second part of the season. Then in June we'll see".

Carroll: I Didn't Get Chance

On-loan West Ham striker Andy Carroll believes he was never given a 'fair chance' to prove himself at Liverpool.

The England international struggled to make an impact at Anfield after his £35m move from Newcastle in January 2011.

Carroll was loaned out to West Ham following the arrival of Brendan Rodgers as Reds boss in the summer but feels he could have altered his game to adhere to the manager's style of play.

"I haven't really had a fair chance at Liverpool," the 23-year-old told the Daily Mirror.

"I was really told that I should move on to keep playing regular football, and obviously then Sam wanted me here and told me I would be playing regular games.

"So, for me it was a no-brainer coming here and to play.

"Obviously, I didn't really get a chance there. A new manager came in and I wasn't part of his plans. For me to play football, that was my chance to do that. That is why I am here at Upton Park.

"I think I could fit into every system. I believe in what I can do. Obviously he [Rodgers] has his beliefs and he didn't think that.

"But for me, obviously, it was better to move on instead of waiting for my chance - which he told me might not come."

Carroll added: "Coming here, I have got a great chance to start games and score goals, which I haven't really had many of last season.

"I don't think I have got a point to prove, that is the wrong way to put it.

"I know what I can do and the ability I have got. I know what I am capable of.

"If other people don't believe it, that is fine. I just get on with it.

"But at the end of the day, I know what I can do."

Reina Hails Agger And Skrtel

Pepe Reina believes that Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel can be compared to the best defensive pairings in Liverpool's history.

The pair have committed their long-term futures to the club by signing new contracts since the start of the season.

As well as making favourable comparisons with Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, Reina feels that the duo is at the top of their trade in the Premier League.

"It's good they've signed contracts because it's a fact that they are one of the best centre-back couples in the Premier League," Reina told the official Liverpool website.

"The understanding between them is great and they've been really solid lately. In the last year and a half or so they have been brilliant for us.

"It's great for the club and I'm happy for them that they've got new deals.

"If I am not mistaken they are similar ages to each other, so they have five or six years still to play their best football.

"I don't see any reason why they can't do the same as Carra and Sami did, though they were one of the greatest centre-back couples this club has ever had."

Enrique: We Have Not Been Getting What We Deserve

Liverpool full back Jose Enrique feels that their performances this season have deserved a better reward.

The 26 year old has been on the sidelines for much of this season with a recurring knee injury, but spending much of his time in the stands has allowed him to see just how Brendan Rodgers wants to get Liverpool playing.

"Brendan Rodgers' style of play suits me," Enrique explained to the Liverpool Echo. "His formation and tactics are the type of football I like to be involved in.

"It's probably different to the way most football teams in this country normally play. It's a style that is more like the way football is played in Spain or by the Spanish national team.

"All of our training is done with the ball and it's a very enjoyable way to work. We are trying to play a different way under the manager and it's worked at times.

"The way we've played so far this season has probably deserved better results, especially at home when we've dominated but not taken the points."

Rogers will be looking forward to having Enrique available for selection again after he made his comeback against Reading on Saturday.

The Spaniard continued. It's been difficult as every footballer just wants to play. I tried to but was getting a lot of pain in my knee and because of that I couldn't perform at my true level.

"I got injured in training when I tried a shot. I twisted something and it didn't feel right. It took a few weeks to recover but now it finally seems to be okay again."

While Enrique has been sidelined, the likes of Andre Wisdom have grasped their opportunity to stake a first-team claim - something which has pleased the left-back.

"It's really great to see youngsters doing a good job for the team and I hope that continues," added the defender, who also described midfielder Jonjo Shelvey as 'an amazing player'.

"It's clear that the lads who have come in are really good players. They also have lots of confidence because they know that the manager believes in them."

Pepe Reina A Doubt For Merseyside Derby

Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina is facing a battle for fitness ahead of Sunday’s Merseyside derby at Goodison Park.

The 30-year-old shot stopper returned from international duty with a hamstring injury he picked up in the build up to Spain’s 1-1 draw last Tuesday, which ruled him out of Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Reading on Saturday afternoon.

The Spaniard will also miss Thursday’s Europa League clash at home to Russian outfit Anzhi Makhachkal, with Brad Jones set to deputize once again.

Sky Sports report that the Spaniard to did not take part in training at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground this morning, throwing the goalkeeper’s chances of taking on Everton on Sunday into doubt.

Colin Pascoe, Liverpool’s assistant manager has since revealed that the club will have to wait and see on Reina’s progress leading up to the derby.

We are not quite sure at the moment,” Pascoe told Sky Sports.

"Hopefully, it won't be too long. He is doing his rehab at the moment and is working hard in training.

"So we will just have to assess him over the weekend and we will see then."

NFL Mogul Reveals He Held Liverpool Talks

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has revealed he came close to buying Liverpool before the ill-fated reign of George Gillett and Tom Hicks, and is glad he rejected the opportunity to follow up his interest in the Anfield club.

Gillett and Hicks bought Liverpool for £435 million in 2007 amid great interest in the five-time European champions, and Kraft says he was among the interested parties at the time.

Kraft even went so far as to meet then Anfield chairman David Moores to discuss a potential deal for Liverpool, but the Patriots chief allowed his head to rule his heart and pulled out of a proposed move.

“Do you know I came close to buying Liverpool, right before George Gillett and Tom Hicks bought it? I met David Moores, a wonderful man, and it was quite an interesting episode because I love the game of soccer, too," Kraft told the Evening Standard.

He added: “My heart wanted to do it but my head told me, no.”

“I am relieved I didn’t buy Liverpool. Sometimes the best deals you do are the ones you don’t do.”

Kraft says his reasons for not making a formal offer for Liverpool were based around the salary structure in English football, with no wages cap in place unlike in many American sports.

Should such a measure be adopted, says Kraft, he would consider investing in a Premier League club again.

“I didn’t like the fact there was no salary cap," Kraft explained. "If English clubs ever had a salary cap then I would look at buying a Premier League club.”

Following the disastrous spell of Gillett and Hicks in charge at Anfield, Liverpool were bought by another American company - Fenway Sports Group - in 2010, whom Kraft hails as 'smart people'.

FSG have come for some criticism for their dealings in the transfer market since their takeover of the club, but have pleased the majority with their decision to redevelop Anfield rather than build a new stadium.