Liverpool V Blackpool

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 We will be meeting to watch this game at 11:30am on Sunday 3rd October.

The game is not being televised live so instead we will be watching the Setanta delayed broadcast.

Due to the timeslot clashing with NFL games that start at 10am we will be watching this in the bar next door to G Sport called Red Square. This way we will have the entire bar to ourselves to play the game with sound and not have any conflict with the NFL crowd next door that will already be in the middle of watching their games at 11:30am.

The Road to Dublin – UEFA Europa League 2010-11 Preview

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LFC_Europa_Group The group stage of the Europa League (previously the UEFA Cup) begins this Thursday, September 16th. The qualifying rounds have all been completed, and we now have 12 groups of 4 teams each, all  ready to compete to see who will progress to the knock-out stages next spring. The 48 teams entered into the groups consist of the defending champions Atletico Madrid, the 37 winners from the playoff rounds (including us of course), and the 10 teams eliminated from the final round of qualifying for the Champions League.

When the knock-out stage begins in late February 2011, there will be 24 survivors from the group stages – the top two from each group – who will then be joined by the 8 third-place clubs from the Champions League groups to make up 32 all together. From there it’s a straight-forward two-legged knock out competition, culminating in the final to be played in Dublin on May 18th 2011.

After surviving the third qualifying round against FC Rabotnicki, and then the play-off round against Trabzonspor, we were then entered into the draw for the group stage. That put us in the company of some of Europe’s most famous clubs, along with the likes of Juventus, Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Rosenborg, Villareal, Club Brugge, Dynamo Kyiv, CSKA Moscow, Sporting Club de Portugal, Palermo, Sparta Prague, Anderlecht, AEK Athens, Stuttgart, PSV Eindhoven, Sampdoria, Sevilla, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund, FC Porto, and CSKA Sofia. We’ve faced many of those clubs in the past, and could have faced many of them in the group stages. Instead, we were drawn into Group K along with Steaua Bucharest (Romania), Napoli (Italy), and FC Utrecht (Netherlands). It could have been a lot worse with trips to some far away Eastern European cities, and so these three opponents have to be seen as a lot easier to take considering what might have been (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, among others). There are no easy games in European competition, as we have found out in the past, and these three opponents might be described as “tricky” if we want to be polite.

 Steaua

FC Steaua Bucharest – Sept 16th (H) and December 2nd (A)

Our first match is at home to Steaua Bucharest, which will definitely not be easy. Steaua are by far Romania’s most successful club, having won their domestic league (Liga 1) a record 32 times, as well as being runners-up an additional 13 times. They have also won the Romanian Cup 20 times (also a record) as well as being runners-up in that competition 7 times. Their record in Europe is also respectable, being the first (and only) Romanian club to reach the European Cup final, with a European Cup win over Barcelona, and a UEFA Super Cup win over Dynamo Kiev, in 1986 as well as being European Cup finalists in 1989 (losing to AC Milan). Their best record in the UEFA Cup is a semi-finalist position in 2006, losing out to Middlesbrough.

The club began in 1947 as the Romanian Army Sports Club (ASA Bucuresti), with the football club separating from the rest of the organisation in 1998. The only remaining link to the army is the home ground, Stadionul Ghencea, which opened in 1974 and is the property of the ministry of defence. The club name translates as “The Star of Bucharest” and is represented by a star on the club crest (originally red), which is a common symbol for Eastern European Army clubs.  

Steaua’s first strip (1947) was blue shorts with yellow and red striped shirts, representing the Romanian tricolour flag. The strip was later changed to omit the yellow and use combinations of red and blue, but an all yellow strip with blue and red trim on the sleeves is also used nowadays for some of their away matches.

When the Stadionul Ghencea first opened in 1974 as the first football-only stadium ever built in Romania, it had a capacity of 30,000 on benches, which was reduced to 28,000 in 1991 when the stadium was renovated and seats were installed. Floodlights and VIP boxes were also installed at that time, with a further renovation in 2006 allowing the stadium to qualify for Champions League matches. The Romanian National team also use the same stadium for their home games. The capacity may only be 28,000 but it is by no means a quiet place. Several domestic league and Champions League matches have resulted in suspensions against the club for crowd disturbances including racial chants and setting off flares. In 2009, two Europa League matches were played to an empty stadium after racist banners were displayed in a qualifying match against Hungarian side Ujpest. We should probably be glad that the plans to expand the capacity to anywhere from 45,000 to 60,000 have yet to be completed.

Liverpool played Steaua in the 2003-2004 UEFA Cup, with a 1-1 result away in the first leg (Djimi Traore scored his first goal for Liverpool) and 1-0 at home (Harry Kewell’s goal). That win was Liverpool’s 50th in the UEFA Cup, giving us a 2-1 aggregate win.

