Showing posts with label Europa League. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Europa League. Show all posts

11 August 2014

Interactive Map: Liverpool in Europe 1964-2014

This is so cool. And gorgeous. It's in the same vein as this previous map, showing where Liverpool's Premier League players were born, but so much more in-depth. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can't. Not much, anyway. No matter how much I'd like to.

It's an interactive map of every European match Liverpool have ever played, just in time for Liverpool's first Champions League campaign in five seasons. And as with the previous interactive map, it's courtesy of cartographer extraordinaire Eben Dennis of Colorado Reds.

Below is a screenshot, because the map's way too massive to embed into Blogger. You'll just have to click on the above link, or below image, and check it out yourself.

And the highlight stats:

Information is organized by campaign, competition, and opponent. There's the result and goal-scorers, date and venue, and even some video when available. Seriously, go lose half a day (or more) playing around with this. It's amazing.

And, as usual with almost anything related to Liverpool's history, this wouldn't have been possible without and their unbelievably thorough repository of Liverpool's matches.

21 February 2013

Liverpool 3-1 Zenit St Petersburg

3-3 on aggregate, Zenit win via away goals

Hulk 19'
Suarez 28' 59'
Allen 43'

If it wasn't for individual errors…

That's this season's mantra. I can't decide whether it's a less irritating mantra than "how did you hit the woodwork again?" but neither's very reassuring.

So close, and yet so far. If only.

Liverpool's team selection was somewhat surprising, more a 4-3-3 than we've seen lately with Allen and Gerrard both ahead of Lucas and Henderson coming inside almost every time Liverpool attacked, which was clearly an attempt to keep possession in Zenit's half and to force Zenit's three midfielders deeper and deeper to remove the supply line for possible counter-attacks. And Liverpool dominated possession early on, but with moves often breaking down in the final third, as the front four or five were unsurprisingly unfamiliar with each other's movement.

Then, those stated fears were realized fairly early as Zenit opened the scoring on the break, through a catastrophic goal almost completely of Liverpool's own making. Zenit hoofed clear out of their defensive third, straight to Carragher just inside the Liverpool half. Hulk pressed quickly, as Zenit pressed fairly relentlessly throughout the match, but Carragher still had to opportunity to slam it back to Reina. Unfortunately, off balance, he barely made contact, incredibly similar to when Suarez forced Distin into the same error in last season's FA Cup semi-final. Like Suarez in that semi-final, Hulk made no mistake when one-on-one with Reina, slotting past the keeper before Reina could close the distance or Agger could recover. It was a rather disappointing way to mark what would end as Carragher's last European match, especially as "we all dream of a team of Carraghers" had been ringing around Anfield just before the goal.

Had Liverpool not conceded a horrific opener, Liverpool wouldn't have had an unsurmountable mountain to climb. But at least the concession prompted the proper response. It would have been all too easy for heads to drop as Liverpool needed four against the Russian champions after another near-unbelievable setback in a season that's seen far too many of them.

But not today.

Liverpool immediately got back on the front foot, once more pinning Zenit deep, with dangerous shots from Suarez and Henderson blocked. Agger, getting one of his rushes of blood to the head, immaculately bombed forward from defense, winning a free kick just outside the box after some surprisingly deft footwork. Which Suarez proceeded to hammer into the back of the net, aiding by Henderson creating space in the middle of Zenit's wall.

With Liverpool scoring just nine minutes after Zenit's opener, it was game back on. Liverpool camped in the opposition's half, winning free kick after free kick, corner after corner, but disappointed with each's delivery. Zenit continued to show its potential on the counter, with Danny chesting down and volleying inches wide after an early cross, followed quickly by Anyukov's shot from nowhere narrowly into the side-netting.

Liverpool needed to score before halftime to truly believe. Three goals in 45 minutes wasn't impossible, but two goals would make that mountain look much smaller. And then, just before halftime, Liverpool got that goal: a excellent move down the left between Henderson and Enrique featuring Henderson's one-touch throughball to the left-back at the byline, Enrique's cutback deflected to Allen, who saw his header saved but followed in to chip the rebound over a prone Malafeev. Game on.

Spaletti responded with two half-time changes, although both were somewhat forced. Lombaerts picked up a serious injury just before the interval, requiring Criscito to come on and Hubočan to shift to center-back. Danny may not have been 100% after picking up a knock last week, and was replaced by Fayzulin.

But the changes didn't blunt Liverpool. And Suarez continued to be at the epicenter, setting up a Downing shot that was blocked, then should have earned a penalty for handball on Hubočan, and then forced an excellent save from Malafeev with a toe-poke.

And then, in the 59th minute, he did this:

Despite getting the third, just one goal away from victory, Rodgers stuck with the substitutions lined up before the third goal: Shelvey and Assaidi (he lives!) for Henderson and Allen, going for all-out attack in the final half an hour. But the all-out attack didn't come.

Liverpool took 11 shots in the first hour, with six on target. In the final 30 minutes, in a game where Liverpool had to score just one more, Liverpool took just five more, only hitting the target once. To be fair, four of those were decent chances. One of the off-target shots was a narrowly-wide Suarez free kick which still forced a save from Malafeev, smartly pushed wide rather than into the mix for a potential rebound. Two minutes later, the Russian keeper made a phenomenal stop on Gerrard's awkward blast; I've still little idea how he got back into position to prevent yet another Stevie G special. The jerk. Shelvey charged onto a loose ball but could only fire into the side-netting, while Agger flicked a header from Liverpool's ninth corner wide.

That said, all of those chances came before the 80th minute, and bracketed another near-goal from Hulk after Zenit again pressed Liverpool – this time Agger – into a mistake in its own half, remarkably saved by Reina. The last throw of the dice, Sterling for Downing in the 84th couldn't change proceedings, as Zenit defended excellently, not allowing Liverpool to dice its way through the deep, resilient back-line, forcing them wide to attempt crosses. Which, as we painfully learned last season, Liverpool aren't very good at. And that was with Outstanding Header™ Andy Carroll in the side. But Zenit defended well for almost the entire match; it's no coincidence that two of Liverpool's three goals came from direct free kicks. Only Allen's strike featured the type of build-up play that's seen Liverpool thrive, and that wasn't one of Liverpool's seven created chances either because of the deflection on Enrique's cutback and the eventual goal coming from a rebound. I'll reiterate: 16 shots, but only seven chances created. None of them clear-cut.

So much good, but just not enough. Barely not enough. Liverpool's fight-back was massively impressive. Lucas and Enrique were superb, as was Gerrard in everything but set plays. Suarez scored two monumental free kicks; if Bale had scored one similar to his second, the entire British press corps would suffer from priapism for the next week.

Look, despite the disappointments, there are no scapegoats. Suarez may have been an irrepressible genius today, but don't forget that Liverpool are exiting this competition because of his wastefulness in the first leg as much as Carragher's error today. Rodgers' substitutions didn't work as planned, but his initial tactics helped Liverpool nearly dominate proceedings, including bringing back Allen, who scored what was almost the vital second.

I've usually little time for moral victories, but today is a moral victory. Liverpool are out of the Europa League, but not only is there clearly something to build on for the future – and this team will be even better with Sturridge and Coutinho in the side – the confidence displayed by continuing to fight regardless of the early setback is a mentality that Liverpool's lacked all too often during the failings over the last three or four seasons.

Now we need to see it during the last three months of the league campaign.

20 February 2013

Liverpool v Zenit St Petersburg 02.21.13

Zenit lead 2-0 on aggregate

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Udinese (a); 2-2 BSC Young Boys (h); 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-0 Anzhi (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Zenit: 1-0 Milan (a); 2-2 Malaga (h); 0-1 Anderlecht (a); 1-0 Anderlecht (h); 2-3 MIlan (a); 0-3 Malaga (a) [Champions League]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Swansea (h); 0-2 Zenit (a); 0-2 West Brom (h)
Zenit: 2-0 Liverpool (h); 1-1 Anzhi (h); 1-0 Milan (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Shelvey 4; Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Cole, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Zenit: Danny, Hulk 2; Faizulin, Kerzhakov, Semak, Shirokov 1

Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED)

Kuipers has done two previous Liverpool matches, both in 2009-10: a 1-0 win at Debrecen in the Champions League (not the supposed match-fixing one) and a 4-1 win over Benfica in the Europa League quarterfinal – a match where Liverpool needed to overcome a 1-2 away leg deficit.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Henderson Sterling

Just once in Liverpool's history have they overturned a two-goal first leg deficit in European competition. Once. Against Auxerre in the second round of the 1991-92 UEFA Cup, winning 3-0 at Anfield after a 0-2 loss at the Stade de l'Abbe Deschamps.

One-goal deficits? That's happened. Quite often, in fact; most recently against both Lille and Benfica on the way to the Europa League semi-final in 2009-10.

Liverpool have lost a European first leg by two or more goals 10 previous times in its history. Nine of those first legs were away from home, the 10th was the last time that result's happened: against Chelsea in 2008-09, losing 1-3 at home before mounting a comeback at Stamford Bridge, scoring the first two goals but then conceding four in the second half in a 4-4 draw. Liverpool have won five of those 10 second legs, but either didn't score enough or conceded away goals, with two draws and three home losses.

Precedent is not helpful in this case.

That said, I'm not trying to bury the body before even checking for a pulse. But Liverpool have a hell of a hole to dig themselves out of.

Rodgers is 100% right. The first goal, especially if it comes early in the match, could make all the difference. It'll shift much of the pressure on Zenit, hopefully buckling under a Liverpool onslaught and Anfield's vocal fury.

However, concede, and it's the nail in the coffin. If Zenit get an away goal, Liverpool will need four. And in both Hulk and Semak's goals last week, we saw how dangerous Zenit can be on the break.

I'm curious to see just who's available for the fourth match in 11 days. Seven Liverpool players – Gerrard, Suarez, Downing, Carragher, Johnson, Enrique, and Reina – have all started the previous three.

You can write Gerrard, Suarez, and Reina's names on the team sheet now. Both Johnson and Enrique have had good and bad moments in the last few matches, but both are basically certainties as well, with Liverpool needing their abilities in attack and lacking for options. With Sturridge and Coutinho cup-tied and Borini injured again, Downing – who has started more matches than anyone else over the last two months – will also be needed. Which leaves Carragher as the only question. And it's not really a question with Skrtel struggling with a knee problem. It might be a question if Skrtel were fit, as I continue to worry about Carragher's recuperation after so many matches in quick succession and as the Slovakian did well in the previous leg, but – as with far too many other positions – it seems Liverpool don't really have a choice.

