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Sep 11, 2006

Smicer's Anfield reunion

When Vladimir Smicer returns to Anfield with Bordeaux for a Halloween Champions League encounter, Liverpool fans will be hoping a ghost of the club's recent past does not haunt the present.

The affable Czech wrote himself into Liverpool folklore and earned himself a place in supporters' hearts with his part in the barely credible evenings in Dortmund in 2001 and Istanbul four years later which saw UEFA Cup and Champions League trophies added to the Anfield cabinet.

But for all the achievements of a side fashioned largely by Gerard Houllier and reprised by Rafael Benitez on the way to beating Milan, Smicer believes the current crop of players assembled by the Spaniard can surpass the feats of recent years.

'They have got two really good players for each position, so they have got a much stronger squad than we had a year ago,' said Smicer, whose goal after coming off the bench in the Champions League final was his last for the club before he headed for French outfit Bordeaux in search of regular first-team football.

'I think their best players are in midfield. Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, I like these two players. Momo Sissoko is a very strong player now so there's always a threat from the midfield. It was the same when I played there.'

Smicer arrived at Anfield in 1999 having made his reputation as a selfless attacking midfielder with an eye for goal at Slavia Prague before moving to France and Lens, where he attracted the attention of then-Reds boss Houllier.

As part of an effective if often uninspiring Liverpool side, the Czech added significantly to his trophy cabinet, with the UEFA Cup just one of five winner's medals he picked up in a silverware-lined 2001 alone.

But while he is loathe to brand his former team-mates and friends as a potential chink in the Premiership side's armour, Smicer admits the solidity of the defensive-minded Liverpool of his initial years in England is no longer.

'I remember when I came to Liverpool we had the best defence in the league for one or two seasons. People want to see attacking football now, strikers, goals, the more popular players are up front so it's normal to think the defence is a weakness.

'I think that for every team, you can say their weakness is at the back. If you look at Real Madrid, for example. But with Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, Liverpool have some very good defenders.

'But the strikers now are fantastic. It was good news for Liverpool when they signed Craig Bellamy. I like his pace, he can go past players, make chances for others with his movement and then there is Peter Crouch. With his height he can cause problems for anyone.'

The 33-year-old will be able to attest the level of improvement first hand after UEFA plunged his current club into Champions League Group C with his former side, 'a dream draw for me' he admits.

The professional in Smicer means he is ready to divulge the secrets picked up in a season inside the Benitez-driven dressing room, admitting if current boss Ricardo 'does not come to see me, I'll go and see him.'

But Smicer - though now living in a part of the world renowned for its claret - clearly still has much affection for Merseyside's Red vintage.

Despite a Brazilian coach, [Bordeaux's] footballing philosophy is safety-first rather than samba.

'I spent six years at Liverpool, I've never stayed so long at one club at any other time in my career,' said the Czech, who enjoyed four seasons at Slavia and three at Lens before Liverpool came calling.

'It was a great experience and I won lots of trophies and we had a great time. I can't wait to play there again, because the European nights are really special. The supporters, they love their European nights, they love their football.

'I think I'll get a good welcome because I never had a problem with the fans in all the time I was there. I always tried my best, even if sometimes it didn't work.

'After Istanbul, it was a great end to my career there but I wasn't able to say bye to the fans, I never played for the team again. Now, I'll be able to say my goodbyes and then concentrate on the game. I have already told the rest of the Bordeaux players that it will be really something special to play there.'

Something special it may be, but how much a dour Bordeaux side that has not played Champions League football since 2000 will enjoy soaking up the Anfield atmosphere is uncertain.

Despite a Brazilian coach, the footballing philosophy is safety-first rather than samba.

Second to runaway winners Lyon last season, Bordeaux's domestic success was built, like the Houllier-era Liverpool, on an iron-clad defence which conceded just 25 goals last term, with veteran keeper Ulrich Rame - a survivor of the club's last Champions League foray - a pillar of that record.

Whether they have the quality to deal with the trickier questions posed by Champions League forwards remains a doubt, particularly after conceding five goals in their opening four Ligue 1 games.

Lilian Laslandes, fellow mis-hitman Jean-Claude Darcheville and the hit-and-miss Marouane Chamakh hardly boast prolific records, and though playmaker Johan Micoud - another who played in the 2000 campaign - has been persuaded to swap Bremen for a second spell in Bordeaux, goals are likely to prove hard to come by.

Despite the raw talent of midfield duo Rio Mavuba and Julien Faubert, who have both donned a France shirt already this season, many of the squad lack experience in the kill-or-be-killed world of Europe's elite club contest.

And after Bordeaux's failure to bring in proven quality - other than Micoud - in the transfer window, Smicer is prepared to admit a wet-behind-the-ears, paper-thin squad means a group which also includes PSV Eindhoven and Galatasaray will be a steep learning curve.

A lot of the players have never played in the competition before so playing in Champions League and the league it will be a difficult task for this team
Vladimir Smicer

'Of course, last season we were only concentrating on the league. This season, with the Champions League as well, we thought that we would have a few more players, but we have to deal with this,' says Smicer, a veteran of four Champions League campaigns who will be missing through injury when the Girondins kick off their campaign in Istanbul on Tuesday.

'Of course, it will be a very difficult season for us and we will see how we'll cope with this. The transfer market was open, but the prices were quite high. We all know the challenge of the Champions League will be massive for us.

'A lot of the players have never played in the competition before so playing in Champions League and the league it will be a difficult task for this team.'

He added: 'I know from Liverpool, that when we started playing the Champions League the first one or two seasons we knew we did not have the experience and in the end we won it. In the first few years, you take the lessons and the experience.

'I don't want to say it's a learning process, but it's a bonus for us to be playing in the Champions League. Our main target is to try and be in the Champions League every year - I think that's the target of every team in Europe. Our main target is the league, but it's a great bonus to be playing these games.'

But for all the pessimism of the on-paper analysis, Smicer - who expects to be fit for the first game against Liverpool on October 18 - believes Bordeaux can still trouble their more accomplished opponents.

'I think the other three teams have a lot more experience than us, but any team has a chance to qualify. We have to respect the quality of the opposition. We will try and do our best, especially in the home games.

'They are very, very important for us. With the draw, we play twice at home in the first three games. If we can do well in these two home games, then I think we've got a chance.'

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