Liverpool lead 1-0 on aggregate
3:05pm ET, live in the US on FSC
Liverpool: 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 City (h); 1-0 Hearts (a); 0-3 West Brom (a)
Hearts: 0-0 Aberdeen (a); 0-1 Liverpool (h); 2-2 Inverness CT (h)
Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Borini, Downing, Gerrard, Johnson 1
Referee: Vladislav Bezborodov (RUS)
Guess at a line-up
Kelly Coates Carragher Enrique
Downing Shelvey Cole
Like last week, expect certain key players to be left out with Arsenal due at Anfield on Sunday. But like against Gomel, Liverpool will probably start a stronger line-up in the home leg, trying to both protect and extend a narrow 1-0 advantage from the previous match.
As almost always, Gerrard seems the most likely to be rested: age, injury history, importance to the team, etc. With Şahin (as well as Assaidi) ineligible tomorrow, Allen might be more likely to play, but he's another that could be protected for the Arsenal match, available as a substitute as in the last leg, especially since he's now that much more important because Lucas will miss the next 2-3 months due to the thigh tear he suffered on Sunday.
A quick, unavoidable aside on Lucas' injury. As much as I love a good scapegoat, this one isn't on the medical staff. It was criminal to allow him to keep playing against Chelsea in the Carling Cup last year. It was less criminal to start him against Manchester City after feeling a twinge in his thigh when warming up. There's more leeway with a muscular injury, because it might well have just been a cramp or a strain, run off easily enough. When it didn't go away, he was immediately substituted. Three minutes of the match probably wasn't the difference between a strain and a tear; I'm no doctor, but I doubt that brief action made the tear much worse. He made no high impact challenges, didn't jump for any headers. He tried to run it off, he couldn't run it off, he came out. Sure, hindsight makes it easy to demand that he shouldn't have started, that he needed to be handled with kid gloves after coming back from such a serious injury sooner than expected. I suspect he wanted to try to play, Rodgers agreed, and the fact that Liverpool were facing City made both more willing to give it a go.
So it sucks, and I'm angry, and you're angry. Man plans and God laughs. If you want to blame anyone, blame Lucas for pushing for too much too soon or even blame Rodgers, because it was his final decision. But also remember that it's nowhere near the death knell that was last season's injury because of Rodgers' planning. Liverpool are in a far better position to cope after signing Joe Allen and securing Şahin on loan. So much for questioning whether Şahin was a superfluous acquisition.
Anyway. I'd hope this doesn't affect the possible sale of Spearing, but it does mean that Henderson and Adam are more likely to see playing time in midfield, especially in the Europa League. Shelvey has played an awful lot lately, more than expected, but I still suspect he'll start tomorrow given the paucity of options. Chances are he won't start on Sunday with Şahin available, and if someone's going to be over-extended, I'd rather him than Gerrard.
Similar goes for Sterling. After starting the last two matches, a third would probably mean he won't be in the XI against Arsenal. I think I'd rather him in the XI against Arsenal. Liverpool's options on the flank are Downing, Borini, Sterling, Cole, Henderson, Shelvey, and maybe Suarez, if Carroll somehow starts up front. I haven't seen anything, on the pitch or in the media, which makes me think Carroll's likely to start. So, Suarez, Carroll, or Morgan up front; Sterling, Borini, or Cole on the left; Downing, Borini, Cole, Henderson, or Shelvey on the right. Guessing which combination Rodgers will choose on form and fitness with Arsenal on Sunday is truly nothing more than a slightly educated guess.
Downing as left-back has become a hot topic since the last leg, but two factors make me doubt whether we'll see it tomorrow. First and foremost, after 25 minutes against City, Enrique needs match fitness before Arsenal. Second, as mentioned above, Liverpool still have few options for the flanks, especially on the right. Borini wasn't especially effective on that side against City, and Sterling is also far better on the left. Joe Cole's probably fit by now, but he's still Joe Cole, and he's also more likely to play on the left, as he did for nine minutes against Gomel. Henderson started there in the last leg, sometimes switching with Shelvey, but I think both will be needed in the middle if both Gerrard and Allen are rested. Finally, while Downing may well be a viable option in defense, and it's always handy to have more options, I'd still prefer Jack Robinson as Enrique's primary back-up.
Otherwise, I expect the second-choice back four: Kelly, who's improved with each match he's played this season, instead of Johnson; Carragher and Coates in place of Skrtel and Agger, with the Dane eligible to face Arsenal after his one-match ban.
Hearts slightly changed its system in last weekend's scoreless draw at Aberdeen, similar to how they readjusted after Liverpool scored its opener a week ago. With Templeton suspended for a second SPL match, Driver played in the hole behind Sutton, while Paterson – who started as the holding midfielder in the first leg against Liverpool – was on the right of midfield. Which was where he was nearly scoring in the dying seconds last Thursday, a shot that Reina deftly parried aside after Paterson out-muscled Downing.
While 4-1-4-1 had been Hearts' preferred formation until Sunday's match, and Templeton will be available, we may see the above 4-4-1-1 repeated in tomorrow's match. Down a goal, Hearts may prefer an extra attacking midfielder to an extra defensive midfielder. Or, just as likely, Hearts could sit deeper in the 4-1-4-1 formation, playing for the counter-attack, hoping to stifle Liverpool then catch them unaware. So, you know, one or the other. I realize this helps little. Sorry.
The one-goal lead is a narrow advantage, and Liverpool will come out looking for more, as in the last round. Liverpool have played far better at Anfield, whether against Gomel, Leverkusen or City, compared to performances at Gomel, West Brom or Hearts. While the Europa League remains a second-tier competition, advancement to the group stage remains the bare minimum expectation, and today's line-up and tactics should reflect that.