Otherwise, Henderson seems more likely than Shelvey, Suso, or Allen to play in the advanced midfield role, and Lucas will almost certainly feature as the deepest midfielder. The only alternative seems playing Henderson on the left again, more defensively solid than Sterling – as we saw in Zenit's second goal last week – with either of the other three listed attacking midfielder options playing centrally. But I reckon that's a much less likely alternative.

This guessed XI isn't very different from the sides which won 3-0 against Sunderland and QPR during the festive season. We know there are goals in it, or at least the potential for goals. But it also isn't very different from the side which struggled a week ago in Russia, with Lucas coming in for Allen and Agger for Skrtel. And unfortunately, as we're all well aware, Zenit is slightly stronger than those other two sides.

As in the previous leg and as against West Brom, there are two overriding concerns. The first, the more important, is Liverpool's attacking capabilities without Sturridge in the squad. If Liverpool – read: Suarez – take their chances, Liverpool could well shock Zenit. If they're wasteful, forced to press harder and harder in search of the needed goals, Zenit has the potential to decimate them on the break. Zenit's ability on the counter-attack, Spalletti's preferred method of attack, and Liverpool's frequent susceptibility to counter-attacks is the other concern.

I'd be surprised if Spalletti's XI deviated much from the one we saw last week. They've no new reported injuries, having played no matches in the meantime thanks to the Russian league's winter break, and having nullified Liverpool fairly effectively in St Petersburg. Danny hobbled off with a knock early in the second half, but trained during the week. Domenico Criscito is also back in the squad, recovered from a month-long calf injury, but Zenit might be better served by keeping the more-defensive Hubočan at left-back. Bruno Alves returns from a one-match suspension incurred for three yellows in the Champions League group stage, and could replace either Neto or Lombaerts (more likely the latter) at center-back. Midfielder Zyryanov will again miss out through injury.

Getting back into this tie will be a difficult task. Keeping Zenit from scoring once, if not more, will be just as difficult. Liverpool will need one of those often-referenced historic Anfield nights to stay in this competition, its only remaining chance at a trophy this season. And while no one's pretending that the Europa League's comparable to those Champions League matches we saw from 2004-2009, were Liverpool to come back to win this tie, it'd undoubtedly join the list of those cherished historic nights.

14 February 2013

Liverpool 0-2 Zenit St Petersburg

Hulk 69'
Semak 72'

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Despite not playing to their full potential, Liverpool create and subsequently spurn multiple excellent chances. Little by little, Liverpool start to dominate the game. And then Liverpool concede against the run of play. And then quickly concede a second. And then pretty much fall apart and hardly threaten the opposition's goal for the rest of the match.

The only difference was Liverpool were lucky not to fall behind during the first quarter of the match, where only Reina's agility and awareness prevented an early Zenit goal. The Reina of the first 28 minutes was the Reina we'd missed, somehow parrying Kerzhakov's 2nd minute effort after a post-corner scramble, denying Hulk from distance in the 5th, then keeping two more efforts from the Brazilian out of his net around the midway point of the half. Time and time again, Zenit found space between the lines, taking advantage of Lucas' absence, running circles around both Allen and Gerrard.

But Liverpool had chances of their own. Unfortunately, as against West Brom, we got "bad Suarez." Or, at least, supremely wasteful Suarez. Countering after Zenit's first excellent chance, Suarez fired wide from Johnson's excellent ball over the top. He couldn't even get a shot off after intercepting a lazy Lombaerts pass deep in Zenit's half, rounding the keeper but losing the opportunity thanks to a heavy touch. And five minutes before halftime, Suarez missed the best of the bunch, a cheeky back heel from two yards out bafflingly wide of the near post after Sterling picked up then laid off Allen's deflected cross.

Liverpool were both direct and disjointed, but that seemed by design. At least the former quality; the latter was an effect of relying on long passes and counter-attacks through a frequently isolated Suarez. As expected, Liverpool knew they'd have to be both cagey to prevent Zenit from breaking through and direct to keep Zenit's midfielders from getting behind the ball, hoping to spring Suarez or Sterling on the counter. Which they should have done at least once. Liverpool's first half passing was subpar and Liverpool had an unusual lack of possession in the final third, but Liverpool were always going to have to adjust to Zenit in St Petersburg rather than vice versa. And Liverpool did improve after 30 minutes, plugging the holes in the dike which led to Zenit's early opportunities, mostly because Gerrard smartly held his position while Allen attempted to chase down Witsel and Shirokov coming forward from midfield. As Dan Kennett astutely noted at halftime, it was a lot like most of Liverpool's other Europa League matches so far this season in that it could easily have been 2-0 Zenit or just as easily 2-0 Liverpool.

Liverpool were even better after the interval, demonstrating some semblance of control, keeping possession. And actually getting shots on target. Well, shot. Johnson went coast to coast in the 49th minute, running by two defenders then nutmegging a third, but was unable to fully nutmeg the keeper, as Malafeev made just enough contact to deflect the shot wide. On the hour mark, bad Suarez reappeared, curling a shot inches wide of the far post after Downing's strong run across the top of the box.

And, because it's Liverpool, you just knew they'd concede once finally obtaining a foothold but still failing to take their chances. It was only a matter of time. This Liverpool side is nothing if not depressingly predictable.

The first came when Henderson was dispossessed by Denisov near the center circle, the holding midfielder cleverly choosing when and who to press then quickly laying off to Hulk, who charged forward and rifled an utterly unstoppable shot past Reina. It was the type of goal that's hard to complain about despite the mistakes leading up to it: a flawless, jaw-dropping strike that wouldn't have been saved with three keepers in the net. However, it's much easier to complain about the second.

Sterling had come inside, chasing the ball, trying to make something happen in Zenit's half even though Henderson and Suarez already had the position covered. Okay, it happens. Less forgivable was the fact that Sterling wandered aimlessly through the middle after being dispossessed for a good 20 seconds before tracking back; with Henderson and Suarez also still central, it left Liverpool's left flank open wider than a pervert's trenchcoat. And it goes without saying that Zenit were smart enough to take advantage, immediately spreading play wide to Anyukov, who had all the space in the world to play a deep cross. Skrtel's close marking ensured Kerzhakov couldn't make contact, but Johnson, caught ball-watching, switched completely off, allowing Semak to ghost in at the back post for a tap in. Infuriating, from start to finish.

And has become all too common, Liverpool rarely looked like responding after the set-back. Rodgers' surprising alteration, bringing on Lucas for Sterling despite the two-goal disadvantage, allowed Liverpool to send men forward more comfortably knowing the Brazilian safety blanket was in place, but the only time Liverpool tested Malafeev was on a set-play. Suarez finally put a shot on target from a free kick, but Malafeev parried just far enough so that Henderson was unable to make an immediate rebound, needing to lay off for Downing, whose tame shot was blocked. And that was the sum of Liverpool's "response." And now Liverpool are micrometers away from being eliminated from a third cup competition in the same week that its slim league hopes were dashed.

I've no complaints about Rodgers' team selection or tactics. The strong squad demonstrated the manager's intent, and we'd be reveling in those tactics had Suarez taken one of his four outstanding chances before Zenit scored. Unlike against West Brom, using Borini as a like-for-like replacement for Sturridge made little sense; Suarez as a #10 against Zenit's midfield would have been banging furiously on trouble's door then asking trouble could come out to play for a while. Liverpool would have gained little in attack, but lost much, much more in defensive solidity. However, I continue to have complaints about both Liverpool's mentality and Liverpool making the same mistakes over and over and over and over.

In the last three months, Liverpool have conceded in 12 of 19 matches. In 11 of those 12, they've conceded at least twice; only Mansfield tallied a single goal, and had they scored that single goal earlier than the 80th minute, odds are that they would have gotten a second given how those final ten minutes went.

For all intents and purposes, Liverpool's European campaign is now in a world of shit. Because of the same problems we've seen all season long.

Yes, stranger things have happened. But this is not 2005. Individually, on paper, Liverpool don't look that far off from the side that won in Istanbul – at least the strongest XI – but this team isn't even on the same planet, let alone ball park: less experienced, less balanced, more fragile, more naive.

In the next leg, Liverpool will have to press and press and attack and attack, and it's highly likely that in the process, Zenit will pull their pants down on the counter at least once. Not only are Liverpool prone to that at the best of times, but we saw just glimpses of how dangerous Hulk, Danny, and Kerzhakov can be. Now imagine those three are given additional space by Liverpool's dire need for goals.

Here's hoping that the script doesn't go according to form, to Liverpool's benefit, at least once this season. Unfortunately, having hope this season has been a dangerous proposition.

13 February 2013

Liverpool at Zenit St Petersburg 02.14.13

12pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Udinese (a); 2-2 BSC Young Boys (h); 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-0 Anzhi (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Zenit: 1-0 Milan (a); 2-2 Malaga (h); 0-1 Anderlecht (a); 1-0 Anderlecht (h); 2-3 MIlan (a); 0-3 Malaga (a) [Champions League]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 West Brom (h); 2-2 City (a); 2-2 Arsenal (a)
Zenit: 1-1 Anzhi (h); 1-0 Milan (a); 4-2 Spartak (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Shelvey 4; Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Cole, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Zenit: Danny 2; Faizulin, Hulk, Kerzhakov, Shirokov 1

Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP)

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Carragher Enrique
Lucas Allen
Sterling Henderson Borini

Rodgers has named a strong squad, but will he name a strong XI?

With both their previous clubs still involved in this competition, Sturridge and Coutinho are ineligible. And I'd have to think that no matter how strong a side Rodgers would like, Gerrard, Agger, and Johnson – at the very least – will be left on the bench. Those three, more than any others, need to be protected, as we've been reminded all season long. It's dangerous to leave those two defenders out – Zenit's Danny would be the best player Wisdom has faced this season, while Agger remains Liverpool's best center-back, no matter those last ten minutes against West Brom. But the number of matches (and importance of those matches) this week demands some sacrifices on the altar of fitness.

However, both Lucas and Suarez may well start, something that didn't happen often in the group stages (at least in the case of Suarez; Lucas was injured), the latter more likely than the former. Liverpool's attacking options remain limited without Sturridge, as Monday's match so painfully proved, pretty much requiring the Uruguayan on from the beginning. And I suspect Suarez will be joined by Borini and Sterling. Downing's played in every match since being left on the bench against Southampton on December 1, 14 in a row, starting all of them except the FA Cup tie at Oldham; even Suarez and Gerrard haven't featured as often over that stretch.

