31 December 2010

Liverpool v Bolton 01.01.11

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 10.31.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.30.10
3-2 Liverpool (a) 08.29.09
3-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Wolves (a); 0-0 Utrecht (h); 1-3 Newcastle (a)
Bolton: 0-1 Chelsea (a); 2-0 West Brom (h); 0-1 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard, Kuyt, Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Johnson, Babel, Skrtel 1
Bolton: Elmander 9; K Davies 6; Petrov 3; Holden, Lee, Klasnic 2; Blake, M Davies, Knight, Muamba, Steinsson, Taylor 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

This will be the first time Friend's been in charge of a Liverpool match.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Kyrgiakos Agger Aurelio
Meireles Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

I have never rooted against Liverpool in my life. No matter how infuriated I get before, during, and after the matches – which you're well-aware of if you follow me on Twitter – I'm always hoping for a win. But because of the interminable Roy Hodgson situation, I'm as close as ever to wanting results go the wrong way. More losses = more criticism = more Hodgson out, which is absolutely for the greater good.

Ryan at The Good Men Project did an excellent job of summing up the Prisoner's Dilemma of fandom. Hoping for the worst goes against everything we're supposed to believe in, but in the long-term, would probably be for the best. Which is all well and good a day before the match. When 10am rolls around tomorrow, I'll probably be unable to separate the two, and will regress to living and dying with every kick of the ball, resuming the calls for Hodgson's head after the final whistle. Such is sport.

As to the actual match... will Roy make wholesale changes after Wednesday's embarrassment? Will he continue to stubbornly rely on 'his methods' or alter the lineup or formation after losing to Wolves?

Obviously, the above guess is mostly hope. It's nearly the same lineup I guessed going into Wednesday's match, and similar to the "ideal" posted in yesterday's analysis. Gerrard behind the striker instead of in central midfield, where Lucas and Meireles would resume their partnership. Kuyt on the right and Maxi on the left. Agger back in the fold, joined by Kyrgiakos instead of Skrtel because of Kevin Davies' aerial prowess. And since the guess is based more on hope than reality, Aurelio at left back, which is actually a possibility because of the cruel reception Konchesky received when substituted against Wolves. I do believe that Hodgson will try harder to 'give the fans what they want' after Wednesday's result. But we still probably won't see this many changes.

The trip to Bolton saw Liverpool seize its lone away win with a singular moment of magic from Torres in setting up Maxi's late goal. Were it not Liverpool's only road victory of the season, it'd be an impressive result given Bolton's improvement under Owen Coyle.

The Trotters currently sit sixth in the league, seven points ahead of Liverpool, albeit having played two more games. They gave Chelsea all it could handle on Wednesday, narrowly losing 0-1 at Stamford Bridge despite matching the defending champions for long stretches.

However, Bolton do have injury concerns and a shallow squad going into this game. O'Brien, Sean Davis, Ricardo Gardner, and Jlloyd Samuel are all long-term casualties. Stuart Holden, who's been a revelation this season, progressing by leaps and bounds, is doubtful after a knock taken against Chelsea, as is right-back Steinsson. Chung-Yong Lee is away at the Asian World Cup, Tamir Cohen is on compassionate leave after the death of his father (former Liverpool player Avi Cohen), and left-back Paul Robinson is suspended. Bolton will have only 15 or 16 players available for this match.

But that won't change Coyle's philosophy. There are still elements of the long ball tactics pervasive under the reigns of Allardyce and Megson, as Kevin Davies is still a linchpin, but Bolton play on the front foot far more often than not these days. They look to impose their game on the opposition instead of simple 'foul and hoof' nullification; these days, Hodgson's Liverpool looks more like Bolton than Bolton. And Coyle will be well-aware of Liverpool's current tactics and troubles.

This is at Anfield and begins a packed, crucial month for the club. There has to be a response following Wednesday's let-down; not only does Liverpool have to right the ship results-wise, they now have to restore normalcy at Anfield. Home form, the lone bright spot, cannot mirror away form. Liverpool cannot continue its inexorable slide towards the relegation zone.

Outside of removing the cancerous ownership, 2010 has been an annus horribilis from start to finish. 2011 is a whole new year. It can't possibly be worse, can it?

30 December 2010

Accommodating Hodgson, Accommodating Gerrard

The best managers tailor their system to the players at their disposal. Mourinho using a deeper back-line with Inter than any other team he's coached because of that unit's weakness and Ferguson deploying every formation under the sun during his time at Old Trafford are two recent examples, even though citing those two men pains me.

Unfortunately, Liverpool's current manager believes the opposite. He has a system, and he'll keep hammering square pegs into round holes until they fit or the hammer breaks.

Last night's lineup was the worst example of the trait. A proven central midfielder on the right, a converted right winger forced onto the left, and a continued belief that it's 4-4-2 or bust. Unlike with Liverpool's previous manager, the opposition's tactics don't enter into Hodgson's equation at any stage. Roy's rules of managing seems to be a list comprising two tenets. One: his team is playing 4-4-2. Two: Gerrard must play in central midfield.

The second maxim is arguably the more depressing. The captain's return was the domino that sent all the others falling. If Gerrard plays behind Torres, using the formation which previously brought success and had been halfheartedly adopted earlier this season, Meireles isn't pushed onto the right, which ultimately sends Kuyt to the opposite flank. But, instead, the team's built around the captain's supposed "preferred position" and the entire house of cards crumbles against the 20th-placed side in the league at Anfield.

Lucas and Meireles were at the heart of the positives against Aston Villa. Yes, the pairing also played in the loss to Tottenham, where both did well, and the travesty at Newcastle, where both were rendered invisible by the usual away tactics, but the partnership had been one of the few bright spots this season. Yet all that's thrown away the second Gerrard returns from injury, to the obvious detriment of the team as a whole.

In addition, that Kuyt's still an ever-present can't be ignored. Playing Maxi on the left, arguably in the best form of his Liverpool career, at the expense of Kuyt may have changed last night's result. That Kuyt, like Gerrard, also needed to be wedged into the team increased problems. But that every manager who's had Kuyt available has found a starting spot for him – including the national team manager who played him on the left at times during the Netherlands' World Cup run – speaks volumes. He's not the main problem; as usual, when the team plays well, Kuyt plays well, and when the team's performing poorly, Kuyt's weaknesses are exacerbated. That's been the case since Kuyt arrived.

Hodgson's shown a remarkable refusal to compromise throughout the season, including those oft-featured indignant quotes when his methods were questioned:

"What do you mean do my methods translate? They have translated from Halmstad to Malmo to Orebo to Neuchatel Xamax to the Swiss national team. So I find the question insulting. To suggest that, because I have moved from one club to another, that the methods which have stood me in good stead for 35 years and made me one of the most respected coaches in Europe don’t suddenly work, is very hard to believe."

It's easy to play fantasy football – as Purslow did this summer – but this team's crying out for something other than Hodgson's two requirements. Torres is a striker who thrives on balls to feet and when given a chance to run at defenders, not isolated and forced to hold up play with his back to goal following aimless hoofs from the defense. Gerrard's been at his best in the last five years when played behind a main striker. The Lucas/Meireles pairing was the first capable partnership we've seen since Alonso left; neither Gerrard nor Lucas combined well with the talented Mascherano last season and nothing else has looked remotely passable this campaign. Kuyt, Jovanovic, and Cole (and Maxi, to a lesser extent) are attacking forwards, not 4-4-2 wingers. Glen Johnson is an attacking fullback; along with Aurelio, he's best suited to provide width in this team. Reina needs to play short from the back instead of ordered to punt the ball into the opposition half, as this chalkboard posted on the Tomkins Times demonstrates. Neglected center-back Daniel Agger's also handy at playing the ball out of defense. But, then again, I'm an idiotic layman, not one of the most respected coaches in Europe.

This team is crying out for a formation akin to:

Johnson Skrtel Agger Aurelio
Meireles Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

The manager with 35 years experience is the only one who can't see it. He's bound and determined to find success with "his methods," no matter how quickly the ship sinking. And the saddest part is that's only one of many reasons why he needs to go as soon as possible.

Yet it seems the new ownership is determined to accommodate Hodgson until they can make a change on their own terms. Even the best long-term intentions are subject to short-term crises. Liverpool can't wait much longer for that day to come.

29 December 2010

Liverpool 0-1 Wolverhampton

Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Meireles Gerrard Lucas Kuyt
Ngog Torres

Ward 56'

So much for at least being reliably decent at Anfield...

Wolves dominated every phase of the game and deserved their win. And this is a side that hadn't won away all season long. Liverpool were passive, rusty, uncoordinated, and tactically bereft. Gerrard's return completely unbalanced the midfield, exacerbated by playing both Kuyt and Meireles in unfamiliar positions on the flanks. Wolves' determined pressing, man-marking from top to bottom and holding a high back-line, prompted the dreaded 'hoofing' syndrome. And the malady was worse than usual: the center-backs consistently returned the ball to Reina, whose punt forward was quickly reclaimed by the visitors. Embarrassingly simplistic and submissive, playing directly into Wolves' hands and increasingly demoralizing the players; Torres was full-on sulk by the end of the match, and it's hard to blame him.

Liverpool may have had the better chances in the first half – had Meireles converted Torres' quick free kick in the 7th, it might have been a completely different game, while Walton could have given a penalty when Kyrgiakos was hauled down on a corner in the 39th – but Wolves were the only cohesive side. Tactically, Liverpool were lost, and it's no coincidence that both of the aforementioned "chances" came on set plays.

Soon into the second half, Wolves made Liverpool pay for its incompetence, taking advantage of the inevitable defensive mistake. Kyrgiakos couldn't clear, conceding possession to Ebanks-Blake, who found Ward with a throughball when Skrtel didn't track the makeshift striker. One-on-one with Reina, the man sent off in last season's meeting at Anfield scored the lone goal of this terrible performance.

Liverpool brought on Babel, Cole, and Aurelio in their attempt to create some palpable offense, but none came. The side remained mired in insipid nothingness with zero cohesion in attack. Back-passes, hoofs, and lost possession remained the overriding themes. Cole ended up more a central midfielder than the actual central midfielder he replaced. Clueless doesn't even come close to summarizing, but that moment coupled with Gerrard – Liverpool's rescuer time and time again – spraying balls from the center circle instead of joining the attack as the game escaped reach demonstrates the unsuitability of the so-called plan.

Wolves continued to press after scoring the opener instead of retreating into their own half, recognizing Liverpool's utter impotence. Skrtel's "goal" ruled out in the 88th, caught offside by Wolves' trap, is about all there is to "highlight," and it wasn't even close to controversial. And again, the chance came on a set piece arguably against the run of play.

That the players were obviously rusty after the long layoff and few, if any, can escape condemnation shouldn't obscure the fact that the loss is down to the manager. I've been calling for his head since October, so whatever I say is taken with a rightful grain of salt, but I can't see how he survives this. The tactics are down to the manager. The antiquated formation and playing players out of position are down to the manager. The team's utter lack of both ambition and confidence is down to the manager.

NESV clearly don't want to be rushed into a decision. They're on a steep learning curve as it is, Comolli's only recently in place, and a CEO still hasn't been found. Hodgson only had to tread water for this season to be a wash, and they could hire their man for the future on their own terms.

But that's clearly not going to work. After 18 games, nearly half the season, Liverpool are 12th, with a negative goal difference and only three points above the relegation zone. It's a historically bad total. Liverpool's home form was the lone safeguard, having "righted the ship" after the demoralizing loss to Blackpool, unbeaten at Anfield since the beginning of October. But then they go and lose to the 20th-placed side while displaying all the awful characteristics of the worst away performances.

With the table so tight, we'd been hoping for a good run to push the side up towards the European places, but on this form, a losing run back to the bottom three – where Liverpool sat less than three months ago – looks far more likely. The change has to be made now.

28 December 2010

Liverpool v Wolverhampton 12.29.10

3pm ET, not live in the US. It is available, for a fee, at FoxSoccer.tv and is delayed on FSC at 5pm. It's also on Sky Sports 1 in the UK, so there should be streams.

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 01.26.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.09
1-0 Liverpool (h) 03.20.04
1-1 (a) 01.21.04

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (h); 1-3 Newcastle (a); 3-0 Villa (h)
Wolves: 1-2 Wigan (h); 1-0 Brum (h); 0-3 Blackburn (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard, Kuyt, Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Johnson, Babel, Skrtel 1
Wolves: Ebanks-Blake, Fletcher 4; Foley, Hunt, Jarvis 2; Doyle, Edwards, Jones, Milijas, Van Damme 1

Referee: Peter Walton

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Meireles Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

I hope Liverpool's put its mini-Winter Break to use. The club will now have to play eight games in the next 30 days.

