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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?

source: Getty Images
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.

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET