Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Everton (a); 1-2 Blackpool (h); 0-0 Utrecht (a)
Napoli: 1-1 Catania (a) 2-0 Roma (h); 3-3 Steaua (a)
Group Stage so far:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Napoli: 3-3 Steaua (a); 0-0 Utrecht (h)
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Babel, Cole, Gerrard, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Napoli: Cavani 3; Vitale 2; Denis, Hamsik, Lavezzi, Maggio 1
Referee: Thorsten Kinhöfer (GER)
Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Kyrgiakos Aurelio
Maxi Spearing Poulsen Babel
With Hodgson now focusing on Premier League survival, hopefully in the death throes of his ill-fated regime, it's little surprise to see Gerrard, Torres, Meireles, Lucas, Agger, and Johnson left at Melwood with an eye on Sunday's match against Blackburn. Even before the troubles set in on the pitch, Hodgson promised to use his second-string in the Europa League. Under the last manager, players were rotated. Under this one, almost the entire side is, with distinctions made between the "A" and "B" teams. Nothing recedes like progress, after all.
The squad that traveled to Italy:
Reina, Konchesky, Aurelio, Cole, Pacheco, Jovanovic, Kyrgiakos, Maxi, Babel, Wilson, Carragher, Ngog, Jones, Spearing, Poulsen, Shelvey, Kelly, Skrtel, Eccleston, Hansen.However, we had hoped to see a fair few youth players in this competition. The above guess includes only three if we're at our most generous: Kelly, Spearing, and Ngog. Pacheco, Wilson, Shelvey and Eccleston are there to make up the numbers, and I'll be stunned if any of those four start. Wilson and Eccelston went the full 90 for the reserves yesterday, while Pacheco saw 65 minutes. Incidentally, Pacheco, Shelvey, and Wilson haven't seen first team action since the loss to Northampton. I'm sure that's just coincidence, not punishment.
The only positions that don't seem certain are Babel on the left (it could easily be Jovanovic), whether Aurelio's finally fit enough, and whether Carragher will really start another game, having played all but three of Liverpool's matches this season (only missing Northampton, Steaua, and the first leg at Rabotnicki). Babel could also play on the right with Jovanovic on the left, or it could be more of a 4-4-2 with Cole on the wing and both Babel and Ngog up top.
On the other hand, Napoli, currently 4th in Serie A, will play their first team. Perhaps you've heard of some of them. Hamsik and Cavani shone during the World Cup, while Gargano also played a bit part for Uruguay. Lavezzi was a rumored transfer target for Liverpool in the summer of 2008. And then there's the small matter of their left wing-back, Andrea Dossena.
Napoli Blogger expects their standard 3-4-1-2: Italy's third-string keeper De Sanctis, Dossena and Maggio or Zuniga bombing forward, Gargano and Pazienza in midfield, Hamsik as the playmaker, and Lavezzi and Cavani up front. Cavani is Napoli's top scorer in this competition, and leads the team in all competitions with 14. It'll be interesting to see how two from Carragher, Kyrgiakos, and Skrtel cope, especially if it's the above guess, which obviously lacks in pace.
If Napoli does play three at the back, it might make sense to play Ngog up top as a lone forward, occupying three players with a solitary striker, but that would necessitate Cole and the wingers getting forward at will, coming from different directions, to supplement the attack and cause confusion in Napoli's rearguard. Otherwise, it'll be a long, long night for the young Frenchman. 60,000 Neapolitans will be up for this match; ITV's Rocco Cammisola is calling it Napoli's biggest European match since Maradona's heyday.
I apologize for letting my pessimism and distaste for the manager spill over into these previews. I know full well I'm beating a dead horse into the ground. And I promise, I'm not rooting against Liverpool by any stretch of the imagination, even if a win prolongs the doomed management. But I'm also unhappy with the direction of the team, and skeptical of this line-up against a very good Napoli side. The league is the obvious priority at the moment, but that shouldn't necessarily mean more chances for the likes of Poulsen and Maxi/Jovanovic at the expense of potential talent in Pacheco or Shelvey, who are still seemingly being punished for the Northampton debacle. All told, it's yet more reason to be upset with the on-field direction of the club.
Of course, I'll assuredly change my tune, at least for one day, if Liverpool somehow run out winners tomorrow afternoon. Such are the perils of being a supporter.