Exclusive Q&A with Liverpool’s Joe Allen ahead of the Merseyside derby

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LIVERPOOL — On Tuesday night Liverpool and Everton will square off at Anfield (Watch live on NBCSN, 3pm ET and online via Live Extra) with local pride and a place in the top four of the Premier League at stake.

Yeah, it doesn’t get much bigger than that.

So last week I popped up to Liverpool FC’s Melwood training ground for an exclusive one-on-one chat with midfielder Joe Allen and asked him about what it’s like to play in the derby, what Liverpool can achieve this season, about his time on Merseyside so far and much more.

(WATCH: Liverpool vs. Everton live on NBCSN, 3pm ET and online via Live Extra)

Allen, 24, is also in a pretty unique situation as he’s the only Liverpool or Everton player who has played under both managers, Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez, while they were in charge of his hometown club Swansea.

In fact Everton manager Martinez, who Allen is desperately hoping to beat at Anfield under the floodlights and cauldron of noise, gave the young Welsh midfielder his professional debut in 2007. So the respect he has for the Spanish coach is plentiful, as the Red and Blue halves of Merseyside prepare to square off.

(MORE: Merseyside Derby – Liverpool and Everton set for biggest derby in decades)

Having played in the 3-3 draw at Goodison Park back in November, Allen had a glorious opportunity to score that he put wide of Tim Howard’s goal. That miss, and the desire to help Liveprool obtain their goal of a top four finish, sees Allen fired up for what’s set to be an epic Merseyside derby with bragging rights well and truly on the line.

So without further adieu, here he is.

Explain to an American audience, what is it like to play in a derby? What are the differences to a regular game?

Obviously the passion and the intensity in those games are completely different to regular games. As players they are the games you look forward to the most.

For you, where does this derby rank in the Premier League? Is it right up there with the biggest derbies in the world?

Yeah it is, of course it is. In particular the last few seasons the rivalry between Everton and Liverpool has become even more fierce especially in the league table, that gives it even more excitement and build the game up even more. This are the sort of games that when the fixture list comes out, you look for them straightaway.

Is there a buzz around the city with a derby around the corner? Has it helped that both teams have been playing so well?

In the week leading up to the game it is the talk of the city and the people. Everyone is hoping their team comes out on top and they will have the bragging rights that follow that.

source: Getty Images
Liverpool midfielder Allen misses a great chance in the derby earlier this season. He expects another end-to-end clash at Anfield.

It adds to the intensity and the importance of the game. The derby and the rivalry is one thing but we’re competing for similar positions in the table, so it gives it that added spice. That’s certainly the case when that’s at stake. We realize the importance of the match both from the rivalry point of view, but from picking up points off each other.

You have some previous in Derby games, scoring the winner vs. Cardiff as a youngster. How special are these matches? 

Being a player that came through the academy at Swansea, it was a great feeling in the derby match to first of all get my first goal but to be playing in such an important game. It is such a big game, it was great. It’s a moment I will never forget.

What about the derby and the fact you weren’t born in Liverpool? Is it different?

As soon as you join a club in Liverpool, you see how passionate the fans are towards their football club. Everyone knows the score when you go into a derby game. How much it means to everyone in the city and obviously that gives you the added incentive to go out and perform and get the added result.

Do you see this rivalry getting even bigger as both teams and new managers continue to develop in the next few years?

Both teams at the moment are improving, certainly over the last couple of seasons. It’s already a huge derby match. But I think with reasonably young managers, and the young teams developing, I’m hoping to be a part of many great derby days in the future.

Having played in the first game at Goodison in the 3-3 draw, are you expecting a similar challenge this time?

I’m sure from a tempo point of view and the pace of the game it will be very similar, almost every derby game is. I was impressed that Everton had the courage to fight back from a losing position, but then so did we. That game had everything. Hopefully it will be as exciting, but that Liverpool come out on top and win quite comfortably.

