Xabi: semi-final will be difficult

Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso says Liverpool are cautiously confident about their chances of progressing to the final of the Champions League at the expense of Chelsea. The first leg of the semi-final is at Stamford Bridge tomorrow, the latest battle in the long series of meetings between the two sides since Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benítez took up their posts at each club. Liverpool’s last two seasons have featured semi-finals against Chelsea – last season in the FA Cup and the previous season in the Champions League – and Liverpool have won both times before lifting the trophy in the final. Xabi says: “Let’s hope that history will repeat itself and we will claim another semi-final win over Chelsea. This is our strong intention and we believe we can do it over two legs. Chelsea will be very difficult opponents in the two games, but facing them gives us a special kind of motivation.”

Liverpool’s Chief Executive Rick Parry claims that Liverpool’s absolute minimum requirement out of a season is to qualify for the Champions League and on Saturday Liverpool achieved that with their win over Manchester City assuring them of a top-four finish. However that requirement really is the absolute minimum, because Liverpool want to win things: “Our maximum priority this year is to win the Champions League. Our objective is to try to win one competition, at least, every season and this is our last chance,” says Xabi. With new owners that minimum requirement may change: “Some people are suggesting we are under extra pressure now because of the takeover, but we can live with that pressure,” says the Spanish midfielder.

Xabi was asked if he felt that the current squad was better than the one that lifted the trophy for the fifth time in the club’s history in 2005: “I think that the present Liverpool team is better than the 2005 side because it has more options. On top of that, two years ago was the first season at the club for several players and for Rafa Benitez too, and we are more settled now. We have grown together and improved, but that improvement is still not a guarantee that we will be champions again this year.”

As far as Xabi is concerned, Chelsea are as much of a threat as they
have ever been: “Chelsea are different this season to how they were in
2005, but their backbone is still the same. It’s going to be a very
difficult semi-final.”

The Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho made an early start to his mind games
when he claimed Liverpool had it easier because they were now out of
the FA Cup and didn’t need to make much of an effort in the league.
Xabi doesn’t think it will be any easier for the Reds: “Mourinho has
said it’s easier for us because we only have the Champions League to
concentrate on, instead of their three trophies, but I don’t agree. I
think that it will be just as hard for Liverpool as it will be for
Chelsea to win this year’s Champions League.”

Liverpool’s performances over Chelsea have been steadily improving;
they were unlucky to lose in their away league game this season and won
the return match at Anfield. But that defeat at Stamford Bridge was yet
another game where Liverpool failed to score on the Russian-owned
club’s ground, something Xabi is unable to understand: “It’s true that
we’ve beaten them a few times but I don’t know if we fully know how to
control them. We must try to improve on our recent performances at
Stamford Bridge to go through. Sincerely, there is nothing about the
atmosphere at Stamford Bridge that intimidates us. I don’t know why we
haven’t had good results there in the past.”

The days of clubs playing for a 0-0 draw in the away legs in Europe
seem to have gone now. The last semi-final in this competition between
the two sides showed how nerve-wracking it can be to go into your home
second leg at 0-0. Liverpool scored first that night but due to the
away goals rule fans were on edge right until the end because one goal
from Chelsea would have sent he Reds go out. Those nerves will be
hopefully much less if Xabi is correct in what he’s saying – and if the
plan works: “We won’t be defensive at Stamford Bridge – we need to
score goals in the first leg because that will make it easier for the
second leg. A goal or two in London will give us the spirit and
confidence we need.”