I'm guessing the same XI previously predicted to face Blackpool. Gerrard will walk straight back into the side, ideally behind Torres or on the right instead of in central midfield. Agger's declared fit, and Hodgson has hinted at a starting place, but keeping the faith with Kyrgiakos seems more likely given past preferences. The long respite should see Aurelio fully rested, but Konchesky will most likely keep his place, to the chagrin of everyone but the manager.

Bottom of the table and winless away from home this season, Wolves will still present problems. They're a physical, resilient side who caused trouble in both meetings last season, only losing at Anfield after having a man sent off. Both Ebanks-Blake and Fletcher can score goals, but McCarthy's usually started one or the other – Ebanks-Blake more often than not. Matt Jarvis has had a breakthrough season so far.

Inconsistency and defense have been Wolverhampton's main issues: shipping two goals at home to struggling Wigan and three to Blackburn sums up the defensive woes. But this is still the same side that beat Man City and asked serious questions of Chelsea before that side's recent dip in form, hence the inconsistency reference. Injuries have also been a problem; Wolves are still without Doyle, Craddock, Mancienne, and Karl Henry.

In theory, at Anfield against the 20th placed side should present few problems. That Liverpool haven't played for two weeks creates fears over form, but also means the side should be raring to go. Liverpool have been consistent at home, unbeaten at Anfield since the beginning of October. While expected, a win tomorrow, whether a tight 1-0 victory or a stylish romp, would set the side up well for the upcoming crucial month.

26 December 2010

Liverpool PP-PP Blackpool

Tremendous. Another week, another cancellation. Blackpool's pitch is frozen. Happy Holidays. It's an absolute sin that the Premier League doesn't require undersoil heating, and this is the third game at Bloomfield Road postponed so far this season. At least Everton v Birmingham's also been pushed back so Liverpool's isn't the only game not taking place.

The match has already been rescheduled for January 12th – here's hoping the weather's better in two and a half weeks' time. And if you hadn't heard, last week's match against Fulham has been moved to January 26th. It's gonna be a busy month. There are now seven fixtures scheduled for January; if Liverpool somehow beat United in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, it'll be eight.

It just does not feel like Boxing Day without Liverpool.

24 December 2010

Liverpool at Blackpool 12.26.10

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Blackpool (h) 10.3.10
2-2 (h) 01.09.71
0-0 (a) 08.17.70
1-3 Blackpool (h) 05.13.67

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (h); 1-3 Newcastle (a); 3-0 Villa (h)
Blackpool: 1-0 Stoke (a); 2-2 Bolton (a); 2-1 Wolves (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard, Kuyt, Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Johnson, Babel, Skrtel 1
Blackpool: Harewood, Varney 5; Adam, Campbell 3; Taylor-Fletcher 2; Baptiste, Eardley, Evatt, Phillips, Vaughan 1

Referee: Mike Oliver

Oliver's only been in charge of one other Liverpool match: a 2008 win over Crewe in the Carling Cup.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Meireles Lucas
Kuyt Gerrard Maxi

Tentatively, it looks as if this match will go ahead. We'll have to wait for a pitch inspection three hours before kickoff for confirmation, but unlike last week, multiple matches haven't been canceled in advance. This is the only Boxing Day fixture in doubt. And if this match is postponed, it'll be the third called off at Bloomfield Road this season. One would hope the Premier League will make undersoil heating a requirement next year.

Gerrard's return finally begs the question of what to do with the midfield. The partnership of Lucas and Meireles has shone in the captain's absence, and Hodgson's been able to play his preferred 4-4-2 formation. In a perfect world, Gerrard would be the player deployed on the right; he was excellent in the position during 2005-06, and we're all aware that Kuyt's had an iffy run of form lately. But more likely is Meireles returning to the right, as against Stoke, Wigan, and Chelsea (and when these two sides met at Anfield). The compromise is returning to last season's formation, with Gerrard playing behind Torres and Ngog left out.

Daniel Agger's also fit again, but I doubt he'll start. He's been out for a long spell, and wasn't in the manager's good graces when healthy. At best, he may get a look-in off the bench. Of course, Agger could start at left-back, where he's seen the most time this season, but if Hodgson hasn't dropped Konchesky with Aurelio fit, I doubt he will for Agger. And, obviously, I hope Konchesky's dropped for Aurelio.

One good thing to come out of last week's postponements is that Charlie Adam's now suspended for this game instead of the previous. Adam is indescribably crucial for Blackpool, and had an enormous impact when these two teams met in October. He provided the excellent throughball that won a penalty and tallied the resulting spot kick for the first goal. With time and space, which Liverpool gave him plenty of in the last meeting, he pulls the strings. In theory, playing the likes of Lucas instead of Poulsen, as happened in October, will give Adam a lot less time and space.

Blackpool are level on points with Liverpool with a game in hand, one place below the Reds on goal difference. Even with a long injury list – including joint-top scorer Marlon Harewood and starting goalkeeper Matt Gilks – the Tangerines are unbeaten in four matches. They beat Stoke in Stoke – something Liverpool never looked like doing this season – and drew at Bolton in their last two. Unlike Liverpool, they've actually been better away from home, taking 14 points from 10 games compared to eight from six at Bloomfield.

As has been repeated time and time again, we need to see Liverpool perform away from Anfield. The late win against Bolton at the end of October remains the side's only away league victory. And we've seen some dire road performances: Newcastle, Stoke, Wigan, and Everton, among many others, pop immediately to mind.

It's nearly the New Year. It's time for this team, and this manager, to start meeting the minimum expectations.

21 December 2010

Steadying the Ship

Posted without comment.

Okay, one comment. Yes, we're not even halfway through the season, but form through the first 17 games has been a decent predictor of Liverpool's final league position for the two previous campaigns. To grasp at some statistics, take a look at the mean, median, and mode of Liverpool's league place from week 4 through week 17 for 2008-09 and 2009-10.

FYI: I started on week 4 so every team had a couple of games under its belt. Otherwise, the table's fairly dependent on alphabetical order. Week 4 is about when form begins to separate sides while still giving us a decently large sample size.

Mean: 2nd
Median: 2nd
Mode: 2nd

Mean: 6th
Median: 6th
Mode: 7th

And here are those numbers for this season...

Mean: 11th
Median: 12th
Mode: 9th

Mid-table. At best.

18 December 2010

Liverpool PP-PP Fulham

Today's match against Fulham has been postponed due to hazardous traveling conditions. Evidently there are a few inches of snow in England and the world's about to end. It's far from the only match called off; Arsenal v Stoke, Birmingham v Newcastle, Wigan v Aston Villa, and tomorrow's Chelsea v United have also been pushed back.