Some notable former players for Steaua include former Tottenham, Barcelona, and PSV player Gheorge Popescu, who also won 115 caps for Romania, and is the brother-in-law of another famous former Steaua player, Romanian international Gheorge Hagi who earned 125 international caps, many of them as captain. Hagi also has the rare distinction of having played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona during his career. Dan Petrescu spent 14 years with the club from youth to senior level, and is well known amongst Chelsea supporters with five seasons in London from 1995 to 2000.

Current manager Ilie Dimitrescu is also a former player who began and ended his playing days with the club, and also spent a couple of years in between in England playing for Tottenham and West Ham, among other clubs in Mexico, Spain, and Italy. Other notable former managers include Walter Zenga (2004-05), and former player Gheorge Hagi for a brief spell in 2007.

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S.S.C. Napoli – October 21st (A) and November 4th (H)

Football was brought to the city of Naples in 1904 by English sailors William Poths and Hector Bayon, who were in part responsible for the founding of Naples Foot-Ball and Cricket Club. The name was shortened to Naples Foot-Ball Club a couple of years later, with the team originally wearing sky blue and navy blue striped shirts with black shorts. The club has been through several periods of ups and downs over its history, although managing to stay in Serie A for most of the time. The most successful era for the club was during the time that Diego Maradona was leading the side to the Serie A championship and the Coppa Italia in 1987. Two years later, Napoli achieved their first (and only) European trophy when they lifted the UEFA Cup in 1989. The following year they again won the Serie A. Maradona was banned for 15 months following a positive test for cocaine, and with that Napoli went into a period of decline both on the field and financially, with relegation to Serie B in 1998. After a couple of promotions and relegations, Napoli were declared bankrupt in 2004.

The club was re-founded by film director Aurelio Di Laurentis under the name Napoli Soccer as they were not allowed to use their former name, but were later renamed as Societa Sportiva Calcio (SSC) Napoli in 2006. Current manager Walter Mazzari has brought some success back to the club, achieving a sixth place finish in Serie A last year and gaining entrance to this year’s Europa League. 

Napoli have featured some of the top names in football (besides Maradona) over their history, including Ruud Kroll who joined the club after leaving Vancouver Whitecaps in 1980. Dino Zoff appeared over 150 times for Napoli over 7 seasons, and was Italy’s national team goalkeeper from the late 60’s through the early 80’s (he was also Italy’s manager from 1998 to 2000).  Andrea Carnevale was a team-mate of Maradona’s during the Serie A winning season of 1990, as was Gianfranco Zola who left Napoli in 1993 and moved to Parma, and then to Chelsea in 1996. Current France national team manager Laurent Blanc is also a former player, and some other familiar names among their alumni include Fabio Cannavaro, Paolo Di Canio, Daniel Fonseca, and Roberto Ayala. One very familiar name that we’ll see when we play Napoli is Andrea Dossena, who spent two seasons with Liverpool until this past January 2010.

A few familiar names are also featured in their list of former managers, including Claudio Ranieri, Marcello Lippi, and Roberto Donadoni.

We have never faced Napoli before, so this is a case of venturing into the unknown when we meet them in late
October.

Utrecht

FC Utrecht – September 30th (A) and December 15th (H)

Utrecht are a somewhat unknown quantity, having never faced us before in competition, although we have beaten them 1-0 (Heighway) and 2-0 (Cormack and Toshack) in pre-season friendlies back in 1972 and 1975 respectively. Even though we have beaten them both times, and knowing that they are not the most famous side in the Netherlands, they still should not be taken lightly. Celtic found that out to their cost recently, after beating them 2-0 at home, only to go down 4-0 away putting Utrecht into this year’s group stage at Celtic’s expense.   

FC Utrecht was founded in 1970 with the merger of three clubs: DOS, Elinkwijk, and Velox. DOS had won the Eredivisie (Holland’s first division) in 1958, while Utrecht have won the KNVB Cup three times in 1985, 2003, and 2004, as well as being runners-up in 1982, and 2002. They were the first club outside of the big three of Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord to win the Johan Cruijff Shield in 2004.

They have been a competitive club in the Eredivisie since their founding in 1970, and are the only club not to have been relegated at least once during their time in the top division, while every other club (other than Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord) has been relegated at least once since Utrecht’s founding in 1970. That record puts them well up in the overall standings, chasing the traditional top three clubs for honours each year.