Meanwhile, Liverpool will need Lucas' defensive capabilities in midfield, protection against Danny and Hulk's runs inside, Kerzhakov dropping deep from striker, and Zenit's fluid midfield three. He'll assuredly be joined by Allen, who's been overshadowed by Liverpool's other midfielders, and most likely Henderson. Zenit's shape – specifically that three-man midfield – suggests it'd be a bad idea to play Suarez as a #10, and Henderson will provide more and better running and work rate than either Shelvey or Suso.

Finally, tomorrow is a homecoming of sorts for Martin Skrtel, bought from Zenit in January 2008. If any opponent is likely to encourage a revitalization of form, it should be tomorrow's. He'll probably be joined in defense by Carragher, who's shown the ability to play twice in a matter of days when starting against both Arsenal and City, rather than Agger or Coates, as well as Enrique, who – like Suarez – pretty much has to start because of the paucity of alternatives. I still think Wisdom's more likely at right back because of Johnson's fitness concerns, but if any of Gerrard, Agger, or Johnson is to start, it's probably the right back because of the aforementioned problems that Danny causes.

Zenit are currently third in the Russian Premier League, three points behind Anzhi – a side Liverpool are both familiar with and were, honestly, better than in the Europa League – and five points behind CSKA Moscow. The Russian league went on winter break in mid-December, but Zenit have played a handful of friendlies over the last month, against Al-Hilal (W), Zamalak (L), Shakhtar Donestk (L), RNK Split (W), Gornik Zabrze (W), and BATE Borisov (L).

Zonal Marking's preview explains Zenit's tactics better than I'm able. Luciano Spalletti's side is flexible, but the Italian prefers a fairly orthodox, counter-attacking 4-3-3, quite similar to how Russia played in Euro 2012. Hulk and Danny playing off Kerhakov; Witsel and Shirokov ahead of the deeper-lying Denisov; and Anyukov, Bruno Alves, Lombaerts, and Hubočan in defense, with both fullbacks aiming to get forward, Anyukov more than Hubočan (who can play anywhere along the back four). Zenit's keeper, Vyacheslav Malafeev, was Russia's first-choice keeper until retiring from the national team after Euro 2012. New signing Neto, another Portuguese international, may replace Lombaerts in defense, while midfielder Zyryanov and full-back Criscito will be crucial absentees through injury. That'd be Spalletti's strongest available side, which I have to assume he'll deploy.

That Zenit thrive on the counter-attack presents a major concern for this Liverpool. We've all seen the side, no matter the personnel, rent asunder by lightning, fluid breaks. For once, tepid Liverpool possession without overcommitting players forward and without high pressing when losing the ball – facets we've often complained about – might be the best strategy. Patience and caginess will be the orders of the day.

Meanwhile, James Appell's preview for ITV, detailing Zenit's on- and off-the-pitch struggles makes me slightly more optimistic. The off-the-pitch struggles have been heavily noted: the fans group who demanded that Zenit not sign minorities or homosexuals; homegrown players such as Denisov, Kerzhakov, and Shirkov reacting poorly to the massive fees and contracts for Hulk and Witsel; and the ongoing, delayed construction of a new stadium, one which will probably end up the world's most expensive.

On the pitch, Zenit started the season slowly, knocked off balance by the eye-watering purchases of Hulk and Witsel, especially disappointing in the Champions League when failing to qualify from a group with AC Milan, Malaga, and Anderlecht. However, they've lost just once in the league since mid-September, a 3-0 defeat at Dinamo Moscow by forfeit when Dinamo's keeper was injured by a firecracker thrown from the Zenit fans, with 53 subsequently arrested. Once again, off-the-pitch issues dwarf those on it.

Also on the pitch, it'll be about -5º celsius, otherwise known as about 23ºF in civilized countries. Which is pretty damn cold, and something that Zenit will be used to that Liverpool won't, no matter how bad the weather's been in Britain or that Zenit's spent the majority of its winter break in U.A.E. and Turkey.

Liverpool's frustrating, disappointing performance against West Brom should at least provoke a response from this side; there have been some very bad matches this season, but they've almost always been followed by a good one, as after Villa, Stoke, Oldham over the last couple of months. Liverpool will need a very good one to beat the Russian champions in Russia in February, even considering the season they've had so far or their form going into the fixture.

20 December 2012

Zenit in the Round of 16


I reckon that Zenit St. Petersburg is one of the worst draws Liverpool could receive.

Not only is it another long, debilitating trip to Russia (I hear Russia is lovely in February!), but Zenit are an incredibly talented side. Or, at least, they've got an awful lot of incredibly talented players: Hulk, Danny, and Kerhakov in attack; Witsel, Shirokov, Denisov in midfield. Bruno Alves and Lombaerts are both outstanding center-backs, Malafeev a talented keeper, and Anyukov is Russia's starting right back.

Managed by Luciano Spalleti, formerly of Roma, Zenit play a 4-3-3 system – very similar to the 4-1-2-3 Rodgers has used since Lucas' return – but a system which thrives on the counter-attack. You know, the style of play that Liverpool's all-too-prone to conceding against.

There are a couple of positives. Zenit, like Liverpool, are often worse than the sum of their parts suggest they should be. They've only lost three league matches – against Rubin Kazan and Terek Gronzy at home and Dynamo Moscow away – but have drawn five (joint-most in the division) and were outgunned in its Champions League group, losing to Anderlecht and Malaga away, and AC Milan at home; they were the only side that Anderlecht beat in that group. A last day win at already-qualified AC Milan is the only reason the group looks close after the fact, but Zenit had little chance of progression after losing its first two fixtures.

Both Hulk and Witsel have struggled to settle, each costing €40m this summer, leading to this wonderful, tolerant, certainly-not-racist letter from a Zenit fans' group currently making the rounds. Hulk's decision-making often sucks, too frequently too greedy and selfish, but on his day, he's lightening quick, direct, and can score from anywhere – again, just the type of player who often punishes Liverpool. Danny's slow return to form and fitness following an eight-month layoff from February through September due to a cruciate injury should improve Zenit tremendously; he was the star player against Spartak and AC Milan before picking up a red card for dissent in the match against Anzhi last week.

The St. Petersburg club is currently third in the Russian League, three points behind Anzhi, a side Liverpool beat fairly easily – despite the 1-0 scoreline – when using a strong line-up at Anfield, and narrowly lost to in Russia with a vastly weaker squad. Zenit has faced Anzhi twice, home and away, and drew 1-1 both times. The transitive property suggests that Liverpool have an excellent chance to advance to the next round, but then again, the transitive property rarely if ever works in football.

Finally, Zenit will face Liverpool having spent two months without playing competitive football. That 1-1 draw against Anzhi on December 10 was the final fixture before the Russian Premier League's winter break; the league won't resume until early March. This happened the last time Liverpool were in the Europa League, facing Sparta Prague in the round of 16, who clearly felt the effects of the Czech League's three-month break. Of course, Liverpool were also poor, needing a late late late second leg goal from Kuyt to progress 1-0 on aggregate, but of course they did because Liverpool.

If Liverpool advance, they'll face the winner of the Basel-Dnipro tie, with the latter side both seeded and favored. We can complain about the next bridge after getting over the first, but the last thing Liverpool will need after a trip to Russia is one to the Ukraine.

06 December 2012

Liverpool 1-0 Udinese

Henderson 23'

It wasn't one to remember, but it's job done. With Young Boys beating Anzhi in Bern, Liverpool needed a win, and somehow, Liverpool got the win.

On the whole, you know the routine. Liverpool scored a much-needed opener but suffered for not scoring a second when on top, pushed back in the late stages despite Pasquale's red card and nearly punished by their own inertia with the last kick of the game. But they weren't. I guess that's all that really counts in this competition.

We wondered which Udinese we'd get from the already-eliminated side: resilient opponents looking to end on a high note and build confidence from this weekend's victory or an XI going through the motions. For the first half at least, we got the latter, although Liverpool never "dominated" proceedings. But after a disjointed opening quarter, albeit with a couple of Udinese chances, Liverpool made the breakthrough from a well-worked set play: Suarez peeled away from his marker to knock down Shelvey's corner, followed up by a questionably onside Suso, who laid off for Henderson to slot home.

The rest of the first half was all Liverpool: a goal rightfully ruled out when the ball crossed the byline before Downing (also probably offside) found Johnson for a tap-in, Suarez setting up both Shelvey and Suso as well as shooting wildly wide of the near post with two players in better positions, and ex-Liverpool keeper Padelli wonderfully denying a Suarez bicycle attempt with the last kick of the half.

Knowing Liverpool, going into the interval having failed to take those chances prompted fears of an equalizer, whether against the run of play or with Udinese taking control in the second half. As in the previous meeting – where Liverpool also led 1-0 at halftime – Guidolin made halftime changes, bringing on center-back Benatia for holding midfielder Pinzi, both players recently back from injury. But then change didn't have the dramatic effect present in the last meeting, and Udinese kept playing four at the back, shifting second striker Fabbrini out wide and using Danilo as the holding midfielder, more a 4-1-4-1 than the first half's 4-2-3-1.

For 25 minutes, Liverpool remained the better side. Suso missed an excellent chance, while Padelli made smart saves on Henderson and Suarez shots; no one could have guessed that an ex-Liverpool keeper would prove hard to beat.

But having failed to get that needed second, Liverpool spent the final 20 minutes retreating, trying to keep possession but with no threat, hoping to prevent yet another unfortunate concession. Even after an incredibly card-happy referee showed Pasquale a second yellow with 10 minutes to play, although the sending off unsurprisingly restrained Udinese's efforts at a comeback. Still, Liverpool were never safe and increasingly nervous, and a laughable move in injury time ended with Di Natale blazing narrowly over with the last kick of the game after easily getting behind Carragher.

But for all the complaints, there really aren't that many complaints. Liverpool's defense was outstanding – except until that final frightening moment – the highlight of the match despite Udinese's lack of threat. The away side also coped admirably with an early setback, with Şahin forced off after 10 minutes due to what looked like a broken nose, replaced by Shelvey and with Allen assuming Şahin's role as the deepest midfielder. The Welshman proceeded to make four tackles and six interceptions, completing 90 of his 96 passes, and committing just one foul – even if he picked up a yellow for it. After some worrying signs of fatigue over the last six weeks, he was back to his best today. At the same time, Henderson had his best match of the season, not just for his first goal since May, but also for his constant running and closing down in midfield. Liverpool attempted exactly 1350 passes over these two matches against Udinese (to Udinese's 585), and it's no coincidence that the midfield was Henderson-Shelvey-Allen in both matches.