Liverpool haven't announced when this fixture will now take place.

This is all Al Gore's fault; thanks a lot for 'climate change.' Well, his fault or Roy Hodgson's.

17 December 2010

Liverpool v Fulham 12.18.10

12:30pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (h) 04.11.10
1-3 Fulham (a) 10.31.09
1-0 Liverpool (a) 04.04.09
0-0 (h) 11.22.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (h); 1-3 Newcastle (a); 3-0 Villa (h)
Fulham: 0-0 Sunderland (h); 1-2 Arsenal (a); 1-1 Brum (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard, Kuyt, Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Johnson, Babel, Skrtel 1
Fulham: Dempsey 5; Dembele, Hangeland, Kamara 2; Davies, Etuhu, Gera, Zamora 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:

Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi
Ngog Torres

Back to the A-team. Ten changes are likely, with only stand-in captain Skrtel keeping his starting place. Hopefully, the visit of Roy Hodgson's former team will coax Liverpool out of its shell, and the manager will devise tactics with some attacking ambition. That and this match will take place within the comforts of Anfield, where Liverpool's at least been marginally respectable this season.

Because of the settled line-up and paint-by-numbers tactics, these previews have become perfunctory. Gerrard's back in training, but looks to be only fit enough for the bench at best. Hodgson's playing coy after embarrassingly going back on his declaration about Torres in the mid-week match, but it looks like the debate over breaking up the Lucas/Meireles pairing so the captain can play his preferred position is on hold for now. Carragher and Agger are still injured. Hodgson somehow still believes Konchesky is better than Aurelio. 4-4-2 is evidently still the way forward. The only concern is about Ngog, but Hodgson seemed fairly certain the striker would be available despite needing stitches a week ago. If he's not fit, I'd expect Babel to partner Torres, but otherwise, as has been the case for the last three or four league matches, the team basically writes itself.

Like Liverpool, Hodgson's former club still can't win away from home. Only outside the relegation zone on goal difference, Fulham haven't taken all three points on the road all season, with five draws and three losses. Their last away league win – their only away league win of the season – came on the first day of the '09-10 campaign, at Portsmouth.

Fulham are also without two of their main threats – Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele – because of long-term injuries. American Clint Dempsey has attempted to pick up the slack, with five goals this campaign, while striker (and frequent perma-crock) Andrew Johnson should be available. Diomansy Kamara usually starts up front in Fulham's 4-5-1, but Johnson – especially given his history with Everton – may get the nod.

As against Villa and West Ham, on paper, this is a match Liverpool should win. Home form simply hasn't been the problem; Liverpool have taken 17 of an available 24 points at Anfield. But if Liverpool show the same amount of ambition as against Utrecht on Wednesday, we could be in for a long day. Despite their poor record, Fulham have a knack for draws, having finished 10 their 17 matches level. Four of those draws have been 0-0, while another four have ended 1-1. Chances are, there will be few goals in this game. Which necessitates that Liverpool will actually need to go searching for some.

Europa League Knockout Draw

Liverpool have drawn Sparta Prague in the first knockout round of the Europa League. My first thought is that I'm jealous of the Scousers who'll be traveling to the away match, as Prague is a brilliant city, but the last time I wrote that was last year's Champions League group – where Liverpool traveled to Florence, Lyon, and Budapest. That didn't work out so well. And, as has been commonplace, I can't help but mention how dire Liverpool have been away from Anfield. Nonetheless, here's hoping this goes slightly better.

Sparta Prague are currently second in the Czech League, which is now on its winter break. The away leg, which will be played first, will be Sparta's first match since the last of the Europa League group phase. The Czech League's break lasts from the end of November until the end of February.

Sparta finished second in their Europa League group, behind CSKA Moscow and ahead of Palermo and Lausanne, with two wins, three draws, and one loss. The two wins came at home against Palermo and Lausanne, the one loss was away to CSKA. Palermo were heavily favored to qualify ahead of the Czech side, but disappointed throughout the group stage.

Prague have a few notable names. Marek Matejovsky scored a memorable cracker against Liverpool while at Reading. Veterans Tomas Repka and Libor Sionko should ring a bell; Repka played for West Ham while Sionko's been fixture in the Czech national team and had a stint for Rangers. Ivorian Wilfred Bony (phenomenal name) is Sparta's top scorer, having tallied 16 goals in all competitions this season, and is only 22 years old.

As Liverpool are seeded, they'll play the first leg away and the second at Anfield. The matches will take place February 17 and 24. If they somehow make it past Prague, they'll face the winners of Lech Poznan v Braga.

15 December 2010

Liverpool 0-0 Utrecht

Kelly Skrtel Wilson Aurelio
Jovanovic Poulsen Shelvey Cole
Babel Eccleston

Just change the players' names and it's the exact same review as when these sides met in Utrecht. At least that match had the built-in excuse of being away from home, even if the side was far stronger.

I can hear Hodgson's justifications now. Liverpool used an inexperienced, young side. They topped the group and are unbeaten through ten games in this competition. They worked hard. There's some truth in all of those statements, but this was still incredibly difficult, and incredibly boring, viewing. Liverpool had the chance to build confidence and momentum, but showed absolutely zero desire to do so.

Utrecht were there for the taking throughout. They've been the weakest side in the group and their star player went off injured just before half-time with a broken collarbone. But even at home, Liverpool were content to sit in their own half, concede possession, and allow the opposition to build from the back. Defenders passed the ball amongst themselves completely uncontested as Liverpool's forwards retreated to midfield instead of pressing.

Neither side registered a shot on target in the first half, although Jovanovic nearly scored against the run of play in the 8th, storming in-field from the right and unleashing a 25-yard bullet off the crossbar. But that was one of few moments of excitement. Both Babel and Cole massively disappointed, each failing to take the opportunity presented to them.

The game's first shot on target came from the opposition five minutes after the interval, a tame effort from Mertens momentarily spilled by Jones. Liverpool soon improved with the entrance of Pacheco for Eccleston – with Cole playing off Babel and the Spaniard manning the left flank – but only slightly, and it couldn't have gotten much worse. Although Liverpool started to push forward, we didn't see the results until the final ten minutes, when Cole spurned two clear-cut chances. In the 83rd, Aurelio's delicious cross was partially cleared straight to Cole, who steadied himself, giving Keller time to dive across to block the close range shot. Six minutes later, a deflected cross found Cole at the near post, only to be clumsily half-volleyed straight at the keeper. Cole may have been the worst offender, but the entire attack was feeble throughout, and it's hard to argue this wasn't a fair result.