One former Utrecht player whose name will be recognised is Dirk Kuyt, who played there for five seasons (1998-2003) before moving to Feyenoord for three seasons and then to Liverpool in 2006. Jan Wouters played for Utrecht from 1980 to 1986, and then became assistant manager, and caretaker manager from 1996 to 1997. He then returned to the club in 2009, again as assistant, this time to current manager Ton du Chatinier.

The three clubs in our group should provide us with some good competition and hopefully some entertaining football. We’ll have to play well, both home and away, to make sure that we finish first or second to ensure that we progress to the knock-out stage next spring.

Even though it’s a long long way to Tipperary, at least Dublin might be a lot closer by the end of these six matches. There’s also that age-old saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; which can be re-stated as: our journey on the long road to the final begins with a single game on Thursday this week. Come on you Reds!

Keith Perkins

The Season Begins on Sunday

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Of course, the season actually began on August 15th with our first Premier League match at home to Arsenal, and we’re already three games into it. Or did it really begin back on July 29th with our first-leg Europa League qualifier away to Macedonian side FK Rabotnicki? Either way, the action already completed might be considered as just a few opening scenes while the stage is still being set for the main acts of the season to come.

One of the reasons that I say the season is really beginning now, instead of weeks ago, is simply that we weren’t really into the Europa League until we had successfully completed the qualifying rounds. Also, we had the handicap of not having all of our World Cup players available until just before the start of the Premier League season, which meant that we had to make do with a mostly reserve team side for the first few competitive matches.

Another reason for the thought that the season hadn’t yet begun was that we were still in the process of finding new players before the transfer window closed at the end of August. We already had one new player on the way before the end of last season – Milan Jovanovich who was recruited on a free transfer by Rafa Benitez. It was now up to new manager Roy Hodgson to assess the squad and determine who he would want to stay and who would he be willing to part with.

Roy is no slouch when it comes to assessing players, and when you look back at his record in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and with the Swiss national side among others, a pattern emerges that shows he manages to get the best out of the players he has rather than spending big in the transfer market. Of course we also know how he managed to get Fulham to the Europa League final last season, which illustrates his ability to use his players wisely against supposedly superior opposition. One of the first comments that I made when he was announced as our new manager was that I wondered if he already had his eye on a number of lower priced but highly capable players that he was thinking of bringing to Fulham, which he would now be hoping to bring to Liverpool. That may turn out to be a necessary talent for a new Liverpool manager, with full knowledge that there would be limited funds available for transfers into the club.

The first major signing for Roy was Joe Cole on a free transfer. That signing caused a few ruffled feathers among some pundits, especially when Joe made all the right comments about wanting to come to the best and biggest club in the world. We already knew that, but it was a shock to many that he chose us over several other clubs that would have been thrilled to have him in their squads. Christian Poulsen was recruited from Juventus, which is really no great surprise as Roy knew him well from their time at Copenhagen. Meanwhile, Fabio Aurelio was still training with the squad even though he had been released at the end of last season, and when Roy found out that he had not yet found a new club he offered him a contract to stay. That was a good move, as it’s not only another free signing, but also obviously brings in a proven left-sided player with plenty of experience with Liverpool. Roy also looked toward the future and signed a few promising young players, such as 18 year old defender Danny Wilson from Rangers, and 18 year old midfielder Jonjo Shelvey from Charlton Athletic.

A few players were effectively told they could leave the club, but with no immediate takers they were instead sent out on loan. Aquilani returned to Italy with Juventus, Degen went off to Germany, Insua to Turkey, and El Zhar to Greece. If any of those players now prove themselves capable of playing well and not getting injured, we have the option of bringing them back at the end of the season. Alternatively, they may be sold on to other clubs, allowing money to be available for bringing in other players.

As the transfer deadline approached, there were more rumours than could possibly be followed with any measure of intelligence. One of the more reliable was that we were looking very closely at a couple of players at PSV Eindhoven – Swedish striker (or sometimes midfielder) Ola Toivonen, and Mexican left-back Carlos Salcido. Both of these players were initially of great interest, to the extent that Kenny Dalglish was sent over to Holland to watch them both in action. A week or so later, it was rumoured that Salcido was on his way to Fulham rather than Liverpool, and Roy then made the statement that even though we wanted to sign a striker, he had no interest in Toivonen. He explained his reasoning simply that we have enough players already capable of playing a role that Toivonen plays, i.e. as a supporting striker, and that what we really need is a lone striker, i.e. a player more of the Torres style.