Not counting the qualifying rounds, Liverpool had won just two away matches out of 11 in the Europa League since dropping down into this competition in 2010 – against Unirea Urziceni (a club that no longer exists) that season and against Young Boys three months ago – drawing four and losing five. Liverpool couldn't lose today no matter what, while Young Boys' result ensured that Liverpool couldn't draw either. Despite the presence of more senior players than we're used to in this competition, it was still something of an unfamiliar side; Reina, Johnson, Skrtel, Enrique, Allen, and Suarez are usual starters, but Suso, Şahin, Carragher, Downing and Henderson aren't. The defense, midfield, and attack all had changes to what we're used to, but all did enough to secure the victory.

Despite the multiple disappointments in the group stage – specifically against this opposition and Young Boys at Anfield – despite using mostly second-string players in this competition, Liverpool actually top the group. You're not allowed to complain after that.

There is country protection in the next round, meaning Liverpool can't face Chelsea, Newcastle, or Tottenham (if they qualify), while topping the group should ensure Liverpool are seeded for the upcoming draw. Had you offered me that back in September, I'd have bitten your hand off.

05 December 2012

Liverpool at Udinese 12.06.12

1:00pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 BSC Young Boys (h); 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-0 Anzhi (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Udinese: 0-2 Anzhi (a); 2-3 BSC Young Boys (a); 1-3 BSC Young Boys (h); 3-2 Liverpool (a); 1-1 Anzhi (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Udinese: 1-1 Braga [4-5 pens] (h); 1-1 Braga (a) [CL Qualifier]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Southampton (h); 1-2 Spurs (a); 0-0 Swansea (a)
Udinese: 4-1 Cagliari (h); 0-3 Lazio (a); 0-2 Anzhi (a)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Shelvey 4 Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Cole, Gerrard, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Udinese: Di Natale 3; Coda, Fabbrini, Pasquale 1

Referee: Duarte Gomes (POR)

Gomes has actually done a Liverpool match before, the insipid 0-0 draw at Utrecht in this competition two years ago.

Guess at a line-up
Wisdom Coates Skrtel Enrique
Henderson Şahin
Suso Suarez Assaidi

Last round's loss means Liverpool have to play a much stronger line-up than Rodgers would prefer. And if they don't win or draw, equalling or bettering Young Boys' result at home against an already-qualified Anzhi, they'll be out of this competition.

At the least, Liverpool will have to qualify without Gerrard, Agger, or, Lucas. The latter two aren't a surprise – Lucas having just returned from a long injury, Agger's fitness perpetually needing to be managed – but Gerrard, despite his age and injury record, would probably feature if not for illness.

Henderson's started four of the five group matches. Şahin and Shelvey have started three of the five. Those three seem the likely midfield starters, but Allen could also replace one of the latter two. Similarly, Suso's played as an attacking midfielder in a couple of these matches, but three from Henderson, Allen, Şahin and Shelvey is more probable.

With Suarez suspended for Sunday's match at West Ham, he'll undoubtedly start tomorrow. And probably would have anyway had he not picked up his fifth yellow of the league campaign against Southampton. Similar to the midfield, Liverpool have been fairly consistent in the front three, with Assaidi and Downing the usual wide forwards in this competition. Except at Anzhi, when Liverpool played the strange, ineffective 3-5-1-1 system, and against Young Boys, with Downing at left back and Cole in his place. Those seem the primary options for the flanks tomorrow, with an outside chance for Suso or Shelvey – the former having played there earlier in the season and the latter doing well against Southampton. Simply put, I'd rather not see Downing, either at left-back or on the right flank, while odds are Joe Cole can't replicate his excellent performance against the Swiss. My preference is that one of Shelvey or Suso play as the attacking midfielder, the other on the flank opposite Assaidi. Either way, Sterling needs to be another of those rested, hopefully left on the bench for the duration.

This will probably be the match where Wisdom finally returns from injury. With the young right-back likely to feature, chances are Rodgers won't use another inexperienced defender on the opposite flank, even if Robinson should have received more appearances so far this season. Which would make it a choice between Enrique and Downing, with Johnson hopefully rested, at left back. Either Coates or Carragher will partner Skrtel, neither performing wondrously against Di Natale in the last meeting. I obviously hope it'll be the young Uruguayan, ideally improved by the presence of Martin Skrtel, but Carragher's often been preferred since Coates' unlikely start against Manchester City three months ago.

Udinese were on a seven-match winless streak, beginning on Halloween, until hammering Cagliari 4-1 at home on Sunday. That massive drop in form now sees them with the same number of points in the league after the same number of games as Liverpool, albeit in 9th in Serie A compared to Liverpool's current 11th place position.

The home side will undoubtedly play some variation of three at the back again, whether the 3-4-2-1 we saw in the first half of the last meeting, the more-usual 3-5-1-1 we saw in the second half, or an orthodox 3-5-2. No matter the fact that Udinese are already condemned to exiting this competition, they'll probably play a full-strength side, looking to find form after that long winless streak and looking to end their European participation on a high. If that's the case, the XI will be something like Brkic; Heurtaux, Danilo, Coda; Faraoni, Pereyra, Pinzi, Badu, Pasquale; Fabbrini; Di Natale.

Two of the three center-backs who played against Liverpool – Benetia and Domizzi – are injured, while Willians is suspended. Pinzi, who started in the last match (and probably should have been sent off), should return from an injury layoff.

I guess the question is: how badly does Liverpool want to stay in this competition?

The permutations are simple. Liverpool cannot lose no matter what Young Boys do against Anzhi; the Swiss side would top a three-team mini group with Udinese and Liverpool. Otherwise, Liverpool need to match Young Boys' result. The two matches, obviously, will be played at the same time, but you can be certain that someone in Liverpool's dugout will know what's going on in Bern.

Liverpool should have sealed progression in the last round, twice taking the lead against Young Boys no matter the understrength lineup, only to twice throw it away. Now it's backs against the wall, needing to start a stronger XI than we've seen in most group matches, against the opposition that's given Liverpool the most trouble in the group stage. Win and you're in. Lose and go home. Draw and you're reliant on Young Boys dropping points.

The Europa League is rarely a high priority. We saw that in Liverpool's form in the final two games of 2010-11, dire losses against Tottenham and Villa where it seemed the side did everything it could to not qualify for the competition. You saw it yesterday in Manchester City's tepid defeat in Dortmund, obviously preferring to put all its eggs in the league basket rather than drop down to the second-choice European competition for the second successive season.

But, for all the group stage struggles, the Europa League has been beneficial to this Liverpool side, whether in additional starts for the youngsters such as Shelvey, Suso, Henderson, et al, or appearances for Şahin, Downing, and Cole when they otherwise wouldn't have played in the league. No matter the lack of squad depth we've been screaming about since August (and earlier), Liverpool will want to keep accruing the benefits of being in this competition.

22 November 2012

Liverpool 2-2 BSC Young Boys

Shelvey 33'
Bobadilla 52'
Cole 72'
Zverotic 88'

Way to spoil Joe Cole's best game for the club, Liverpool.

Liverpool take the lead twice, Liverpool stupidly concede twice. Both of Liverpool's goals were outstanding. Both of Liverpool's concessions came because the side remains more open than a pervert's trench coat on counter-attacks. It's déjà vu all over again.

With a surprisingly weak XI and surprisingly strong bench, the home side needed 20 minutes to get going, pinned back by the Swiss but only coming close to goal with two tame efforts at Reina. Both sides were forced into early changes through injury – Ojala came on for Veskovac; Gerrard came on for Wisdom, with Henderson shifting to right back – which ended up solidifying Liverpool's slowly-progressing advantage. Şahin began taking control of midfield, winning four tackles in the first 45 minutes (half of Liverpool's total), while Suso started finding attackers, taking advantage of Shelvey and Cole's constant movement.

It was those three players who combined for Liverpool's first goal: Suso's perfectly-timed throughball after a one-two with Cole, Cole's run and expert chip into the danger area, Shelvey dart into the six-yard box for a tap-in header. Starting from Şahin winning possession in Liverpool's half, an end-to-end, flank-to-flank move of eight passes in under 30 seconds. Suso and Skrtel each nearly added a second within five minutes – the former when a fierce shot deflected just wide, the latter after redirecting Cole's shot on a scrambled corner, cleared off the line – and the young Spaniard had a second chance right before the interval from Cole's excellent throughball, placed narrowly outside the far post.

But Liverpool made the same mistakes to start the second half as in the first. Young Boys were brighter, and despite another Cole chance from another Suso throughball just seconds before, scored an equalizer in the 52nd. Wölfli saved on Cole's shot, then straight down the pitch: Farnerud running at Şahin before a sumptuous cross-field ball to Bobadilla, unforgivably sneaking in behind Henderson, then jaw-dropping control and an unstoppable half-volley. Not only do Liverpool have a habit of conceding on the counter, they've a habit of conceding wonder goals. The universe is against me. I am convinced of it.

Credit where due, Liverpool responded. Bringing on Suarez on the hour mark, for the unfortunate Suso – who again played well, but was the obvious choice to go off – may have had something to do with it; Liverpool re-took the lead just 12 minutes after his entrance, after monopolizing possession in the run-up. It was another longish passing sequence – 10 passes from a throw-in – quickly moving the ball around midfield before the dagger through the middle, as Suarez found Gerrard who found Cole, smartly running into the vacated space better center-backs in the box, a quick turn and shot that Wölfli couldn't keep out.

That should have been game over. Liverpool should have enough nous to keep possession, take the sting out of the game, and play keep-away. Young Boys should have tired, as they did in the meeting in Switzerland, after pressing heavily and harrying Liverpool players for 75 minutes.

Instead, it was the away side on the front foot for the final 15 minutes, pinning Liverpool deeper and deeper, coming again and again with fresh attacks. Sure, Liverpool's personnel wasn't built to be defensive – removing one of the three starting defenders early on due to injury, finishing with a formation comprised of Suarez, seven midfielders, two center-backs, and Reina. But Rodgers didn't help his own cause with the final substitution. Enrique, Allen, and Coates were on the bench. Instead, despite taking the lead, Rodgers still sent on Sterling for Cole in a straight swap. Which would make sense if Liverpool could keep or win possession, using Sterling's pace to counter. But Liverpool couldn't keep or win possession. Rather, Young Boys had the chance to hammer shot after shot after shot from distance at Reina's goal, coming closer with each attempt. It was only a matter of time before one went in.

