Tuesday 12 December 2017

Byrne's giant-killing hopes hinge on shackling Suarez

John Hynes

AC MILAN icon Alessandro Nesta once endured a horrid Champions League evening in the Amsterdam Arena during which he was regularly nutmegged by the home side's Luis Suarez.

This season the Premier League's best defenders have similarly struggled to thwart the Uruguayan striker.

Tomorrow Dubliner Cliff Byrne will try to shackle the Liverpool man as League One side Oldham attempt to cause an FA Cup upset.

It's a challenge the Finglas man is approaching in a realistic manner.

"A few of us have been laughing and joking about his ability to nutmeg opponents," the 30-year-old defender says.

"He seems to do it six or seven times in each game. We know that if we sell ourselves he'll easily pop the ball through our legs.

"My way of looking at it is if the ball goes past me then he won't."


Suarez seems to attract headlines, both good and bad. In the last round of the FA Cup his use of an arm to aid the scoring of the decisive goal in a 2-1 victory at Mansfield drew widespread condemnation. ESPN commentator Jon Champion even described the player as 'a cheat', a remark the network rebuked him for.

Byrne doesn't view the Liverpool No 7 in such terms. "Suarez plays to the limits of the rules," is his take on it.

"Not for a second would I ever label a fellow professional a cheat. He's not. He just makes the best of the scenarios and positions he finds himself in, as the majority of footballers regularly do."

The Irishman, who joined Sunderland as a teenager but never played for their first team, confesses that if he ever netted in similar fashion to Suarez at Field Mill it would be difficult to admit an offence had taken place.

"There aren't too many professionals who would turn around and say it isn't a goal. I don't think he ran in to the box with the intention of punching the ball. It bounced up, it was instinct.

"A big deal was made out of it and I'm sure Mansfield felt hard done by. But there are plenty of moments when the ball goes over the line or a foul has been committed and players play on. It's no different.

"From a very young age you are taught to play to the whistle. If the officials don't see it, that's a harsh reality."

It's a lesson Byrne, currently half-way through earning his UEFA 'A' Coaching Licence, emphasises when he's training kids.

"Or now and again during one of the first-team sessions the manager will not blow for something blatant. He wants to see how we react. Officials are human so error will creep in.

"If it happens, you can't afford to be standing there with your hands in the air while the other team are playing on."

With Suarez nearby there will be no room for any hesitation from the man who has skippered the Latics at times this season. Preventing the striker adding to his impressive 20-goal tally won't be easy.

"If you go out there thinking 'I'm going to nail him' or 'I'm going to make sure he doesn't get a kick' that player will invariably make a fool out of you," reasons the former Ireland U-21 international. "All you can do is bring your game to the table and hopefully that will be enough.

"If we're both playing I'm sure it will be a good battle because I know one or two tricks as well."

Since leaving behind his younger days with Tolka Rovers and Home Farm to eventually spend nine years at Scunthorpe, Byrne has experienced plenty of knockout encounters against Premier League outfits.

He's faced Chelsea, Manchester United, (then in the top flight) Leeds, Aston Villa and a hat-trick of encounters against Man City. While the thrill of playing against such opposition is memorable one thing has been missing.

"I've yet to be part of a real giant-killing against a top team. Hopefully this will be the first time."

Paul Dickov's men are positioned towards the wrong end of English football's third tier. Despite that, they showed they can upset the odds with a 3-2 win at Championship side Nottingham Forest in the previous round. They also took the lead at Anfield when they met the Reds in this competition last season.

That advantage in front of the Kop lasted for two minutes, as a fortunate Craig Bellamy effort cancelled out Robbie Simpson's terrific long-ranger, and the hosts went on to record a 5-1 win.

Byrne wasn't at Boundary Park then, but he's been told about it since arriving in the summer.

"Some of the lads have been chatting. They maintain they could have been further ahead. Away from home in that type of situation it is always going to be difficult.


"We know our best opportunity of causing an upset is in front of our own fans. The ground only has three sides at the moment because one of the stands was demolished and is yet to be rebuilt due to the financial problems that are affecting a lot of clubs.

"So the surroundings will be different to what Liverpool are used to and hopefully one or two of them won't fancy it. We've got to maximise home advantage."

When Byrne initially heard Oldham's name come out of the hat first he was slightly disappointed. "I was listening on the radio and you have ideas of going to play at a famous stadium. Then when Mansfield or Liverpool appeared alongside us it suddenly became a great draw.

"There have been huge queues for tickets and the place is sure to be rocking."

Amongst those in attendance will be a sizeable contingent from the banks of the Liffey.

"At the last count I have to get 16 tickets. That includes my dad and my two brothers. There are also some friends and family. If we can get a victory it will be a great day and night.

"Occasions like it don't happen too often, I've been around long enough to know that."

Oldham v Liverpool,

Live, ITV1, tomorrow, 4.0

Irish Independent

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