The positives were few and far between other than the excuses listed above. Aurelio was the best player on the pitch, and it's a crime that Konchesky continues to be preferred at the position. Shelvey and Wilson both showed signs of their potential, as did Pacheco in his cameo off the bench. Kelly also did well, but defense wasn't the issue today; Liverpool were rarely under threat, which seemed to be the plan. The entire plan, in fact.

It's beyond depressing seeing so little ambition from the team. Cautious in a game with nothing to lose sums up Hodgson perfectly. Even with an unfamiliar squad and the group locked up, Liverpool is better than this. The tactics are not only embarrassing, they're holding players back. It's hard to describe how boring this match was, and I didn't think that possible after some of the snooze-fests we've seen this season.

14 December 2010

Liverpool v Utrecht 12.15.10

3:05pm ET, live in the US on DirecTV channel 481

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Newcastle (a); 3-0 Villa (h); 1-1 Steaua (a)
Utrecht: 1-3 NAC Breda (a); 2-1 Heerenveen (h); 3-3 Napoli (h)

Group Stage so far:
Liverpool: 1-1 Steaua (a); 3-1 Napoli (a); 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Utrecht: 3-3 Napoli (h); 1-3 Steaua (a); 1-1 Steaua (h); 0-0 Liverpool (h); 0-0 Napoli (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Babel, Cole, Jovanovic, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Utrecht: van Wolfswinkel 6; Mertens 2; Asare, Demouge, Duplan, Maguire, Silberbauer 1

Referee: Kristinn Jakobsson (ISL)

WorldReferee.com has Jakobsson ranked 8th in its list of Top 10 officials this year. Good sign.

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Kyrgiakos Skrtel Aurelio
Cole Shelvey Poulsen Jovanovic
Babel Torres

Surprisingly, with first place in the group locked up, Liverpool look likely to play a stronger line-up than the team which traveled to Romania two weeks ago. We'll see many of the usual Europa League suspects, as Hodgson singled out Babel, Aurelio, Poulsen, Cole, and Jovanovic, but the likes of Torres, Skrtel and Kyrgiakos, and potentially Kuyt have also been mentioned by the manager.

Starting Torres does make some sense. He's fully fit, but has been struggling for form, and like the team, has played better at Anfield. Ngog's out injured, having needed stitches following the knock he took against Newcastle. A good performance, combined with a goal (or more, but let's not get carried away) could do wonders for his confidence. But it's strange to see him risked in an arguably meaningless match. And it also seems to demonstrate the pressure the manager's under.

I'd rather see a front four of Kuyt, Babel, Pacheco, and Jovanovic for a couple of reasons. The biggest is mainly selfish; Kuyt, no matter his form, should have the chance to face his first professional club. His recent matches have arguably been worse than Torres, and he could use the confidence boost just as much. In addition, Pacheco deserves a chance to play in his preferred position off the main striker, while Cole certainly didn't impress in that role against Steaua.

Utrecht are eighth in the Eredivise with eight wins, two draws, and eight losses. They currently sit last in the group and cannot qualify for the next round no matter this week's results. Both Steaua and Napoli have the 'tie-breaker' over the Dutch side – Steaua because of their win in Bucharest and Napoli because of scoring more goals against Utrecht in the Netherlands than Utrecht scored in Italy. This truly is a dead-rubber match for both teams.

Unlike Liverpool, Utrecht have no reported injury concerns. As mentioned prior to the first match, van Wolfswinkel is the main threat, top scorer for the club in all competitions. The Dutch side have the fewest goals in the group, having tallied just five through five matches (with three in the last match), but young striker's been prolific throughout the season, joint-second in the Eredivisie scoring race with 11.

The Europa League, where Liverpool have almost always used an under-strength side, is the only competition where the team hasn't disappointed. Unbeaten through nine matches, they've already secured qualification and first place in the group, which means they'll be seeded for the first knock-out round. But Liverpool still need to approach this match with something to prove. Young players and the 'B-team' will aim to force their way into the manager's plan, and the rest of the players – as well as the team as a whole – need to find some level of consistency, preferably a higher level than what we've seen so far.

11 December 2010

Liverpool 1-3 Newcastle

Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi
Ngog Torres

Nolan 15'
Kuyt 49'
Barton 80'
Carroll 90+2'

Yet more utter embarrassment away from Anfield and no more than Liverpool deserve.

Other than 10 minutes after the interval, including a lucky equalizer from Kuyt and a couple of clear chances to take the lead for Torres and Ngog, Liverpool were awful again. Sloppy in possession, disorganized and reserved in attack, and conceding three simple goals. Liverpool's defending was indescribably terrible. I can't ever remember seeing a side so markedly different, and markedly worse, on the road. One win in nine away matches, with six defeats and six goals scored, just doesn't lie.

So much for Newcastle rolling over after Hughton was fired. And the early goal allowed them to defend deep with two rigid lines of four and lump balls forward toward Carroll. Newcastle's #9 had the beating of Skrtel and Kyrgiakos all day long. The lanky striker won the free kick which led to the opener, which Barton angled in his direction. Easily out-jumping Skrtel, Carroll knocked down for Nolan, who beat a static Konchesky to divert the ball past Reina. That Liverpool's Slovakian defender, who's aerially questionable at best, was marking Newcastle's main threat is unforgivable. Everyone in the stadium knew exactly where the free kick was headed – Barton did everything but shout 'it's going to Carroll' – but it made no difference.

Liverpool had chances in the first half, with Krul saving Kyrgiakos' third-minute blast and Enrique clearing Meireles' deflected effort off the line in the 33rd, but the away side were as wasteful as ever, unable to cope with physical opposition. They did respond well after the interval, and were luckily gifted a goal by the dreadful Sol Campbell. Konchesky hoofed a long ball forward, hitting the turtle-paced defender on the back. Kuyt picked up possession and was fortunate to see his strike beat Krul thanks to Taylor's deflection.

From there, Newcastle were reeling, and Liverpool should have taken the lead. Krul was well-placed to catch Torres' looping header before saving the Spanish striker's tame one-on-one effort when Campbell again proved too slow. Ngog's free header in the 54th marked Liverpool's last chance at grasping the lead, but the Frenchman couldn't make smart contact with Kuyt's cross.

Then, somehow, Newcastle seized all the momentum, mostly thanks to more shaky Liverpool defending which prompted a retreat. In the 56th minute, Carroll ran between the center-backs to meet Barton's cross around Konchesky, but headed over. The introduction of the speedy Nile Ranger also helped, and the substitute missed a sitter in the 65th, leaving Skrtel in an absolute muddle after Carroll's flick-on only to somehow shoot wide.