As for the need for a left-back (with Insua out on loan, and injury prone Aurelio the only other experienced player available), it was clear that we were still looking for a new player to fill that role. Paul Konchesky’s name came up, to the surprise of many, but it was soon clear that the wheels were already in motion for this deal to be made. The best person to make that decision was Roy himself, and in spite of a lot of criticism similar to “If this is the best we can do then we’re really in trouble”, it must be said that nobody can make the judgement as to who is the better player besides a manager who has worked with him for the past 3 years. Roy knows exactly what he’s getting with Konchesky, and given the chance to sign Salcido from PSV he chose instead to bring Konchesky to Anfield and let Salcido go to Fulham. Surely Roy can see something that most of the rest of us don’t, and has a plan in place for how he’ll get Konchesky to fit into the back line with the others. Let’s not forget also that Paul Konchesky has plenty of Premier League experience, and is also one more English player to make up the numbers required under the new UEFA rules. The only negative that I can see in the deal is the loss of Lauri Dalle Valle, who was a promising young player who may have turned out to be that second striker that we need. But that would be a long way off in the future, and we have to be more concerned with the present needs for now.

The biggest name to be brought in at the last minute before the closing of the transfer window was 27 year old Portuguese international Raul Meireles from FC Porto. He comes with a wealth of experience at the highest level (150 or so appearances for his club, and 39 international caps) and is a proven winner with four consecutive Portuguese League Champions medals, and three Portuguese Cup winners’ medals during his ten years with Porto. He was previously linked with a move to Chelsea, but instead signed for Liverpool. He hasn’t played for us yet, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in action soon. One more player to mention is goalkeeper Brad Jones, who was on Middlesbrough’s books since 2001 but was out on loan with various clubs for several seasons before becoming established as their first choice a couple of seasons ago. He’s Australian by birth and has represented their national team, but qualifies as “home grown” under the new Premier League rules.

The full squad is now in place, and we have a mix of talent, with a good cross-section of youth versus experience, and I personally would say that we have a better side now than we had last year. A few players will have to prove themselves this season, and that includes Lucas Leiva, David N’Gog, and Ryan Babel. They certainly have their critics, but we should remember that they are still relatively young and still learning, and I’d be happy to see those critics eat their words before the season is over. We also have a few younger players with the chance to break through into the first team as regulars. Martin Kelly has looked good as a full-back on either side whenever he’s had the chance, and could be used often as a substitute as well as in cup matches. He’s only 20, so he can look forward to a bright future if he plays well when called upon. Danny Pacheco and Danny Ayala are both in a similar position, with good showings in the reserves and a few appearances with the first team already. We also have a few starlets from the 2007 FA Youth Cup winning side ready to show what they can do, such as Stephen Darby, Jay Spearing, and Nathan Eccleston. Similarly for these players, they have to be ready to prove themselves capable when presented with the opportunity. It would be great to see some of them coming through and challenging for first team places, which if nothing else would keep the regulars on their toes knowing that there’s someone waiting for the chance to take their place.

It’s only the middle of September, but it seems like months since the season got under way with that first Europa League qualifier. In fact it really is months ago since Roy’s first competitive match in charge, away in Skopje against FK Rabotnicki back in July. That first Europa League two-leg qualifier was followed by another round of qualifying, this time against Turkish side Trabzonspor, which then allowed us to enter the group stage which begins this coming week (Thursday, September 19th) at home to Steaua Bucharest. After that, we have plenty more European matches to look forward to, with further matches against Napoli, and Utrecht. Hopefully we’ll succeed in the group and then go on to the knock-out rounds in February, with the real possibility of another European Final next May – in Dublin.

There’s no rest for the wicked, so the saying goes, and there’s also no rest for clubs that want success. That includes us of course, and so we hope that the upcoming first match in our quest for an eighth League Cup will begin successfully with a win at home to Northampton Town on September 22nd.

In between those two Europa League and Carling Cup matches, there’s also the small matter of a trip to Old Trafford, which is never easy but then never too dull either. As I said just a while ago, there’s no peace and no rest for us for a while yet to come. In fact, we have to hope that we won’t be resting too much until we end the season in May next year. Our aim for this season has to be to get back into the top four. Winning the league in Roy’s first season is a dream that is most likely out of reach, but it shouldn’t be abandoned for lack of trying. We don’t give up easily; in fact we just don’t give up. That wouldn’t be part of The Liverpool Way, and wouldn’t be acceptable to Roy, the players, or any of us. Besides a top-four finish, it would be nice to win a trophy of some sort this season. It’s been a few years since we won one (FA Cup in 2006), and Roy has a tough act to follow with several managers before him winning trophies in their first year in charge (Fagan 1984, Dalglish 1986, Souness 1992, Evans 1995, Benitez 2005).

Whatever happens, it’s sure to be an interesting season. We know it’s going to be a tough slog at times, and we can expect many ups and downs along the way. But, at the end of it all, we want to be able to hold our heads up proudly and say, “We are Liverpool FC, and We’re Back!”

Keith Perkins

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