LIVERPOOL arrived in Edinburgh last night missing several of their most prominent players ahead of their first leg Europa League play-off clash with Hearts at Tynecastle this evening.
Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson have all remained behind on Merseyside to rest prior to Sunday’s visit of Barclays Premier League champions Manchester City. It left the new Anfield manager Brendan Rodgers facing accusations that Liverpool were treating their Scottish opponents lightly. However, he firmly rejected these claims yesterday and stressed that the players he has brought with him to Scotland should be capable of coping with a “difficult” tie.
“I don’t need to warn the players against any complacency,” he said. “It’s something that I have noticed in my short time here that they’re allergic to complacency, there is no question about that. They focus everyday and their concentration is very good. They all understand the size of the task coming here to play well.”
The out-of-favour Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll are among those expected to start at Tynecastle tonight as Rodgers makes several changes to the side which lost 3-0 to West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. That Suarez is being replaced by the most expensive British footballer ever will not offer Hearts much solace, nor is manager John McGlynn likely to sympathise with his opposite number’s complaint about a lack of numbers.
“We have a very small squad, to be fair, so I have to try and protect some of the players,” said Rodgers. “We played over half an hour with ten men on Saturday and we have a massive game at the weekend. I trust my players and trust the group.”
It was a reminder of the pre-match build-up to last year’s match between Hearts and Tottenham Hotspur in the same round of the same competition. Then Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was forced to defend himself after it was suggested to him that, by passing on the chance to train at Tynecastle on the eve of the clash, the English side were taking lightly the threat presented by their opponents from the Scottish Premier League. The result certainly did not bear this out as Spurs ran into a 3-0 lead prior to half-time before eventually winning 5-0.
Liverpool trained at Tynecastle last night and Rodgers stressed that he was relishing the chance to hand others the chance to make a claim for a first-team place. He also pointed out that he expected Hearts to have learnt from their experience against Spurs last season.
“I think Hearts will be better for the experience,” he said. “They might have some regrets from last year when it was over early on. It left them an uphill task going forward but certainly they will be right up for this game.”
“We had a tough game away in Gomel [in the last round],” he added. “It was a very difficult game and thankfully we won the game 1-0. Hearts will be a very difficult game. I’m still taking a strong group. It’s a chance to see some young players but I have some strong experienced players, international captains, Champions League winners. It’s still a strong enough squad. It will still be a very difficult game, Tynecastle is a wonderful tight little ground, supporters will be well behind their team.
“They have some very good players here so we know it will be a tough game.”
Rodgers singled out John Sutton, who he worked with when the Hearts player was starting his career at Tottenham Hotspur. He also revealed that he had been interested in signing Hearts winger David Templeton when at Swansea last season.
“It’s a team that’s direct, they get the ball forward early, they have players that can break quickly on the counterattack as well,” he said of Hearts. “It’s important for us to control and dominate the ball. We need to keep the crowd quiet and make sure we keep them chasing the ball. We know that’ll be difficult to do. “
“Our main objective is the league but when you work at Liverpool every game is important,” he added. “It’s a very important game for us, we want to do well. The objective over the two games is to get into the group stage. For us, it’s certainly a game we want to win. “
Rodgers said he was avoiding becoming wrapped up in the Scotland versus England element of the occasion, although he paid tribute to the Anfield’s club strong Scottish links. “I believe every member of the first Liverpool team was Scottish, and that’s incredible,” he said. “Over the years Scotland has always produced talented players.”
But, he added, he stood apart from the cross-border rivalry: “I’m Irish. In these types of game there is always the England-versus-Scotland element to it. For me the rivalry is on the field in terms of wanting to win.”