Johnson Kyrgiakos Carragher Wilson
Kuyt Meireles Maxi
Liverpool's won a lot of two-legged ties with 0-0s away from home. Nonetheless, this was emphatically boring, dour bordering on unwatchable for long stretches. While the result puts Liverpool in a fine position for the second leg at Anfield and the side were missing a few crucial players, it's still disappointing to see such a sub-par performance and ostensible lack of ambition.
It was a "standard" Europa League away, in keeping with the tenor of the group stage despite the managerial change. Liverpool played with four at the back for the second consecutive match, drafting Kyrgiakos in for height and Wilson for the experience, albeit at left back. It was the closest Dalglish has come to replicating Benitez's preferred formation, with Lucas and Aurelio holding, Kuyt and Maxi as narrow outside attackers, and Ngog as the lone striker.
Sparta, as the underdog home side, grew into the game after almost constant if nonthreatening Liverpool possession for the opening 10 minutes. Both Johnson and Wilson were tested on the flanks, especially by Prague's overlapping left-back Pamic, with Kadlec and Keric also dangerous as the wingers in a more orthodox 4-4-2.
Liverpool were forced into an early substitution as Cole replaced Aurelio in the 37th minute, with Meireles dropping deeper and Cole behind Ngog. The away side's first decent chance coincidentally came seconds later, as Cole fed Ngog following a free kick, but the Frenchman lingered on the ball, giving the defender time to block his eventual shot. Liverpool spurned a second chance two minutes before halftime on a corner won by Cole: Ngog knocked down Meireles' ball in, but Kuyt clumsily missed contact at the back post.
The second half was equally torpid. Johnson, given more freedom, started popping up in the final third, but couldn't find attackers with his crosses. The fullback was at the heart of Liverpool's best move of the half, toe-poking wide in the 70th minute after cutting into the box following's Lucas' excellent ball over the top, but goalmouth chances were hard to come by at either end.
Yet Sparta still posed the greater threat, with 13 shots to Liverpool's three. Only one forced Reina into a difficult save, smothering Kweuke's effort on the turn from a 76th-minute corner, but had Sparta displayed cooler heads in front of goal, Liverpool would be behind going into next week's decider. The imposing Kweuke, Matejovsky, and Varek all had efforts sail narrowly wide in the second half. And none of Liverpool's three shots threatened Sparta's goalkeeper.
That Liverpool's second substitution was Skrtel for Ngog in the 83th minute seemingly sums up today's mission. It prompted a switch to three at the back, which saw Liverpool's defense push further up the field, but didn't lead to any attacking improvement and is still replacing a striker – even if an inefficient one – with a defender. That Pacheco didn't see any minutes despite Liverpool's impotence doesn't bode well for his immediate future.
Johnson and Kyrgiakos were probably Liverpool's best players, while Wilson defended well as a left back. Ngog, often isolated up front, struggled on his own, and was caught offside far too often. Kuyt's continued his shaky form when played on the right of midfield; he's looked far better under Dalglish as a striker. No one else was particularly offensive in either sense of the word. Aurelio's fitness is the biggest concern.
It's tempting to think that Hodgson would have gotten a lot more grief for this display than Dalglish will, but this result is much more palatable in the knockout round than the group stage. In addition, Gerrard, Agger, Suarez, and Carroll were all missed – and yes, I'm well aware it's hard to miss a player that's ineligible and a player that hasn't yet played for the club. Both Gerrard and Agger would have made vast differences; Agger's ability to bring the ball out of defense is indescribably important in Dalglish's system(s), while Gerrard's ability to create something from nothing is always welcomed (see 3-1 Napoli, among many others).
A win, with crucial away goals, would have allowed Liverpool to rest players and feature some of the hyped youngsters in a week's time. Now, we'll likely see a full-strength lineup as the side looks to put the Anfield advantage to full use. Sparta can advance with a score draw; Liverpool will have to keep a clean sheet as well. But, as Infostrada Sports pointed out after the match, 66.6% of away teams advance to next round after 0-0 draws in first leg.
The result could be a lot worse. But there's still a lot of work to be done.