But Newcastle finally grabbed the winner ten minutes from time. Again, Carroll won the header over Lucas from a goal kick, Skrtel couldn't clear under threat from Ranger, and Joey Barton ghosted in to score. Just despicable Sunday league defending from everyone involved. Finally throwing caution to the wind, which meant sending Kyrgiakos forward, Carroll added gloss with an excellent long-range strike in the second minute of added time when Liverpool's defense, specifically Lucas, gave him the freedom of Tyneside.

Even with a few more chances sprinkled in, mostly due to Newcastle's (read: Campbell's) uncertain defense, it was similar to other away losses. I can't explain why Liverpool are so much worse on the road nor why the manager expects things to improve when the plan stays the same. Liverpool had next to no cohesion and simply couldn't cope with Carroll. That's the long and short of it.

No one played particularly well. Ngog was probably the best of a bad bunch, and it's little coincidence Liverpool regressed after the striker was forced off when bloodied with 20 minutes to play. Skrtel was easily the most disappointing, delivering his worst performance since his debut against Havant, which we have to credit to Andy Carroll. However, even though the players didn't perform, I can't help but fault the tactics and manager when we're told the same old story away from Anfield.

Once again, it's one step forward, two steps back as soon as Liverpool leave the comforts of Merseyside.

10 December 2010

Liverpool at Newcastle 12.11.10

12:30pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.03.09
5-1 Liverpool (a) 12.28.08
3-0 Liverpool (h) 03.08.08
3-0 Liverpool (a) 11.24.07

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Villa (h); 1-1 Steaua (a); 1-2 Spurs (a)
Newcastle: 1-3 WBA (a); 1-1 Chelsea (h); 1-5 Bolton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard, Maxi 3; Kuyt, Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Johnson, Babel, Skrtel 1
Newcastle: Carroll 9; Nolan 7; Ameobi 3; Barton, Ben Arfa, Coloccini, Jonas, Lovenkrands 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Mason's last three Liverpool matches were a draw at Stoke and losses to Portsmouth and Fulham. He sent off Degen and Carragher against Fulham and Mascherano against Pompey. A bad luck charm, to put it nicely, and one of my least-favorite referees in the league.

Guess at a line-up:

Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi
Ngog Torres

It's likely to be same again other than the return of Torres following the birth of his second child. Hodgson clearly likes settled teams and Gerrard will miss at least one more match.

It pains me to write, but on current form, there's an argument for dropping Dirk Kuyt. Either Babel or Cole could take his place. Babel's started the last two games up front, and has impressed in both, but has also featured on the right in the past; his cross from the right flank set up Jovanovic's goal against Steaua. Cole came off the bench for Kuyt last Monday, and while he only had 10 minutes in a dead game to attempt an impact, he still looks some ways off form. Nonetheless, I'll be surprised if Kuyt isn't in the starting XI; it's no coincidence that the last two managers have been firm fans despite their other vast differences. Babel could also come in for Ngog, paired with Torres after a goal and an assist in his last two matches, but that seems far less likely.

Newcastle's been in the headlines all week because of Mike Ashley's strange decision to fire Chris Hughton, who settled the ship last season and earned some surprising results this season, and the stranger decision to hire Alan Pardew, who's been out of a job since being sacked by League One Southampton in August. Admittedly, Newcastle have regressed since beating Arsenal at the Emirates in early November, but firing Hughton came straight out of the blue, despite rumors that Ashley had wanted to for some time now. You always fear that a new manager will catalyze the team, but in this case, we're just as likely to see morale plummet through the floor. Neither would surprise me, honestly.

Aside from a home draw against faltering Chelsea, the Geordies have stuttered recently, losing 1-5 at Bolton and 1-3 at West Brom, allowing Ashley to pull the trigger. But they've missed key players during that spell, and captain Kevin Nolan and the lovably psychotic Joey Barton should both return from injury on Saturday. Nolan has seven goals this season playing in an advanced position, only bested by Andy Carroll, who's done a superlative job leading the line.

Liverpool has an excellent record against Newcastle in recent years, having won their last four meetings by a 14-1 margin. On the last visit to St James' Park, almost two years ago, Liverpool won 5-1. But it goes without saying that we haven't seen anywhere near that form away from Anfield this season. Liverpool's still only won away once in the league this season – at Bolton at the end of October. At Anfield, the side's won five, drawn two, and lost once, scoring 15 while conceding six. Liverpool's record on the road is almost a polar opposite: one win, two draws, and five losses, scoring five and conceding 13. Every away match has seen grumbles about ambition and attacking desire, and the results bear that out.

But if Liverpool can manage a win tomorrow, coupled with other results going the right way (bettering Bolton and Sunderland's performances), the side will reach the heady heights of sixth. The early season form will continue to inspire complaints and regrets, but there is still time to make something of this season. If Liverpool can starting winning away from Anfield.

06 December 2010

Liverpool 3-0 Aston Villa

Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi
Ngog Babel

Ngog 14'
Babel 16'
Maxi 55'

Just like the last home match, a comfortable 3-0 victory against sub-standard opposition. This is a trend I could get used to.

After a scrappy opener, two quick-fire goals by Liverpool's two strikers settled matters early on. The first was from Ngog, a brave diving header after Skrtel's knocked Meireles corner into a dangerous area. The Portuguese midfielder's set-piece delivery was excellent today, and one would hope he continues taking them after Gerrard returns. The second, barely 120 seconds later, came after a one-touch counter brilliantly finished by Babel. Meireles started the move, Lucas' ball over the top found an arguably "onside" Babel, and the Dutchman smartly turned Warnock, allowing the ball to roll across his body before blasting past Friedel.

From there, Liverpool were on cruise control with Villa unable to challenge the Lucas/Meireles midfield. Restricted to one chance – Collins out-jumping Skrtel on a corner in the 22nd but unable to direct his header on target – the away side posed next to no threat in open play. Youngsters Hogg and Clark could barely get a touch, while Downing's crosses were directed straight at Reina all match long. Liverpool were content to soak up everything, nearly adding a third in the 37th when Meireles' deep cross found Babel, who threateningly volleyed wide. Right before halftime, ESPN's camera's caught Hodgson in mid-scream. His instructions? "No goals against us!" Surprise, surprise.

