Telegraph - 27th July 2005 (2 months after Weirside Rangers tour to Kaunus, Lithuania)
"Benitez wary amid strange terrain"
If Liverpool's European Cup triumph nine weeks ago was a tale of the unexpected, their defence of the trophy tonight becomes a journey into the unknown. Here in a Baltic state more obsessed with basketball, where the local delicacy is smoked pig's ear washed down with fire-water touching 75 per cent proof, Liverpool tackle the champions of Lithuania on a pitch pockmarked by javelins.
As the hurdles used for the European junior athletics championships were yesterday being removed from the St Dariaus and St Gireno Stadium (named after two Lithuanian pilots who perished in a bi-plane attempting to fly from New York to Kaunas in the 1930s), a surreal feel continued to surround Liverpool's summer exertions.
Their coach, Rafa Benitez, attempts to prepare a side physically, tactically and mentally for the Premiership rigours looming next month while ensuring his players are sharp enough to negotiate this Champions League pre-qualifying tour of footballing backwaters.
Adding to the strange atmosphere is the need for Benitez to play the transfer market while playing games. Benitez, who could give England's cricketers a master-class in the dead-bat arts, refused to be drawn yesterday on speculation linking Anfield with Luis Figo, Real Madrid's unsettled winger who is also coveted by Inter Milan. "No news," smiled Benitez.
And Milan Baros' possible switch to Aston Villa? Had the clubs come closer to an agreement (Villa have offered Â£5 million while Liverpool value Baros at Â£7 million). "I am thinking only of playing Kaunas," responded Benitez. "Baros is one of the possibilities for the game. Baros is happy. Look at him in training."
The Czech Republic international was indeed an enthusiastic contributor in last night's training, but it will be a surprise if he features this evening. Baros' transfer value would decrease through becoming cup-tied. Peter Crouch is expected to lead the line, with Luis Garcia working off the lanky newcomer. Bolo Zenden may be drafted in on the left, with Josemi likely to step in at right-back if Steve Finnan fails to recover from a bout of sickness.
Darren Potter could be given another chance at some point in right midfield, a reminder that home-grown talent has its place in Benitez's thoughts.
"The manager can bring in players from Barcelona and Real Madrid, but he has shown that it doesn't matter where you are from, if you do your best, he will have a look at you," said Potter yesterday.
"I have played in the [first pre-qualifying round] games against TNS and I hope I have given the manager some food for thought.
"I am more comfortable in the middle than on the right, but you know that Steven Gerrard, the best player in Europe, Xabi Alonso and Didi Hamann are competing for those places, so it is not going to be easy playing there. But as far as I am concerned, I'd give an arm and a leg just to get a shirt in any position."
A former captain of Liverpool Schoolboys, Potter was initially at Everton with Wayne Rooney. "We played together for five years and even as young lads you could see how special he was," added Potter.
"Everyone knew he was going to make it. Some of the things he would do in matches were unbelievable."
Talking of Merseysiders, the 600 Liverpool supporters travelling to Kaunas can expect a warm welcome, according to David Sink, chairman of London-based amateurs Weirside Rangers, who have just played a tour match in the St Dariaus and St Gireno Stadium. "It's a bad pitch but the Lithuanians are lovely people, really hospitable," said Sink yesterday.
"The beer is really cheap in Kaunas, and the food is fantastic but watch out for some of the local delicacies, like smoked pig's ear. You won't miss it - it looks exactly as it sounds. They also do some deep-fried bread you would struggle to hammer nails in. Apart from that, we were really well looked after!"
Assuming they arrive at the stadium safely, and even the official Lithuanian guidebook describes Kaunas drivers as "having one foot on the accelerator and the other in the grave", Liverpool should have too much class for their hosts.
Yet Liverpool's centre-halves, Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, must beware the movement and finishing threat of strikers Andrius Velicka and Arturas Rimkevicius, who filled their boots during FBK's 8-2 aggregate hammering of the Faroese minnows, HB, in the last round. "We are favourites," agreed Benitez, "but we need to demonstrate that on the pitch."
FBK Kaunas (probable; 4-4-2): Kurskis; Machvetia, Kancelskis, Zelmikas, Baguzis; Barevicius, Poderis, Tamosauskas, Petrenko; Velicka, Rimkevicius.
Liverpool (probable; 4-4-1-1): Reina; Josemi, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Potter, Xabi Alonso, Gerrard, Zenden; Garcia; Crouch.
Referee: K E Fisker (Denmark).