All Liverpool had to do was keep possession. Instead, given the chance to break from their own half, they piled men forward, eventually losing possession when Suarez tried to dance past three defenders. The third was the charm. Young Boys quickly broke as the four players involved in the attack jogged towards the halfway line. Assaidi eventually broke into a sprint, but failed to stop Sutter. Şahin rashly dove in, trying to intercept; when he missed, it gave Zverotic all the time in the world to line up a shot. He didn't miss this time.

Sure, Reina didn't cover himself in glory, but before I'll criticize him, someone needs to explain to me what Carragher's doing here, as Skrtel also retreats and Assaidi's too far to get there in time after failing to stop the attack earlier:

It is the same problem over and over and over and over and I am incredibly sick of Groundhog's Day. It wasn't even a very good movie to begin with.

I'm really not kidding when I say that Joe Cole was Liverpool's best player. The assist and goal speak for themselves, but he had more shots than any other Liverpool players, added two other chances created, and completed all three of his attempted tackles (behind only Şahin, who added just one more tackle in the second half). He really was Liverpool's best goal threat, and deserved his place on the scoresheet. It truly is a pity that Liverpool's flaws will be remembered rather than this performance.

Gerrard disappointed, despite the assist. Suarez attempted eight take-ons in his 30 minutes, completing just one. Jordan Henderson is not a right-back – and while we're here, neither is the again-invisible Stewart Downing. While Shelvey worked hard in a "false 9" role, the goal was his lone shot. Even scoring twice, Liverpool remain too toothless and, more crucially, Liverpool simply cannot stop conceding on the counter-attack, no matter the personnel involved.

Now, Liverpool need to equal Young Boys' result in two weeks. Anzhi held up their end of the bargain, beating Udinese to assure their progression and the Italians' exit from the competition. Young Boys host Anzhi, with the Russians having nothing to play for, likely to rest any important players. Liverpool travel to a chagrined Udinese, with a point to prove in what will be their last Europa League match. Liverpool's advantage in goal difference makes a big difference, but otherwise, I'd rather be in Young Boys' position (get your minds out of the gutter; I didn't pick the club's name).

Happy Thanksgiving. I guess I'm thankful for the fact that Liverpool haven't killed me yet. Yet.

21 November 2012

Liverpool v BSC Young Boys 11.22.12

3:05pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-0 Anzhi (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Young Boys: 3-2 Udinese (a); 3-1 Udinese (h); 0-2 Anzhi (a); 3-5 Liverpool (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Young Boys: 0-2 Midtjylland (h), 3-0 Midtjylland (a); 3-0 Kalmar (h), 0-1 Kalmar (a); 0-1 Zimbru (a), 1-0 Zimbru (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Wigan (h); 1-1 Chelsea (a); 0-1 Anzhi (a)
Young Boys:0-0 St Gallen (h); 5-1 Muttenz (a); 3-2 Udinese (a)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Shelvey 3; Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Gerrard, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Young Boys: Bobadilla 6; Farnerud, Nuzzolo 2; Costanzo, Frey, Mayuka, Ojala, Raimondi, Zarate 1

Referee: Alon Yefet (ISR)

Guess at a line-up
Wisdom Coates Skrtel Enrique
Gerrard Henderson
Suso Suarez Assaidi

The same old Europa League question. How many senior players can Rodgers spare to start? It sounds like the answer is "a lot."

It'd be little surprise to see a mostly, if not totally, full-strength XI, similar to the home match against Anzhi. This match, at Anfield, against a side that Liverpool beat in Switzerland with a makeshift lineup, is far more winnable than when the team travels to Udine in two weeks. Qualification tomorrow isn't totally in Liverpool's hands – the only way Liverpool can assure progression to the knockout rounds is to win coupled with a Udinese loss or draw in Moscow – but a victory against Young Boys is pretty much vital to Liverpool's hopes.

There are a few players I worry about more than others. Sterling because of his age. Agger and Gerrard because of each's injury history. Allen because he's showed signs of fatigue in the last couple of matches. Johnson because he's only recently back from a two-week absence.

But then again, what are Liverpool's choices? Coates should spell Agger, partnered with Skrtel rather than Carragher due to Young Boys' pace on the counter. Wisdom's been overused as well, but if Rodgers keeps the formula which worked well against Wigan, both Wisdom and Johnson will continue to start at fullback with Enrique further forward in the league, requiring one of the two to play tomorrow with Rodgers choosing from Enrique and Robinson on the other flank.

As much as it annoys me, it appears Gerrard's likely to play. Liverpool's 32-year-old captain, who made just 24 appearances in 2010-11 and 28 in 2011-12, has already played more minutes than anyone in the squad. So be it, I guess.

Henderson also seems likely to start, excellent against Wigan and having played three of the four group stage matches so far. So does Rodgers replicate Saturday's success, with Henderson and Gerrard ahead of Allen, or play those two in a deeper role with Shelvey, Şahin, or Suso as the attacking midfielder? Your guess is as good as mine. Suso seems the least likely for two reasons. One, Saturday's match. Two, he'll be needed on the flanks if Sterling is rested, given that Enrique seems more likely to play at left back, Downing's wholly out-of-favor, Borini's still injured for a month or two, and the less said about Joe Cole, the better. Which leaves Suso and Assaidi, or possibly Morgan in a wide role, as in the home leg against Hearts.

While it'd be nice to rest Suarez every once in a while, the squad depth almost demands his inclusion if tomorrow's XI is anywhere near full strength. Morgan or Yesil can start up front in two weeks if Liverpool assure qualification. Suarez *knocks furiously on wood* is one of the rare players who seems happier playing every single game in a row. And, news flash, Liverpool will be without him for at least one match in the league sooner rather than later when he picks up an inevitable fifth yellow card. I'm honestly surprised it hasn't happened yet.

In this competition, Young Boys are coming off a surprising 3-2 victory against Udinese in Italy, prefaced by a 3-1 win against the same side in Switzerland. They've scored three in three of their four Europa League group matches, those two matches against Udinese and against Liverpool on the first matchday, requiring the Reds to comeback from a deficit and score five. This improvement in the Europa League has coincided with struggles in the Swiss Super League, still in fifth – where they were when facing Liverpool in September – but currently miles behind Basel in fourth. They're winless in their last four league matches, since the end of September, with draws against St Gallen and Zurich and losses to Grasshopper and Basel.

Bobadilla, with six goals in this competition (including four of the six against Udinese), is the clear threat. Against Liverpool, he was provider rather than scorer, setting up both Ojala and Zarate's goals. But I doubt I need remind how dangerous Young Boys' wingers – Nuzzolo and Zarate – were against Liverpool, especially on the counter-attack. With no injuries to report, I'd be surprised if Bern's lineup deviated much from the last meeting: Wölfli; Sutter, Veskovac, Ojala, Raimondi; Zverotic, Spycher; Zarate, Farnerud, Nuzzolo; Bobadilla. Schneuwly or Costanzo could come in from Spycher in central defense; Nef for one of the two center-backs, but those seem the only likely changed based on Young Boys' recent lineups in the Swiss and Europa Leagues.

For those not based in the USA, tomorrow's Thanksgiving, which means most of us will be stuffing face and silently begrudging the presence of family members we don't see often for good reason. I will, however, make time to watch the match, and should be able to eke out space for the review as well. Americans: try to get away from the family for a couple of hours, and maybe we'll have something to be thankful for.

08 November 2012

Liverpool 0-1 Anzhi Makhachkala

Traore 45+1'

Everything works until it doesn't. The story of Liverpool's life, at least for the last three or so years.

Liverpool were clearly content with a 0-0, and lined up accordingly. And understandably so. Look, the starting XI, those available with Liverpool necessarily resting over-used senior players for the far more important league match on Sunday, says everything about squad depth. As rumored yesterday, Rodgers deployed five at the back. It wasn't a Hodgson-esque bus parking – Liverpool at least tried to keep possession rather than punt, retrench, and hope for the best – but demonstrated very little motivation to attack. And, subsequently, had next to nothing in attack. Neither fullback – the sole source of width – went forward consistently, and every player bar Morgan and sometimes Cole looked to quickly get back into position behind the ball as soon as Liverpool lost possession. Anzhi are rather dangerous on the counter-attack, at least going by their league form and the earlier Europa League games, if not the two matches against Liverpool.

It worked to a tee for 45 minutes and 50 seconds. Not counting one set play where Boussoufa floated a dangerous cross to no one, Anzhi were limited to a single chance of their own, of Liverpool's making, when Wisdom conceded possession to Zhirkov, but Jones made an excellent save on Eto'o low shot from the top of the box after the ex-Chelsea winger centered to him in space. Liverpool had nullified Anzhi to such an extent that Hiddink made a tactical change within 30 minutes, removing holding midfielder Ahmedov for the attacking winger Carcela – which helped the home side, but on the whole, Liverpool were still able to contain its opponents.

Of course, Liverpool had next to no opportunities of its own, the best and really only coming midway through the half, when Morgan's wonderful turn, footwork, and throughball put Henderson in on goal. Unconfidently, all too characteristically, the midfielder looked to cut the ball back between three defenders rather than shooting. You will not be surprised to learn it was intercepted and easily cleared. Admittedly, even if he hits the target, it's probably saved; the angle wasn't great and Gabulov charged off his line well. Shoot anyway. Take the chance. A slim opportunity's better than none. We've seen similar far too often from Henderson, and – for all his faults – that's why Shelvey's ahead of him in the pecking order. Not that Shelvey did much better today.

However, Liverpool's second mistake was unsurprisingly punished. Boussoufa found space in front of Henderson and Shelvey, unchallenged on the halfway line, lofting a ball over the top towards Traore. The striker cleverly, easily flicked the ball over and around Coates, as the center-back naively attempted to intercept, then raced towards goal, delightfully chipping the ball over Jones as he rushed out into no man's land before Carragher could get back. With the last kick of the half, Liverpool shoot themselves in the foot yet again.

Liverpool finally registered its first shot on target soon after the restart, Morgan playing a neat one-two with Cole before firing into the near post side netting, but the tempo and tenor remained the same until Rodgers made changes just after the hour mark.

I realize Liverpool's options are incredibly limited, but the substitutions seemed somewhat counterintuitive. Liverpool have next to nothing in attack, so Adam Morgan's the first player taken off for Dani Pacheco – who we all want to see more often but someone who is simply not a striker. Conor Coady was Liverpool's sole defensive midfielder, so he's taken off for Suso – who was probably Liverpool's best player despite featuring for half an hour – leaving Henderson and Shelvey to both sit deeper, negating their ability going forward while also removing a layer of protection against Anzhi's counter-attacks. Meanwhile, Joe Cole remains on the pitch for another 16 minutes.