What about Roberto Martinez, has it surprised you what he’s done?

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Allen, right, is expecting a tough test from Everton once again in Tuesday’s derby.

He’s had a big impact and has done really well since he went to Everton. There are no surprises there really. He’s a good manager. It will be strange being on the opposition team but I am looking forward to facing up against him.

What was he like to work for during your time at Swansea?

Martinez has been great, he was a big part of my career as the manager who gave my debut in league football. He helped develop my game a lot with his approach to my style of play and things like that, he played a big part in Swansea’s success as well.

At Liverpool, what would be a successful season this campaign? Top 4? A trophy?

Top four is the main focus. Everyone appreciates that. It is incredibly competitive trying to get those top four places and over the season there’s going to be twists and turns but that’s our main goal. To do that would be an incredible achievement.

Between now and the rest of the season, are you confident your game-changers will make most teams struggle against you?

We’ve certainly got the came-changers and players who have the ability to turn games on their head. We’ve got a great team morale and everyone is really working at 100 percent, we have done all season. The signs are all positive for the rest of the season. Let’s hope we can keep getting the results we are after and lets see where that leaves us at the end of the season.

Personally, how have you found things this season? It’s been stop-start with injuries, how frustrating is that?

It’s the biggest frustration in football. Unfortunately that comes with the territory and is something you’ve got to learn to deal with and try to do everything you can to prevent it happening again. Thankfully I am fit at the moment and looking to keep it that way for as long as possible.

With Lucas out injured for while, do you see this as a chance to play regularly between now and the end of the season?  How was it to comeback against Aston Villa last weekend?

It’s always great to get back on that, unfortunately it wasn’t as part of a winning performance. The aim now is to get a run of games, if I can get my chance in the team I will do everything I can to keep hold of it. The first half of the season has been very stop-start so to get that consistent run of games it what I am striving to do. Touch wood I can make it happen.

With so many quality players in midfield, has it been tough to try and become a starter?

When you agree to join a club like Liverpool you appreciate the competition is fierce. You’re joining a club with fantastic players there already and also they’re always a club that are going to attract players in the future. You know day in, day out you have got to give everything. As an ambitious player, like everyone else in that dressing room, we are the type of characters who are hungry and looking to compete. We’re all hopeful we can come on top, we do appreciate the competition is fierce but you always want to be a part of a team where that’s the case.

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After an injury-hit campaign, Allen hopes to get his smooth passing game going for the rest of the season.

You are still very young, what are your targets in the short and long term with Liverpool and Wales?

With Liverpool the dream for me is to experience Champions League football. That’s been a dream of mine since a young age. I’d love to have the chance to do that with Liverpool and in my time here. I’m hopeful in my time here I will get the chance to do that.

From an international point of view, Wales’ focus is now on qualifying for the Euro’s. With some of the players we’ve got we are a young developing team, it’s an exciting few years ahead for us. So I hope to have the chance to play in some finals for Wales.

How great has it been to play alongside Steven Gerrard since you arrived at Liverpool?

It’s been great. He’s a player I’ve looked up to for some many years and has been a huge player in the Premier League and for Liverpool. To get the chance to play with him and learn from him day in and day out, it’s been a privilege. I’m looking forward to try and get in the team alongside him and producing some good performances with him.

What do you think of Gerrard dropping back and adopting more of a Pirlo role?

I think he can still do everything. He’s a top player and the best players can play in many different roles. That’s credit to him and the beauty of having a player like Stevie in your team. Wherever he’s asked to do a job, he will do it with flying colors.

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With the Welsh national team full of youngsters, Allen is hoping they can qualify for the next European Championships in 2016.

There’s been scattered of talk of Gerrard playing center back at the World Cup. Can he do it?

As I said, you feel the best players can play anywhere. If that’s the case you feel he’d certainly do a good job there. Whether it happens or not is a different question.

How has Rodgers change since his Swansea days?