And Liverpool continued in that vein in the second half, completely happy to rely on the counter and keep a clean sheet. However, Villa were slightly more dangerous, removing the ineffective Clark for a second striker in Delfouneso. The switch to 4-4-2 led to Villa's lone shot on target, with Reina wonderfully keeping out Agbonlahor's point-blank sliding effort in the 53rd.

Two minutes later, Liverpool reasserted dominance and crushed Villa's infinitesimal hope. Reina started the move after catching another poor Downing cross, finding Maxi with a pin-point throw. The Argentinean spread it wide for Ngog and continued his run into the box, in perfect position to slam the Frenchman's cutback into the far corner.

From there, Liverpool were happy to concede possession and defend deep, as has been their wont this season, but Villa never threatened as we're accustomed to. Johnson had two chances at a fourth on the break, while Kyrgiakos' header from a corner was cleared off the line 15 minutes from full-time. Aurelio replaced Maxi while Cole came on for Kuyt as Liverpool killed the remaining minutes, while Villa simply waited for the final reprieve whistle reprieve.

As against West Ham, it's reassuring to see Liverpool uncontested and dominant at home. Three goals and a clean sheet mean the side's now up to 8th and with a positive goal differential for the first time this season. Writing Lucas and Meireles 'bossed the midfield' does little justice to their performance, and I'd hope that Hodgson keeps faith with the pairing when Gerrard's fit, moving the captain into his familiar role behind Torres. I'm biased, but yet again Lucas was my man of the match. Ngog worked hard all game and scored another excellent goal, while Babel repaid the manager's faith in him. Liverpool could have played Kuyt up front and Cole, Jovanovic, or Aurelio on the flanks. And that clean sheet marks Reina's 100th, the quickest to that number in Liverpool's history. After 198 games, blanking the opposition at an average of every other game. It's only fair he marked the milestone with the captain's armband.

But despite all the positives, winning against lesser opposition at Anfield hasn't been the problem. Continuing to win, building confidence and consistency, is nothing to scoff at. That Liverpool did it without Gerrard, Carragher, and Torres – missing because of the birth of his second child – is also an excellent sign. But Liverpool still need to do it away from their own castle.

05 December 2010

Liverpool v Aston Villa 12.06.10

3pm ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 12.29.09
1-3 Villa (h) 08.24.09
5-0 Liverpool (h) 03.22.09
0-0 (a) 08.31.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Steaua (a); 1-2 Spurs (a); 3-0 West Ham (h)
Villa: 1-2 Brum (a); 2-4 Arsenal (h); 0-2 Blackburn (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 5; Gerrard 3; Kuyt, Kyrgiakos, Maxi 2; Johnson, Ngog, Skrtel 1
Villa: Downing 4; Agbonlahor 3; Clark, A Young 2; Collins, Delfouneso, Heskey, Petrov, L Young 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Kyrgiakos Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Meireles Lucas Maxi
Ngog Torres

Other than Kyrgiakos for the injured Carragher, Liverpool's expected to deploy the same line-up that narrowly lost to Spurs, nine changes from the side that drew in Bucharest on Thursday.

On merit, Cole shouldn't walk straight back into the side, especially after his performance against Steaua. Yes, he needs time to find match fitness, but that's what the substitute bench is for; Maxi's done well on the left of late, and Liverpool aren't playing well enough to carry passengers. Kuyt could play up front, with Maxi on the right and Cole ostensibly on the left, but it still seems as if Cole (and Liverpool) would be better served by patience.

Babel's one of the few who came out of the mid-week European match looking better than before, and could challenge Ngog for the right to partner Torres. But I'm struggling to remember matches where the two have played together up top, let alone combined as well as Torres and Ngog have (especially against West Ham) if Liverpool persists with the 4-4-2. Jovanovic, who also did well for the first half against Steaua, might be in for a shout, but that he faded in that match means he's most likely to be a substitute, if he plays at all.

Finally, it goes without saying that I'd rather see Aurelio at left back than Konchesky, but that's still unlikely to happen. Konchesky's undoubtedly made some high-profile mistakes, but Aurelio didn't pull up any trees against Steaua either. However, Poulsen played his way out of the starting line-up despite the manager's obvious affections, so maybe there's some hope.

Tomorrow match marks Houllier's return to Anfield. Yes, it's also a return for Heskey and Friedel, but they've experienced returns before. This will be Ged's first game in the opposition dugout. Even considering the deserved criticism he's received from some corners (No, Ged, you didn't win the Champions League), I expect he'll be warmly welcomed. And that'll be deserved as well.

Villa will miss the suspended Ashley Young, while Bannan, Albrighton, and the aforementioned Heskey are doubtful. The Villans are amidst a run of terrible form, with three consecutive losses and one win in their last seven. The team's won once away from home all season, at Wolverhampton in September. And yet, Villa are only two points behind Liverpool, in 16th.

Tossing out the 'this is a must-win match' cliché seems banal beyond belief, but it's still true. At home, against a struggling side missing key players, Liverpool simply has to take all three points if there's any hope of moving out of the current mid-table rut. The side's played some decent football of late, albeit against 20th-placed West Ham and in a loss to Tottenham. Now, they need to put together a run of results.

02 December 2010

Liverpool 1-1 Steaua

Kelly Kyrgiakos Wilson Aurelio
Pacheco Poulsen Shelvey Jovanovic

Jovanovic 19'
Bonfim 61'

For 60 minutes, it was an archetypal Hodgson performance, a poor copy of Fulham in last year's Europa League. Liverpool were living on a knife's edge, with Steaua bossing possession and creating chances, yet the away side were in front. Then Reina committed a howler that put the Arsenal own goal to shame for the inevitable equalizer. But, as I'm sure the manager will remind us in his post-match conference, a draw was always enough for qualification. The most uninspiring qualification in history.

Pharmacists around the world will prescribe DVDs of this match for insomnia in lieu of Ambien. Criticizing individual players, or even the tactics, is marginally unfair because the majority of the starting XI had seen so little time this season, but that was still a fairly painful spectacle.

Steaua controlled the game for long stretches – as the commentators on GolTV frequently pointed out, 'absorb but don't concede' was today's mantra – but Liverpool had the lead at the interval thanks to an excellent counter attack from Babel and Jovanovic. The out-of-favor Serbian's strong run led to Babel with the ball in space on the right. Checking onto his left foot, the striker's cross found Jovanovic, who continued his run into the box, with the header perfectly placed into the bottom corner.