Granted, Cole also had Liverpool's best chance of the game during those 16 minutes, when Suso's shot from distance was spilled by Gabulov, with Cole first to the rebound but shooting straight at at the keeper. Those were Liverpool's only two shots on target all half.

That Cole chance was sandwiched between two Anzhi opportunities where they really should have extended their lead. First, left-back Tagirbekov found space, crossing for Traore, who easily drifted behind Coates, allowed a free header from ten yards out, remarkably saved by Jones. Two minutes later, the same defender was caught flat-footed high up the pitch when Anzhi countered, as Traore latched onto Jucilei's through-ball to run unhindered on goal, somehow shooting wide when trying to find the low corner. Coates made some difficult stand-up tackles look easy and Traore is an incredibly hard player to mark, but he also nearly cost Liverpool three goals. And did cost Liverpool one.

Any positives? Suso was excellent as an impact sub. Tactically, Rodgers' initial decisions made sense, and Liverpool adapted to the unfamiliar formation surprisingly well considering how rarely it's been used and how raw most of the starting XI were. Downing and Flanagan did well as wing-backs (albeit very defensive wing-backs), Wisdom looked more comfortable with more defensive cohorts, and Adam Morgan and Conor Coady both did decent jobs: Coady on his senior debut, Morgan in only his second appearance. Brad Jones made a couple of crucial, crucial saves.

The negatives? Henderson and Shelvey (the former more than the latter), the substitution of Adam Morgan, Joe Cole playing anywhere, and continued costly defensive mistakes, almost all coming on opposition counter-attacks. Seriously. That really has got to stop.

Of course, the biggest positive is that none of Suarez, Gerrard, Agger, Allen, Skrtel, Sterling, Enrique, Johnson, and Reina even travelled, allowing those crucial players some much-needed rest. And that Liverpool's results in two of the first three group games allowed them to make these changes and incur this loss without really threatening its chances to qualify from the group stage. Both subsequent matches, against Young Boys and at Udinese, will be difficult, but the experience gained and lessons learned should hopefully be more beneficial than the result is costly.

07 November 2012

Liverpool at Anzhi Makhachkala 11.08.12

12pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Anzhi (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Anzhi: 0-1 Liverpool (a); 2-0 BSC Young Boys (h); 1-1 Udinese (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Anzhi: 5-0 AZ (a), 1-0 AZ (h); 2-0 Vitesse (a), 2-0 Vitesse (h); 4-0 Honved (a), 1-0 Honved (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Newcastle (h); 1-3 Swansea (h); 2-2 Everton (a)
Anzhi: 3-1 Terek Grozny (h); 2-1 Krylya Sovetov (h); 1-2 Rubin Kazan (a)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Shelvey 3; Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Gerrard, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Anzhi: Eto'o 7; Traore 3; Shatov 2; Boussoufa, Carcela, Jucilei, Lakhiyalov, Smolov 1

Referee: David Fernández Borbalán (ESP)

Guess at a line-up
Wisdom Coates Carragher Robinson
Henderson Shelvey
Downing Yesil Assaidi

Jones, Gulacsi; Flanagan, Wisdom, Robinson, Coates, Carragher, Wilson, Sama; Henderson, Shelvey, Coady, Suso, Cole, Pacheco; Downing, Assaidi, Yesil, Morgan.

That's the squad for tomorrow's match.

No Suarez. No Gerrard. No Allen, Agger, Enrique, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling, Johnson, or Reina.


Flanagan's finally involved, but with Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique both fit, Wisdom's appearances may begin to be limited. It also means that, thankfully, Henderson's likely to play in central midfield rather than as a stand-in full back. It wouldn't surprise me to see Wisdom start here, with Johnson finally returning on the right against Chelsea. Otherwise, the defense seems writes itself: Jones in goal, Carragher and Coates in central defense, and Robinson at left back.

The above squad shows that Liverpool's options in midfield – the strongest part of the squad – are limited with Allen, Gerrard, and Şahin not traveling and Lucas out injured for another month or so. Henderson and Shelvey seemingly have to be the two deeper-lying midfielders – assuming that Liverpool continue with two behind one – with Cole, Pacheco, and Suso competing for the attacking midfield slot, and Coady in reserve. Considering Suso's continued importance to the first team and Rodgers not using Pacheco since the league cup match against West Brom, odds are on Joe Cole's inclusion.

Initial rumors had Pacheco left out of the traveling party, which led to me drafting a long screed about Liverpool persisting with Joe Cole for reasons I just do not understand. But, hark the herald angels sing, Pacheco's involved. But Joe Cole will probably start. Rest your voices now for screaming at the television tomorrow. You're gonna need your strength.

Downing and Assaidi should start on the flanks, as in both league cup matches and all three of the group stage games so far. Sandwiched between with be either Yesil or Morgan. The young German has been preferred in these types of matches, but also played 45 minutes in the u21 match on Monday, while Morgan has resumed training with the first team after a stint at Kirkby.

There is, however, a possible curveball. Lord knows you can't believe anything you read on the internet (unless I wrote it), but there's a Twitter rumor going around that Liverpool will play with five at the back. Jones; Flanagan, Wisdom, Coates, Carragher, Downing; Henderson, Coady, Shelvey; Cole; Morgan. I am not vouching for (or against) its credibility. I find that line-up somewhat hard to believe, although it wouldn't be the biggest surprise this season. It didn't seem so unlikely that I immediately ignored and dismissed it. Playing with wing backs, in a more defensive formation, does make sense with a weakened line-up away from Anfield against strong opponents in European competition, and could well be a reaction to how the majority of these players performed last week against Swansea. So fair warning.

Since these two sides last met, Anzhi lost just its second league match of the season, at Rubin Kazan, falling to second in the Russian Premier League. Anzhi played a mostly-full strength XI at Anfield two weeks ago, but I suspect they'll be more attacking at home, with Lacina Traore starting rather than coming off the bench, Eto'o as playmaker rather than out-and-out-striker, and usual holding midfielder Jucilei returning to the squad. Otherwise, most of the names will be familiar from last time out; there are no new injuries to report.

Liverpool's win in the last round, eking out a 1-0 with some big names involved, willing to jeopardize the league match at Everton for three points in the Europa League, means that Liverpool currently top the group at the halfway stage. For all my condemnation of the personnel choices, it gave Liverpool much-needed breathing space in this competition, a competition made more important by Liverpool's loss to Swansea in the league cup. Still, the margin of error remains slim. Liverpool may be two points ahead, but both Udinese and Anzhi have two of their last three matches at home, including tomorrow's, while Liverpool have to travel in its next two matches, the toughest two they'll play.

We wanted to see how the youngsters and reserves would develop in the Europa League. We'll find out an awful lot tomorrow.

25 October 2012

Liverpool 1-0 Anzhi Makhachkala

Downing 53'

After the first two group stage matches saw a combined 13 goals, this one's a narrow 1-0 decided by an unrepeatable Downing (yes, Downing) strike. Sometimes football truly is unpredictable.

I hope it was worth it. I guess we'll find out Sunday.

Admittedly, I'm slightly biased, because I really don't care if Liverpool qualify for the knockout rounds. I realize that doesn't sound right, and I guess it's not that I don't care. But Liverpool's squad is threadbare – as everyone and their extended family has already noted – and the league is all-important. The Europa League's biggest draw was that Liverpool would be able to better develop its young talent. Well, that young talent is being developed in the league because of Rodgers' willingness to baptize the likes of Sterling, Suso, and Wisdom with fire as well as Liverpool's limited resources and injuries. So playing Gerrard and Suarez, plus Johnson, Skrtel, and Agger, against Anzhi four days before facing Everton makes little sense to me, even if Liverpool pretty much needed a win here in order to qualify thanks to the last home loss against Udinese.

All in all, it wasn't very different from Liverpool's last match: in line-up, tactics, or tone. Liverpool made just three changes from Saturday's XI – bringing in Downing, Assaidi, and Shelvey for Sterling, Suso, and Allen – and once again, Liverpool mostly dominated with little reward. Liverpool couldn't finish for love of money, while Suarez was eminently frustrated by referee, teammates, and his own touch. Suarez, Johnson, and Assaidi all shot too close to the keeper after excellent moves down Liverpool's left, where Liverpool focused its attacks all match long, while Shelvey shot over from Suarez's cut-back and Johnson failed to get a shot off or win a penalty after breaking into the box.

Anzhi made it surprisingly easy for the home side. They were expected to sit back and counter-attack at pace, as they've done to excellent effect in almost every Europa League away match so far. And Anzhi did defend strongly throughout. But the advertised counter-attack was pretty much nonexistent, despite Liverpool without any recognized holding midfielder as both Şahin and Gerrard frequently went forward, trying to find the breakthrough. Maybe I'm pessimistic, but I anticipated far more threat from the Russian Premier League leaders, especially given Liverpool's propensity for conceding on counter-attacks. But Anzhi didn't even take a shot until first-half injury time, a blast from distance by Smolov which didn't come close to displacing even a strand of Brad Jones' wonderful head of hair.

The above is slightly unfair to both Liverpool's midfielders and defense, especially the defense. With Johnson bombing forward relentlessly, Wisdom, Skrtel, and Assaidi were tasked with marking Samuel Eto'o and the midfield runners who eventually joined Anzhi's intermittent attacks. And all three were outstanding, especially Andre Wisdom, who out-muscled Smolov, Boussoufa, and Zhirkov whenever required, while Skrtel and Agger marked Eto'o into oblivion, forcing him to drop deep into midfield to pick up the ball. Which he's used to, often playing in a deeper role at Anzhi. But that's when Lacina Traore also starts; Hiddink's 4-2-3-1 with Eto'o up front played into Liverpool's hands. And while Şahin and Gerrard left Liverpool exposed through the middle at times, it didn't happen very often, as both improved their passing accuracy from recent matches. Gerrard gave the ball away when trying too hard early on, but quickly settled into a more disciplined style. Meanwhile, Şahin misplaced just four passes, of his 75 in total, in the entire match.

