x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Prandelli put on Red alert

The Fiorentina head coach confesses that he is nervous after hearing the Liverpool Hull scoreline.

How do you stop Fernando Torres on a run like this? Not, on the evidence of his last two weekends in the English Premier League, by packing the penalty box with opponents. He merely wiggles his hips and threads a way through. Torres scored two of his three goals against Hull City thanks to his combination of speed, nimble feints and tricks. The hat-trick brought his total for the last two games to five.

In Tuscany, meanwhile, in the two hours ahead of last Saturday night's derby between Livorno and Fiorentina, Cesare Prandelli, the Fiorentina head coach, learned that Liverpool, who play in Florence in the Champions League tonight, had thrashed Hull 6-1. Before he actually sat down on Sunday to scrutinise footage of the Anfield rout, he confessed: "I'm a bit more nervous after hearing that scoreline."

So might he be. The distance between Hull, 19th in the English top flight, and Liverpool, third in the Premier League, is almost a mirror of the gap between Livorno, 19th in Serie A by Sunday morning, and Fiorentina, whose three points took them to fourth. Where Liverpool, albeit at home, secured a five-goal winning margin, Prandelli's side won only 1-0, via a penalty after their goalkeeper Sebastian Frey had kept them in the match against a disgruntled, and perhaps unlucky Livorno.

What does that say about the Premier League and Serie A prior to the first Champions League clash of the season between their respective representatives? Look at Saturday's fixtures in isolation and you might draw the conclusion that the distance between the upper and lower ranks of Serie A, compared to their equivalents in England, may be tighter. But, as Prandelli knows all too well, the distance between the top clubs of the Premier League and the elite of Serie A has widened considerably over the last five years, to England's advantage.

Back in March, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea knocked Roma, Inter Milan and Juventus out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage. A clean sweep. Fiorentina, as Prandelli recalls all too painfully, had fallen out of the competition a round earlier. Where, as recently as the late 1990s, teams from England would travel to anywhere in the Italian peninsula with dread and the burden of a terribly pessimistic set of precedents telling them how hard it was to win there, the switch since has been dramatic, with Liverpool prominent in shaping it.

The Anfield club had some epic contests with the Roma of Fabio Capello in the early part of this decade, famously reversed a heavy setback against Milan in the European Cup final of 2005, and have notched up memorable knockout triumphs in the Champions League, their favourite competition, against Juventus, when Juve were Serie A's top dogs, and Inter, while they were champions. Prandelli, whose team lost their first match in the group, away at Olympique Lyon, is reluctant to face Liverpool's firing cannons with a cautious posture.

"We are in front of our own fans and we won't think we are defeated before we go out there. Obviously a score like 6-1 plays on your nerves, but this is a different competition. It's the Champions League and that means you go in to it fired up, wanting to enjoy it and I'm prepared to take a few risks." With his centre-forward Alberto Gilardino, suspended after his red card at Lyon, Prandelli may risk Adrian Mutu, who is struggling for full fitness, from the start.

"I saw good signs against Livorno from Mutu that he is getting back to shape," said the coach. Ominously for the Italian side, Rafa Benitez, the Liverpool manager, said of Torres: "He can still get better than he is now, I think." As for the recent upheavals at Fiorentina, where president Andrea delle Valle stepped down last week, Prandelli felt they would not harm the team. "He [Delle Valle] has been in touch with us to wish us well and will be back at the stadium before long." The shoemaking millionaire relinquished his role following criticism from fans over the summer departures of players, such as Felipe Melo, but has said he will remain financially committed to a club he steered up the divisions from their bankruptcy crisis at the turn of the millennium.

ihawkey@thenational.ae Fiorentina v Liverpool, KO 10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport+4