Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Spurs (a); 3-0 West Ham (h); 0-2 Stoke (a)
Steaua: 2-2 Cluj (h); 1-0 Târgu Mureş (a); 0-1 Gaz Metan Mediaş (h)
Group Stage so far:
Liverpool: 3-1 Napoli (h); 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Steaua: 3-1 Utrecht (h); 1-1 Utrecht (a); 3-3 Napoli (h); 1-4 Liverpool (a)
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Babel, Cole, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Steaua: Stancu 3; Kapetanos, Tanase 2; Gardos 1
Referee: Bülent Yıldırım (TUR)
Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Kyrgiakos Wilson Aurelio
Babel Cole Jovanovic
As has become commonplace in the Europa League, Hodgson's basically announced the line-up in advance and will rely heavily on the 'B-Team.'
19 players made the trip to Romania this morning:
Pepe Reina, Brad Jones, Martin Hansen, Fabio Aurelio, Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Ryan Babel, Lucas, Danny Wilson, Christian Poulsen, Jonjo Shelvey, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Pacheco, David Ngog, Martin Kelly, Nathan Eccleston, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson.
Torres, Meireles, Kuyt, Johnson, and Konchesky are the key names rested. Reina, Lucas, Kyrgiakos, and Skrtel are Liverpool's 'senior players,' Joe Cole returns from injury, and Dani Pacheco's finally been located.
But whether Pacheco will start remains in doubt. Aside from the announced backline, Hodgson singled out five players in the first linked article, from yesterday's press conference: Cole, Babel, Jovanovic, Poulsen, and Shelvey. That appears to mean those five are nailed on to start, which leaves room for one more in the front six. Pacheco's name was tacked on at the end of the article, stating that he's "expected to feature." And the choice will probably come down to Pacheco or Ngog; whether Hodgson's willing to start Babel as a lone striker.
Poulsen and Shelvey should be the central midfielders unless Hodgson wants Lucas' experience and believes that the Brazilian doesn't need the rest. Cole will almost certainly play in his preferred role behind the striker, while Jovanovic would start on the left. Babel can either play on the right, with Ngog up top, or Pacheco can feature on that flank with the Dutchman as the striker. But it's hard to see Ngog, who's Liverpool's top scorer in the competition, being left out unless his calf injury from the weekend is worse than expected. And that leads me to believe Pacheco, unfortunately, will be on the bench. But stranger things have assuredly happened this season. Let's hope this is just my usual cynicism.
The back four that Hodgson announced yesterday is the back four I want to see – specifically Wilson at center-back for the first time (and his first match since Northampton), and Aurelio and Kelly at full-back. Wilson has a role to play because of Carragher's injury, especially since Agger's out until at least Christmas. Kelly's clearly a promising talent. And, ideally, Aurelio will have a blinder and establish himself as first choice left back, although I'm not holding my breath.
Steaua currently sits seventh in the Romanian League and second in the Europa League group. They beat a tough Utrecht side at home in the last round to become the only other team besides Liverpool to win a group game; Napoli and Utrecht both have three draws and a loss.
Steaua's equalizer in the previous meeting, set up by Stancu (Steaua's top scorer in the competition) and converted by the captain, Tanase, demonstrates that the Romanian side has players capable of punishing Liverpool. Stancu scored twice in Steaua's last match, a 2-2 draw with Champions League side Cluj. Steaua have played five games since besting Utrecht in early November, winning twice, drawing twice, and losing once. Both wins came away from home.
Even with a weakened team, Liverpool has the talent needed to win tomorrow. Or, at the least, take the point needed to qualify from the group stage. While the last meeting was at Anfield, and was closer than the 4-1 scoreline suggests, Liverpool deployed a similar, if slightly stronger, side. But Liverpool's also in far better form than they were in mid-September. We've seen baby steps toward progress, even considering Sunday's gut-punch result. Despite Liverpool likely to make 10 changes from the side that lost at Spurs, that progress (and ambition) needs to continue. And with players looking to force their way into Hodgson's 'A-Team,' it's absolutely possible.