He has a certain philosophy. But of course there has to be change at different clubs, but also as a young manager he’s progressing his career as well. I’ve been lucky to have the chance to work under him at a massive club like Liverpool, so it’s been great.

Who has more jaw-dropping moments in training, Suarez or Sturridge?

They are both at it. You’ve seen it consistently from both of them this season on the football pitch but it’s the same in training. Obviously there’s the likes of Coutinho and Raheem, who have the ability to produce all sorts on the training pitch as well. It keeps you on your toes.

Preview: Everton v. Newcastle

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  • Everton have won seven of their last eight games v Newcastle
  • Newcastle have won four PL games in a row
  • Wayne Rooney has more goals (15) against Newcastle than any other PL team

Everton host Newcastle United on Monday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) with the Toffees and Magpies both setting pretty in midtable.

[ LIVE: Stream every PL game

The Toffees sit in ninth, with Newcastle in 10th and just one point behind Everton with a game in hand. Rafael Benitez has been lauded for taking his newly-promoted side into the top 10 with defensive solidity, while Sam Allardyce has been lambasted for a defensive style of play despite getting Everton out of a relegation fight following his appointment back in November.

In team news Everton have Mason Holgate and Gylfi Sigurdsson out injured, while Newcastle will be without Christian Atsu but Islam Slimani could make his first start.


What they’re saying 

Sam Allardyce on the job Rafael Benitez has done at Newcastle: “From a difficult period they have managed to recover and get in the Premier League and they have turned it around. They have put together a run of games and we’ll see a better Newcastle than we saw up there [when Everton won 1-0 in December]. Rafa has progressed very well. He has always expressed his disappointment with not enough funds – we can all say we don’t have enough funds. What he has managed with the funds he has, particularly in the January months, has been excellent.”

Rafael Benitez on his Newcastle future: “I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time. I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.”

Prediction
Two teams who are very similar in terms of their style of play should see a bit of a stalemate take place at Goodison. 1-1 draw, which is a much better result for Newcastle and will pile more pressure on Big Sam.

Paul Pogba: “Transfers are not in my head”

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Paul Pogba has been discussing his future at Manchester United beyond this season.

The Frenchman delivered a stunning assist in United’s 2-1 win against Tottenham in the FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, with the midfielder now named Man of the Match in each of his last two games after plenty of speculation about his future at United in recent months.

Jose Mourinho left Pogba out of his starting lineup on multiple occasions, while Pep Guardiola claims he was offered to buy Pogba in January and speculation about him joining Paris Saint-Germain, going back to Juventus or heading to Real Madrid continue.

Speaking to French outlet Canal Football Club, Pogba had the following to say about his own future.

“Right now, I am at Manchester United and I am honestly only thinking about the present. Transfers are not in my head. We are in the [FA] Cup final and the World Cup is around the corner,” Pogba said.

Pogba also addressed the rumors regarding his relationship with Mourinho with reports stating that the duo do not get along and United’s manager is fed up with the Frenchman’s attitude off the pitch.

“I don’t have a problem with him, and I don’t think he has a problem with me,” Pogba said. “He’s the coach and he has to make choices. I am a player and I accept them. I have to answer on the pitch.”

Benitez happy to stay at Newcastle if he “has the tools to compete”

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Rafa Benitez is approaching something vaguely resembling sainthood in the northeast of England — with the Newcastle United-supporting portion, at least — but his future remains in doubt as the end of the current Premier League season draws nearer and the next one approaches.

[ MORE: Salah beats De Bruyne to win PFA Player of the year award ]

Benitez and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley have endured an unhappy working relationship for much of Benitez’s 25 months at the club. The Spaniard was true to his word, though, when he stuck around another season after being relegated from the PL in 2016, then again after winning promotion on the Magpies’ first attempt, but he’ll be faced with the same dilemma again this summer, even after guiding Newcastle to a mid-table finish (they currently sit 10th with five games left to play).