Liverpool could have scored a second seven minutes later, the side's only other chance of the half, but Cole clumsily stood on the ball after Babel's pass put him through. Meanwhile, Steaua had opportunities of their own: an open Bicfalvi headed over in the 19th and Stancu shanked a six-yard shot wide after beating Kyrgiakos to a long ball in the 44th. Play continued in the same vein in the second half, aided by Steaua bringing on Angelov for Bicfalvi, as Gerardo Alves put another free header too close to Reina from a short corner five minutes after the interval.

And then disaster struck. Angelov's cross deflected to an open Bonfim, who headed at Reina from 12 yards out. But obscured by Stancu (who was played onside by Wilson attempting to close down Angelov), Reina made an utter hash of it, allowing the ball to squirm between his legs and just over the goal line. An auspicious captaincy debut for an undoubtedly talented goalkeeper. As I wrote after the Arsenal match, he'll assuredly make up for it with saves in the future.

From there, Liverpool had one more chance at a winner, with Kyrgiakos heading a corner onto the crossbar in the 66th, and Hodgson sent on both Ngog and Eccleston looking to add pace to Liverpool's attack, but neither side deserved the victory.

Steaua created 10 shots to Liverpool's three. The home side had 10 corners to Liverpool's four; the margin was eight corners to one at half time. But if not for a regrettable, out of the ordinary mistake, Liverpool would have held on for the win, and Steaua would have been hard-pressed to complain having been unable to take the chances they were presented with.

No player really stood out today. Jovanovic faded after his goal, replaced by Eccleston with 10 minutes to play. Babel, whose task was utterly thankless today, was probably the best of the lot, setting up the goal and denied a second assist by Joe Cole's lack of match fitness. The less said about the returning Cole, the better. Pacheco struggled on the right, often drifting centrally to little effect and providing little cover to a consistently under threat Martin Kelly. Shelvey did adequately in a deeper role, often watching the ball fly over his head and with Poulsen chasing play like a puppy after a tennis ball. Wilson had promising moments combined with some hands over face frights, as we'd expect from most inexperienced youngsters.

Yes, it's job done, qualification assured with a game to play, but it was again difficult viewing. We can't forget how rarely many of these players have featured this season, but it's still yet more disappointing, embarrassing, stale football. It was nice to see players like Wilson, Shelvey, and Pacheco, and I still hope to see them again in the future despite the overall team performance. At least, because of the result, they can't be sent back into purgatory as after Northampton.

But once again, we're left with a sour taste in our mouths, wondering if Liverpool will ever lose the 'sit back, try not to concede, eventually concede' tactics Hodgson's used in almost every away match.

01 December 2010

Liverpool at Steaua Bucharest 12.02.10

1pm ET, live in the US on GolTV

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Spurs (a); 3-0 West Ham (h); 0-2 Stoke (a)
Steaua: 2-2 Cluj (h); 1-0 Târgu Mureş (a); 0-1 Gaz Metan Mediaş (h)

Group Stage so far:
Liverpool: 3-1 Napoli (h); 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Steaua: 3-1 Utrecht (h); 1-1 Utrecht (a); 3-3 Napoli (h); 1-4 Liverpool (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Babel, Cole, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Steaua: Stancu 3; Kapetanos, Tanase 2; Gardos 1

Referee: Bülent Yıldırım (TUR)

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Kyrgiakos Wilson Aurelio
Shelvey Poulsen
Babel Cole Jovanovic

As has become commonplace in the Europa League, Hodgson's basically announced the line-up in advance and will rely heavily on the 'B-Team.'

19 players made the trip to Romania this morning:
Pepe Reina, Brad Jones, Martin Hansen, Fabio Aurelio, Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Ryan Babel, Lucas, Danny Wilson, Christian Poulsen, Jonjo Shelvey, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Pacheco, David Ngog, Martin Kelly, Nathan Eccleston, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson.

Torres, Meireles, Kuyt, Johnson, and Konchesky are the key names rested. Reina, Lucas, Kyrgiakos, and Skrtel are Liverpool's 'senior players,' Joe Cole returns from injury, and Dani Pacheco's finally been located.

But whether Pacheco will start remains in doubt. Aside from the announced backline, Hodgson singled out five players in the first linked article, from yesterday's press conference: Cole, Babel, Jovanovic, Poulsen, and Shelvey. That appears to mean those five are nailed on to start, which leaves room for one more in the front six. Pacheco's name was tacked on at the end of the article, stating that he's "expected to feature." And the choice will probably come down to Pacheco or Ngog; whether Hodgson's willing to start Babel as a lone striker.

Poulsen and Shelvey should be the central midfielders unless Hodgson wants Lucas' experience and believes that the Brazilian doesn't need the rest. Cole will almost certainly play in his preferred role behind the striker, while Jovanovic would start on the left. Babel can either play on the right, with Ngog up top, or Pacheco can feature on that flank with the Dutchman as the striker. But it's hard to see Ngog, who's Liverpool's top scorer in the competition, being left out unless his calf injury from the weekend is worse than expected. And that leads me to believe Pacheco, unfortunately, will be on the bench. But stranger things have assuredly happened this season. Let's hope this is just my usual cynicism.

The back four that Hodgson announced yesterday is the back four I want to see – specifically Wilson at center-back for the first time (and his first match since Northampton), and Aurelio and Kelly at full-back. Wilson has a role to play because of Carragher's injury, especially since Agger's out until at least Christmas. Kelly's clearly a promising talent. And, ideally, Aurelio will have a blinder and establish himself as first choice left back, although I'm not holding my breath.

Steaua currently sits seventh in the Romanian League and second in the Europa League group. They beat a tough Utrecht side at home in the last round to become the only other team besides Liverpool to win a group game; Napoli and Utrecht both have three draws and a loss.

Steaua's equalizer in the previous meeting, set up by Stancu (Steaua's top scorer in the competition) and converted by the captain, Tanase, demonstrates that the Romanian side has players capable of punishing Liverpool. Stancu scored twice in Steaua's last match, a 2-2 draw with Champions League side Cluj. Steaua have played five games since besting Utrecht in early November, winning twice, drawing twice, and losing once. Both wins came away from home.

Even with a weakened team, Liverpool has the talent needed to win tomorrow. Or, at the least, take the point needed to qualify from the group stage. While the last meeting was at Anfield, and was closer than the 4-1 scoreline suggests, Liverpool deployed a similar, if slightly stronger, side. But Liverpool's also in far better form than they were in mid-September. We've seen baby steps toward progress, even considering Sunday's gut-punch result. Despite Liverpool likely to make 10 changes from the side that lost at Spurs, that progress (and ambition) needs to continue. And with players looking to force their way into Hodgson's 'A-Team,' it's absolutely possible.