Liverpool brought on Sterling for Johnson at halftime – ostensibly in order to give him slightly more rest for Sunday's match but with a few Twitter rumors that he had also picked up a knock – and the substitution made all the difference. But not for the reason you expected. Downing switched to left-back, with Sterling replacing him on the right, and it was at left-back where Downing stunned the world. Sterling was fouled on the right, and Liverpool took the deep free kick short and quick, Şahin to Shelvey, who switched play to Downing on the opposite flank. The the much-maligned (and rightfully so) stand-in left back cut inside past Agalarov, who backed off, before hammering a shot past Gabulov with what we all previously thought was just his standing leg. He's a scoring machine in this competition, with all of two goals. Two winners against Eastern European opposition. Stewart Downing, he scores when he wants.

Liverpool had chances to extend the lead soon after, most notably when Suarez blasted narrowly wide with his weaker foot, then Shelvey scuffed a shot at the keeper after a Liverpool break, set up by Assaidi, but as on Saturday, the away side grew more dangerous as the clock ticked down. Hiddink sending on Traore in the 64th minute helped, but Skrtel and Agger continued to defend excellently, with the gargantuan striker limited to a single, near post opportunity, poked wide with Skrtel draped all over him. More threatening were chances from Boussoufa and two late, late shots by Carcela, but Liverpool held on slightly more comfortably than against Reading, even if the final few minutes were similarly nervy. The standout moment of the last ten minutes was a goal ruled out for Danny Agger, heading the ball out of the keeper's hand then rocketing a shot into the empty net – which is, you know, somewhat illegal, but should have counted anyway solely because it's Agger.

So, job done. Despite the stronger line-up than we're used to in this competition, Liverpool's best players were 18-year-old Andre Wisdom and the ever-dangerous Oussama Assaidi, a constant terror down Liverpool's left, followed closely by Skrtel, Agger, and Şahin.

The last time Gerrard and Suarez played in a Europa League match – the second leg against Hearts – was followed by Liverpool's worst performance of the season to date, the 2-0 home loss against Arsenal. That simply cannot happen again on Sunday. Not only is the Merseyside Derby one of the most important matches of the season at "normal" times, but Everton currently sit six points and eight places ahead of Liverpool in the table. Which has to be remedied as soon as possible.

This result, combined with Udinese's 1-3 loss in Bern, means Liverpool now top the group with six points compared to Anzhi and Udinese's four. The Reds have to travel to both Italy and Russia in the next two Europa League matches, but they're now in pole position to qualify halfway through the stage.

As said earlier, I hope it's worth it.

24 October 2012

Liverpool v Anzhi Makhachkala 10.25.12

3:05pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Anzhi: 2-0 BSC Young Boys (h); 1-1 Udinese (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Anzhi:: 5-0 AZ (a), 1-0 AZ (h); 2-0 Vitesse (a), 2-0 Vitesse (h); 4-0 Honved (a), 1-0 Honved (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Reading (h); 0-1 Stoke (h); 2-3 Udinese (h)
Anzhi: 2-1 Spartak Moscow (h); 2-0 Dinamo Moscow (a); 2-0 BSC Young Boys (H)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Shelvey 3; Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Downing, Gerrard, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Anzhi: Eto'o 7; Traore 3; Shatov 2; Boussoufa, Carcela, Jucilei, Lakhiyalov, Smolov 1

Referee: Bas Nijhuis (NED)

Guess at a line-up
Johnson Coates Carragher Robinson
Henderson Allen
Downing Suarez Assaidi

Anzhi Makhachkala will be Liverpool's toughest Europa League opponents by some distance, which is saying something considering the Reds are coming off a home loss to Udinese in this competition. However, Sunday's Merseyside Derby means that Liverpool have little choice but to continue with its predominantly second-string lineup, with maybe three or four recognized first-team players starting against the Russian side.

Despite the slim squad and prioritizing the league, I honestly think Suarez may well start. Brendan Rodgers has little choice otherwise, hinting as much last week when discussing Liverpool's striking "options". Suarez won't play every match until Borini's fit/the January transfer window, but he'll play an awful lot of them. Tomorrow seems far too soon for Samed Yesil, especially against opponents of this quality – Samba and Joao Carlos are both excellent, physical center-backs – while the other options are Pacheco in a false nine role (as against Young Boys) or Adam Morgan. The one thing that would preclude Suarez from playing is if the knock he picked up against Reading – limping out of the tunnel after the half-time interval – is more serious than expected. In which case, good luck Samed.

I suspect Suarez will be flanked by the "usual" Europa League starters – two from Assaidi, Downing, Cole, and Pacheco. Unlike Suarez, who's experienced enough to cope with game after game after game, both Suso and Sterling need to be protected from overuse. Personally, I'd vastly prefer Assaidi and Pacheco, but either Downing and Cole will probably start opposite the Moroccan. Downing and Assaidi has been the pairing in the last two group stage matches. Hopefully, he – or Joe Cole – will make use of the opportunity. For a change.

It'll mostly likely be three from a probable for in midfield as well, but I'm far less certain who the three will be. Henderson is basically nailed-on, as in the two previous group stage matches, but he could be joined by Shelvey, Allen, or Şahin. Both Shelvey and Şahin could use the match time – the former after his three-match league suspension, the latter in his continuing quest for form and fitness. At the same time, Allen remains utterly crucial to Liverpool's style of play, with no one else in the squad capable of filling the role that he fills as long as Lucas is injured. The midfield against Young Boys – Suso, Henderson, and Şahin – was obviously overexposed without a clear holder, especially on Zarate's counter-attacking goal. And Anzhi will mostly likely counter at pace through Eto'o and the wingers.

Wisdom is another who probably needs to be rested after consecutive league starts, also suffering from a shoulder injury during the international break. Which means that Johnson probably has to start at right back, as we haven't seen proof that Flanagan even exists anymore other than cameos on Being: Liverpool. Robinson should start every Europa League match, but Enrique's long-awaited return to fitness may mean he plays tomorrow in order to shake off the ring rust. Carragher and Coates has been the default Europa League pairing, but Rodgers may want to consider partnering the Uruguayan with Skrtel because of the threat posed by Eto'o and Lacina Traore. Jones will again start in goal as Reina attempts to recover in time to face Everton.

Guus Hiddink's Anzhi currently leads the Russian Premier League, on 29 points after 12 matches (9W-2D-1L), two points ahead of CSKA Moscow. They're on a 13-match unbeaten run in all competitions, without a loss since August 12 at CSKA and with just two draws – against Zenit and Udinese – during that stretch.

Anzhi have been playing first-choice line-ups in the Europa League so far, with Eto'o – among others – starting all six matches. The usual line-up has been a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 with both Eto'o dropping off Lacina Traore up front; Boussoufa and Shatov on the flanks; Jucilei and Lass Diarra in midfield; Agalarov, João Carlos, Samba, and Tagirbekov or Zhirkov in defense; and Gabulov in goal. Through eight matches, Russians have conceded just one goal in this competition (at Udinese in the first group stage match), while scoring 18 of their own. Other than that draw in Italy, Anzhi have been more impressive away from home, with 1-0 wins against Honved and AZ in the first leg of the qualifying rounds before demolishing them 4-0 and 5-0 respectively in the second away leg.

Lass Diarra will most likely miss both matches against Liverpool through injury, but it's not as if Anzhi are without alternatives. Boussoufa can drop into midfield, with Smolov or Carcela coming in on the flanks, or Anzhi could shift to a 4-3-1-2 system – which they used more often before signing Diarra on deadline day – with Boussoufa in the hole and two from Shatov, Carcela, Zhirkov, and Smolov on the flanks. As we saw when he was at Chelsea, Yuri Zhirkov is equally comfortable on the wing or at full-back.

Samuel Eto'o needs no introduction; even at 31, he's still a world-class striker, Anzhi's top scorer in both the Russian Premier League and Europa League, with 7 goals in each competition. Only two players have scored more through the Russian Premier League's 12 matches. 6'8" Lacina Traore, formerly of CFR Cluj, isn't far behind with six in the league; his height and aerial ability will present a formidable challenge to Coates or Carra if he (or they) start. Liverpool fans will recognize both Zhirkov and Christopher Samba from their time with Chelsea and Blackburn. Oussama Assaidi's international teammate, the versatile Mbark Boussoufa – a Chelsea academy graduate and two-time Belgian Footballer of the Year (winning the award in the two years following Milan Jovanovic, who also you may remember) – has also become one of Anzhi's key players: able to play anywhere in attack, by far Anzhi's most creative player with seven league assists. Only Tagirbekov and Eto'o have played more league minutes so far this season.

Put simply, anything Liverpool get from the Europa League is a bonus. Rodgers knows full well that he'll be judged on league results alone. It would be disappointing were Liverpool to lose tomorrow and/or fail to progress from the group stage, but it wouldn't be the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination, and wouldn't really hinder the club's development as a whole. Like against Udinese, this will one of Anzhi's matches of the season because of the caché Liverpool and Anfield still have around the world, but it's not even Liverpool's most important match this week. Which will be reflected in Rodgers' starting XI. That's not an excuse for any failings which may or may not occur tomorrow, but a warning nonetheless. Expect little, and you're not disappointed if nothing comes to fruition.

04 October 2012

Liverpool 2-3 Udinese

Shelvey 23'
Di Natale 46'
Coates og 70'
Pasquale 72'
Suarez 75'

Liverpool involved in another high-scoring shoot-out. Two group stage games, 13 combined goals. It has been unexpected to say the least.

But this one shouldn't have been a shoot-out. Liverpool were in control in the first half, exactly to Rodgers' template, and took a 1-0 lead midway through the half thanks to an excellent Shelvey header when he charged into the box to get on the end of Downing's cross, once again proving the importance of midfield runners. Sure, as always, Liverpool could have done with more goals, with better finishing, but Udinese were defending excellently even if they had no idea how to regain possession. To say that Liverpool were dominant would be an understatement bordering on criminality.

This one picture adequately recaps the first 45 minutes.

It took 15 minutes for Liverpool to settle, with Reina making excellent saves on Di Natale's blast and Benetia's header, but from there, it was the now-ubiquitous (and now-somewhat-tiresome) death by football. Henderson and Allen dominated the middle, Shelvey was a constant threat, Coates and Carragher closed off any potential counters, and even Downing contributed, evidenced by his first assist in some time. By the 45th minute, Udinese had forgotten what the ball looked like; Liverpool had 78% possession in the half despite those shaky opening 15 minutes.

