LOCALS crowd the gates of Liverpool’s Melwood training complex, tucked in amongst houses in the city’s West Derby district. A sign on the outer wall indicates that, due to accidents, players will not stop cars to sign autographs after training. However, the fan frenzy continues in hope that one Premier League superstar might flaunt the rules one day.
Behind the towering walls and fences which shield Liverpool’s preparations from the outside world, everything is notably more serene. Focus is very much on the task ahead, which is dispensing with Hearts in this evening’s Europa League play-off second leg.
Manager Brendan Rodgers is calm and composed. He is aware there are bigger opponents on the fixture list – this tie is bookended by league games against Manchester City and Arsenal – but knows he cannot afford to take Hearts lightly.
Rodgers takes his seat in Melwood’s media centre to explain why his preparations will be thorough. His voice echoes round the room but his players will already have listened. He holds all the aces following last week’s 1-0 first-leg win in Edinburgh. That was achieved without the might of his captain, Steven Gerrard, plus Luis Suarez, Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique.
Some of those will feature tonight because Liverpool’s priority, for now, is reaching the Europa League groups. “The crowd at Tynecastle were brilliant and really gave their team energy, really lifted the players up and carried them in some ways,” stated Rodgers. “Hearts have got some good players. The young boy (David) Templeton in behind was a threat, he’s got good qualities. I thought (Callum) Paterson on the right side was a good size and did well. (Ryan) McGowan got forward well and served the ball well.
“This is a game we don’t take lightly. Our concentration and focus is very much to win the game. I hope we’ll be really strong and aggressive at Anfield this season and hopefully that will get us a good result and take us through.
“I’d like to think we’re favourites. We’re 1-0 up, we’ve got top players and we have to beat every team that comes to Anfield. There’s no doubt the advantage is with ourselves. That’s the reality, but we’re certainly not going to be complacent. It’s not like we expect to go through. We’re very much still focused on the task because 1-0 can be a very dangerous score. If we perform like we did at the weekend, hopefully that will be enough to get us a good result.”
Liverpool drew 2-2 with City on Sunday, with most of their mainstays likely to stay involved against Hearts. Rodgers rejected the suggestion he was not taking the Europa League seriously enough by leaving so many established names out last week.
“Some of those players who were out will come back in,” he continued. “I don’t know what was written or said about the first game. I will always respect every game we are in and any squad I take will be the one I believe can win the game. That was the case last week.
“I used the opportunity to recuperate some players who have played long summers and will play a lot of games this season. I still had a strong side out with seven full internationals.
“We want to go as far as we possibly can in this tournament. There may be other things which determine that later on. To win anything and achieve anything, you need to have a good squad. I believe I’ve got some terrific players here.
“The most important thing is getting through, there’s no point looking beyond that. My only focus is the next game. If we get through against Hearts it takes us into the group stages and then we can reflect from there.”
Liverpool, of course, is a club long synonymous with Scottish influence. Today, there is only Charlie Adam and Danny Wilson attempting to follow the legacy of Dalglish, Souness, St John, Hansen, Gillespie and Nicol, to name just a few. Times have changed, with Adam on the periphery of the squad and Wilson even further out of the picture. Rodgers was diplomatic when asked about the standard of player produced north of the Border.
“There are a lot more Scottish players playing in the Premier League and Championship compared to five years ago,” he said. “Scotland will always produce top players. The very first Liverpool team was all-Scottish. For me, the market has totally changed in Britain. The money you will pay here is way over the top compared to what you will pay for players from Europe. That’s why a lot of the European players get the opportunity to come in here because it’s a business for clubs as well.
“There is certainly talent (in Scotland). Hearts will be very happy with how they performed last week. They have some very good young talent.”