14 December 2010

Liverpool v Utrecht 12.15.10

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

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

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

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

Referee: Kristinn Jakobsson (ISL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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