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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.

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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.

Bremen beats Wolfsburg to leave Bundesliga relegation zone

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10:  Serge Gnabry of Germany reacts during the Men's First Round Football Group C match between Germany and Fiji at Mineirao Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)
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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Midfielder Serge Gnabry scored twice as Werder Bremen moved away from the Bundesliga’s relegation zone with a 2-1 win at fellow struggler Wolfsburg on Friday.

Bremen and Wolfsburg are level on points and two above Hamburger SV, which is in 18th place and in the relegation zone.

It was a fifth defeat in six games for Wolfsburg coach Valerien Ismael, who won the league and cup double as a player with Bremen in 2004.

Gnabry fired the visitors ahead with a deflected shot in the 10th minute and made it 2-0 eight minutes later, controlling the ball with his chest before prodding home on the volley.

Striker Borja Mayoral, who is on loan from Real Madrid, scored with his chest following a Wolfsburg corner as Wolfsburg hit back moments later.

Midfielder Daniel Didavi struck the post with a free kick as Wolfsburg kept pushing for an equalizer.

Mancini reportedly not interested in Leicester City, De Boer says no

GENOA, ITALY - APRIL 20:  Head Coach of FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini looks during the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and FC Internazionale Milano at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on April 20, 2016 in Genoa, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Two top candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City have reportedly turned down any interest in the job.

Roberto Mancini, the heavy favorite out of the gates after Ranieri’s dismissal, tweeted his support for Ranieri after the news broke. “I am sorry for my friend Ranieri,” Mancini said. “He will be in the history of LCFC, in the hearts of Leicester fans and all football lovers.”

However, the fellow Italian has rebuffed Leicester’s informal advances towards his services. According to Sky Sports, Leicester sent “intermediaries” to “sound out” Mancini’s feelings towards the position, but came back empty-handed. The report states Mancini was turned off to the club after a short and unsuccessful spell there as a player in 2001.

That leaves a host of other names who have been linked to the job, with no clear favorite. One person mentioned was Dutch legend Frank de Boer, who is unemployed after an unusually short stint in charge of Inter Milan. However, De Boer’s agent went public to say he was not ever in the running.

“There is zero possibility that Frank could go to Leicester,” agent Guido Albers told Italian publication Tuttomercatoweb. “I too heard these rumors, but that’s all they are – rumors. I can affirm without doubt that Frank will not become the Leicester City manager. This will 100 per cent not happen.”

Albers explained that De Boer is only interested in joining a club in the offseason, preferring to enter a project with a blank slate rather than joining midseason with particular goals already clearly laid out. With Leicester, it seems De Boer is turned off by the notion of a relegation battle.

Win over Las Palmas again has La Real on edge of CL spot

GETAFE, SPAIN - DECEMBER 11:  Xavi Prieto of Real Sociedad in action during the La Liga match between Getafe CF and Real Sociedad de Futbol at Coliseum Alfonso Perez stadium on December 11, 2015 in Getafe, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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All it took was one mistake. Real Sociedad’s Xabi Prieto capitalized, and has La Real once again on the verge of next year’s Champions League.

La Real finished 7th in 2013/14, and 9th in 2015/16, and this year, they’re closer than ever. Preito’s goal on the mistake by Las Palmas goalkeeper Javi Varas gave Real Sociedad the 1-0 road win and has them just a point off a Champions League place.

[ MORE: Antonio Conte pulling from experience to keep Chelsea on top ]

That could be even closer next week, as fourth-placed Atletico Madrid has to welcome Barcelona to the Calderon tomorrow, leaving the door open for La Real to make another move next weekend.

The goal down the stretch is not just to win the games they should, but make the teams above them work. La Real has won seven of their last ten matches, but the three losses came to Real Madrid, Villareal, and Sevilla, all teams fighting at the top of the table. They still have chances down the stretch, with matches against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Eibar coming up, with the latter on the docket next weekend.

Conte pulling from prior experience as title race pushes on

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux on February 18, 2017 in Wolverhampton, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte has recalled some painful memories to push himself and his players forward despite their commanding lead at the top of the Premier League table.

Chelsea sits eight points clear of Manchester City, and has the chance to go even further in front with many of the top teams off this weekend, but that won’t give the Italian any better sleep at night.

In the 1999/2000 season, Conte was nearing the end of his 13-year Juventus tenure. He’d won three league titles already, plus two league cup trophies and a Champions League title with the Serie A giants. With a comfortable nine point lead after 26 matches, the club became complacent. They would lose four of their final eight matches, collapsing on the final day in the pouring rain, allowing Lazio to come roaring back to win the title.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks for Week 26 ]

“I was captain of the team,” Conte said. “I remember after this game I must go to the European Championships with the national team. I didn’t sleep for six days because it was a shock for me to lose the title.”

Clearly, that still haunts him. “I have experienced this,” Conte continued. “When I continue to repeat that there are 13 games, there are 39 points… there is a long time before we can say we won the title. We must be focused, we must go step by step.”

The Blues host Swansea City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday before a trip to West Ham next weekend. If anyone believes the Chelsea players are complacent holding such a significant lead with 13 matches to go, it’s clear that’s not nearly the case. Anything can happen in three months.