Credit for the second half comeback goes to Guidolin's tactical changes, with a heavy dash of Liverpool being Liverpool and two outstanding finishes. Udinese replaced the wholly ineffective Armero with Lazzari, and the substitute was immediately involved in the equalizer, finished off brilliantly by Di Natale. Just 33 seconds into the half. Unfortunately, the move began with Glen Johnson, unable to control Udinese's hoofed long-ball, giving it directly to Lazzari, then passed quickly from the midfielder to Pereyra to Di Natale to Lazzari, moving into the space vacated by Johnson, centering straight back for the talismanic striker to wonderfully finish first-time.

The substitution changed Udinese's formation from 3-4-2-1 to 3-5-1-1, with Lazzari deeper than Armero and Pereyra roaming behind Di Natale. It rendered Liverpool's midfield unable to dominate as they had in the first 45 minutes, struggling to replicate the control they had in the first half. Lazzari, Pinzi, and Badu pressured Henderson and Allen, thoroughly cutting off the supply line forward.

After 65 minutes, Rodgers' response was to call in the cavalry, Suarez and Gerrard replacing Assaidi and Henderson. But rather than reinforce Liverpool, Udinese went up 3-1 within seven minutes.

The funny thing – if you have a sense of humor about these things – is that Liverpool should have gone 2-1 up just before the dam broke: Udinese half-cleared a Gerrard free-kick straight to Suarez, who rocketed a shot towards the far corner. But somehow, Shelvey blocked it on the goal line, a near-perfect replica of what happened to Norwich in Liverpool's last match, when Snodgrass kept Norwich from equalizing not long after the second-half restart.

Udinese stormed down the field, with Borini fouling Badu to stop the breakaway. And then Udinese made their set play count, again taking advantage of Liverpool's propensity for errors coupled with misfortunate as Coates headed into his own net when both Domizzi and Benatia found space between him and Carragher.

With Liverpool on tilt, Udinese added a third less than two minutes later. Robinson stopped one counter-attack after Gerrard lost possession, but the captain then lost it a second time, unsurprisingly pushing forward with reckless ambition. Badu's chipped ball over the top, Di Natale controlling around Carragher all too easily, sucking both Coates and Johnson into the center, then laying off for the on-rushing Pasquale, who hammered a sumptuous low drive past Reina. Yikes.

It's no wonder Rodgers' post-match quotes were so damning.
"It was a game where we were much the better side but lost our concentration at the beginning of the second half. I thought we'd moved on from that, to be honest. We had total control in the first half and were deservedly in the lead, but we were so loose at the beginning of the second half it was frightening. Our concentration was very poor and before we knew it we were 3-1 down. The last 20 minutes was very good but it's too late by then. I thought we were lazy. Lazy in our play, loose and sloppy."

Suarez's brilliance pulled one back not long after, a magisterial free kick from outside the box in the 75th – but Udinese's deep, well-organized defense weren't likely to allow another. Not that Liverpool didn't have chances. But Suarez headed straight at Brkic from Downing's deep cross then had a near-post effort saved, while Sterling had a dangerous shot blocked then curled a narrow-angled effort high and wide. Liverpool's final chance, through the surprisingly-not-terrible Downing, was hit directly at the keeper, an apt summation of his time at the club despite the promise intermittently demonstrated today.

75% possession. 20 shots to eight. 691 completed passed to Udinese's 173. 91% pass accuracy to Udinese's 72%. Joe Allen was Liverpool's top passer with 127 completed. Roberto Pereyra was Udinese's top passer with 22 completed. All 11 Liverpool starters, including the goalkeeper, completed more passes than Udinese's most prolific player. Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

What makes this so disappointing is that aside from the five minutes to start the second half and that five-minute stretch from the 69th-74th minute, Liverpool played how Rodgers wants Liverpool to play. Everyone impressed in the first half, less so in the second, but Coates and Jack Robinson were standouts despite conceding three goals, Allen controlled the game, Henderson was outstanding in the first half (although Udinese's changes rendered him far less effective), Shelvey scored a great goal because of a clever run into a box and an intelligent cross from Downing, and Suarez was a permanent threat after coming on the pitch.

But Liverpool lost, because Liverpool cannot stop conceding stupid, sloppy goals due to a lack of concentration, individual errors, and bad luck. Whether it's in the Premier League, the League Cup, or the Europa League, this simply has got to stop.

03 October 2012

Liverpool v Udinese 10.04.12

3:05pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Udinese: 1-1 Anzhi (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Udinese: 1-1 Braga [4-5 pens] (h); 1-1 Braga (a) [CL Qualifier]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-2 Norwich (a); 2-1 West Brom (a); 1-2 United (h)
Udinese: 0-0 Genoa (h); 0-0 Torino (a); 2-1 Milan (a)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Shelvey 2; Borini, Coates, Downing, Gerrard, Johnson, Suarez, Wisdom 1
Udinese: Di Natale 1

Referee: Stefan Johannesson (SWE)

Johannesson was also in charge of Liverpool's 3-1 away victory over Unirea Urziceni in this competition in 2009-10. I remember nothing, good or bad, about his performance that night. Which, actually, is probably a good thing. But all I really remember from that match was that Mascherano actually scored. It happened so infrequently. That and I've pretty much repressed all of that season. And the season after it. And the season after that. Sigh.

Guess at a line-up
Johnson Coates Carragher Robinson
Henderson Allen
Downing Borini Assaidi

Let's go with the Bib Theory. It sort of feels like cheating at this line-up guessing game, but I guess you've got to use all of the tools at your disposal.

The training pictures on the official site give us seven of the XI if the theory holds to form: Johnson, Coates, Carragher, Robinson, Henderson, Shelvey, and Borini. We can supplement the rest of the outfield players with Getty Images: Allen, Assaidi, and Downing. And it's probably safe to assume that Brad Jones will continue to start the cup matches, although I wouldn't mind a shock appearance for Peter Gulacsi, especially since starting the kids is in fashion.

So, does this line-up make sense?

That Johnson and Allen would start are slight surprises. Allen's started seven of Liverpool's 12 matches, including all six in the league and the second leg against Hearts. Johnson's started eight: the league matches and both legs against Gomel, with five of his eight starts at left back. Their inclusion would suggest Liverpool's taking this more seriously than the last few cup ties.

Wariness of overusing Şahin and Gerrard coupled with Lucas' injury leaves few other options in midfield, although it'd be a bit surprising if neither Suso nor Pacheco featured, even if Suso started in Saturday's match, considering their recent performances. With both Kelly and Flanagan injured and Wisdom having started the last two matches, Johnson almost has to play. Rodgers will be far more worried about overusing the 19-year-old than England's first choice right back, even considering his own past injury issues. Also, I'm curious to see Johnson play on the right. He usually makes Liverpool far better when deployed on that side, even if he's been increasingly impressive on the left in the last few matches.

Otherwise, that's pretty much the expected line-up. Borini, returning from injury, starting with the second choice wingers – although I'm sure most would prefer that Downing were lower on the food chain. Henderson and Shelvey are almost guaranteed to play, especially because the latter's suspended for one more league match. Carragher and Coates will be the preferred pairing in most cup matches, domestic and European, while it seems Enrique's never-ending knee knock will (thankfully) allow Robinson another start.

This RAWK post and Neil Jones' match preview for the Liverpool Echo are excellent reads about Udinese. The Italian club are renowned for two things. One, buying lots and lots of players on the cheap and selling a handful of them for astronomical prices, which funds the next round of scattershot signings. It's been a successful system, one that more than a few clubs are trying to emulate. Two, Udinese are one of the few sides to still regularly deploy a 3-5-2 formation.

Udinese's traveling squad is Brkic, Padelli, Pawlowski; Armero, Benatia, Berra, Coda, Danilo, Domizzi, Heurtaux, Pasquale; Badu, Faraoni, Lazzari, Pereyra, Pinzi, Willians; Fabbrini, Di Natale, Ranegie.

Its lineup against Anzhi was Padelli; Benatia, Danilo, Domizzi; Faraoni, Agyemang-Badu, Willans, Lazzari, Armero; Pereyra; Ranegie. Its lineup in the last match, against Genoa, was Brkic; Benatia, Danilo, Coda; Faraoni, Pereyra, Pinzo, Lazzari, Pasquale; Fabbrini, Ranegie. My assumption – and I reiterate that it is an assumption – is you can somewhat split the difference, although Udinese will probably start more regulars than in the last Europa League match. The Football Italia article listing Udinese's traveling squad mentions the bust-up Di Natale had last week, which led to him being left out of the 0-0 draw against Genoa, but if he's included in the squad, he'll probably be included in the line-up. Much to Liverpool's chagrin. Along with Di Natale, Colombian Pablo Armero will be one of the biggest threats if he starts, the most-recent starring wide player on Udinese's conveyor belt. Finally, I hope we'll see Udinese's reserve keeper, Daniele Padelli, who spent the 2006-07 season on loan at Liverpool, if only for nostalgic reasons. I've no idea how he's been getting on since leaving Liverpool five years ago, but he didn't cover himself in the glory in the one match he started while on Merseyside. Still, don't bet against him being the 107th ex-Liverpool keeper to star against his former club.

It'll be interesting to see how Liverpool matches up against the 3-5-2 formation. It'd be a standard three vs three in central midfield; the crucial areas will be Liverpool's full-backs against Udinese's wing-backs/wingers. Both Johnson and Robinson would need to get forward to good effect to pin back Udinese's wide players, especially if Armero starts. Which is another good reason for Johnson's inclusion. The full-backs getting forward would also make it three vs three in Udinese's final third: the three center-backs against Liverpool's three forwards, especially since Downing and Assaidi would both be likely to cut inside. Otherwise, Udinese will be able to double- and triple-team Fabio Borini, leading to a long, isolated night for the Italian. It'll also be crucial that all three forwards are involved in pressing the opposition. I'm looking at you, Stewart. Otherwise, Udinese will be able to bring the ball out of defense fairly easily – there would always be a free man for a defender to pass to if all three aren't pressing in concerted fashion. It's safe to assume Shelvey will be involved in this as well, hopefully learning the important lesson of staying on his feet. At the other end of the pitch, Carra and Coates will have to be clever in marking Udinese's forwards, one of whom frequently drops deep – often more a 3-5-1-1 than an orthodox 3-5-2 – requiring Allen to lend a hand (if he's the deepest midfielder). Which could leave Liverpool vulnerable to midfield runners into the box.

Liverpool began the group stage on the right note two weeks ago, despite the repeated defensive frailties we've become worryingly accustomed to. Regardless of how they're earned, away wins are a bonus in this competition; it's the home matches where Liverpool needs to take maximum points in order to advance to the next round. And Udinese, along with Anzhi and regardless of who starts, will be a far tougher opponent than Young Boys were.