The electronic road signs around Liverpool warn motorists that there may be a bit of congestion in and around the city tonight. Sparta Prague are in town for the second leg of their Europa Cup tie with the Reds and an early kick-off means matchday traffic will clash with ‘rush hour’ traffic.
The early kick-off is down to UEFA trying to make as many games as possible available to TV in what is their secondary competition for clubs. The Champions League fixtures get spread over two nights but in the Europa League it’s all got to be done in one night and so the game at Anfield gets underway at 6pm.
There’s no doubt that this competition struggles even with the Anfield faithful to raise the same kind of enthusiasm as the Champions League. But where the club’s new owners offered free tickets for kids in that last game here in the competition – the last fixture in the already decided group stages – this game was a sell-out.
It’s Kenny Dalglish’s first home European tie as a manager of the Reds.
In his programme notes for tonight the boss cites the famous victory over St Etienne as the one “most people will consider to be the greatest” of all Anfield’s great European nights, one that happened before he’d signed for the club. But he also said that “European games are always great nights.
“All the players involved will have their own particular memories and if we can get a result this evening it will be a special night for me.”
In the press conference ahead of the clash he acknowledged it will be a special night for him, but reinforced the importance of getting through to the next round: “I’m sure the night is going to be special, but it’s more important that we get a result, because if we do that will make it even more worthwhile.
“For me, I’m only a small part of it and although I am really looking forward to it and it’s a great honour to be in charge of Liverpool on a European night, it will more enjoyable if we get a result. The result is more important than the pre-match show.
“Anfield has had some memorable evenings. European nights are always special for many clubs, but certainly for this club. It’s obviously an earlier kick-off than what we’re used to and it will take a bit of adjustment from the players and the fans also, but I’m sure that won’t deter them from giving us their full support.
“We’ve got to get them on side early doors. The responsibility is on us to go and win the game, but fortunately for us that’s nothing new – the responsibility has been on us many times to go and win games.”
Kenny was asked what it would mean if he could get his side to the final in Dublin in May, but Kenny was never one to talk about anything further ahead than the next fixture: “We’ve got to win the game tomorrow night first. We don’t need to run too fast. As we’ve always said, the next game is the most important one. We’ve got to concentrate on that and get as much as we can from it, so that’s all we’re going to try and do.
“We’ve never promised anything other than hard work and 100 per cent commitment. If we stop doing that then we’ve got a problem, but these boys have been brilliant in that department so far.”
Last week’s first leg ended 0-0 in what was the exact opposite of a thriller. Tonight’s game may not be much better, but Kenny is hopeful the Reds can do what’s needed: “Sparta are a difficult side to break down, that was shown last week. I don’t think they will be too different to what they were, but hopefully we will be different.”
What is different, compared to the last home game in this competition, is that Kenny Dalglish is now in charge. Everything feels different; even a 0-0 is met with a positive reaction from fans and seen as something to build on or learn from. Reds supporters are enjoying seeing their team managed by the man who understands them better than any other living soul – and so’s he: “I don’t know how long it’s been[since taking the manager’s job back] but it’s been hugely enjoyable. To come back and be in charge is a great honour and all you can do is try your best, and that’s all I’ll continue to do, to try and work as well as I can and try and get some positive results.
“I didn’t know it was seven weeks, but every day you come in and there’s something new to be done and every day you look forward to getting up out of bed, which is good. It’s been a change, but it’s been very rewarding and worthwhile for me and I just hope other people are enjoying it as much as I am.”
Kenny also gave another nod to former manager Rafael Benitez and the changes he initiated at the academy: “There are an awful lot of positives that have happened over the last couple of years, mainly from the Academy. I think the progress there from the young kids has been fantastic and it’s really pleasing to see.
“As I’ve said before, it’s great credit to Rafa that he made the changes there and brought in two Spanish lads and Frank McParland on the administrative side of it to get the Academy going, and that’s really positive for us, but the most important team at a club is the first team and we’ve got to move that forward now.
“Hopefully it has moved on a little bit, but obviously we’d like to go further. For me, I’d be happy if we just made some progress.”
Kenny also said he had no plans to give new signing Andy Carroll an early return from injury. Kenny was pictured at a Boyzone concert with the new boy on Tuesday night, but that is likely to be the only surprise of the week involving the former Newcastle player: “He’s close to full training and involved with the lads for parts of the training, but as I said there is no need to get carried away – there’s not going to be a surprise announcement that he’s playing tomorrow night.”
And the club captain, Steven Gerrard, is also going to be missing tonight – but he’s not too far from a return: “He could be [back for the West Ham game]. We’ll just have to wait and see. He’s that close that we might have a decision to make whether we take a chance or leave him; we’ve not come to that stage yet, but it could be what we’re faced with tomorrow.”
Kenny’s son Paul became a dad on Tuesday night when his wife gave birth to twins, and the boss was of course delighted to be a grandad again: “I spoke to him last night. Of course he’s happy – it’s the first time he’s scored two goals in one game!”
Kenny will have to wait a while before getting to see the latest additions to the Dalglish clan, with Paul and his wife based in Texas. “It’s fantastic,” he said. “The babies are looking brilliant, I’ve seen the pictures. That’s his first but in getting two in one hit it might be his last as well!”
2011 has certainly been a year to remember so far for the family who’ve had a place in Liverpool hearts since 1977.