[ MORE: Man United reach FA Cup final | Chelsea join them ]

If he’s not given assurances that he’ll be handed the necessary funds to properly strengthen his squad during the upcoming summer transfer window, the 58-year-old could very well walk away and leave Ashley to play the part of all-too-familiar villain. Or, as Benitez put it this weekend, Ashley could fork over “the tools to be capable of competing” and make everyone, from the manager to the fans, happy — quotes form the Guardian:

“If they [Ashley’s representatives] want to talk to my people [about a new contract,] they can talk. The main thing is to be sure we share the same ambition.

“I want to win games and I want to win trophies and I want to have the tools to be capable of competing. At the same time, I like to improve players, coach players, follow a business plan, a realistic business plan in modern football. I have no problem with that because I did it in the past.

“We have to be sure to have all the tools to compete and achieve what we want to achieve because Newcastle is a massive football club and we want it to reach its potential.”

Of course, the perfect scenario for everyone involved would have been for any one of the numerous takeover bids to have gone through during the last two years, but as was most recently evidenced earlier this year, Ashley and the Toon can’t seem to quit each other just yet.

MLS: Timbers end NYCFC’s unbeaten start; Seattle get 1st win

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Sunday was a very good day for a pair of green-clad Cascadia rivals, the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders, as the former put to end the unbeaten start of the best team in MLS, while the latter picked up their first win of 2018…

[ MORE: Saturday’s MLS roundupOther MLS Things — The Archive ]

Portland Timbers 3-0 New York City FC

Through their first seven games, NYCFC were almost inarguably the best team in MLS (aside: how much better is their opening-day walkover of Sporting KC looking these days?), but Patrick Vieira’s side might as well have not even shown up to Providence Park on Sunday. Chalk it up to “it’s only one game,” or “these things happen in MLS,” or “NYC to Portland is a long trip for Russian clubs,” or any other credible rationale you prefer, but they were nothing more than 11 passengers for the whole of 90 minutes.

A quick look at the defending on all three of Portland’s goals…

Vieira was right at halftime, when he said his side was lacking intensity and aggression, and that it’d be nigh impossible to get back into the game in the second half if they continued to play that way. Spoiler: it was, because they did.

Just as I’ll not be rushing to judgment over NYCFC’s no-show performance, I’m not yet buying into the idea that Portland have figured things out defensively on the back of one clean sheet (their first of the season).

Seattle Sounders 3-1 Minnesota United

Speaking of firsts, Seattle are the proud owners of points — as in, more than one point — after putting three past Minnesota but almost fatally failing to kill the game off after going 2-0 up. I’m not sure what any defender in black is doing on this sequence…

Alas, Gustav Svensson, Will Bruin and Jordy Delem were far more clinical with their chances than the Loons…

Still, though, Seattle were completely helpless when it came time to grab control of the game while in a commanding position. Osvaldo Alonso is nowhere near the player he once was, which is a massive problem against teams that set up to counter-attack, as Minnesota did on Sunday. It doesn’t help that Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are the plodding center backs behind him.

The obvious answer to the midfield problem is to play Cristian Roldan deeper, alongside Alonso as they did en route to winning MLS Cup in 2016, but injuries to a number of key attackers have forced him into a de facto no. 10 role for the time being. These things will work themselves out with a bit of time, I suppose.

Full MLS scoreboard

Sporting Kansas City 6-0 Vancouver Whitecaps (Friday) — FULL RECAP
Montreal Impact 3-5 Los Angeles FC — FULL RECAP
Houston Dynamo 5-1 Toronto FC
New York Red Bulls 1-2 Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC 2-2 New England Revolution
Orlando City SC 3-2 San Jose Earthquakes
FC Dallas 2-0 Philadelphia Union
Real Salt Lake 3-0 Colorado Rapids
LA Galaxy 0-2 Atlanta United