Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 0-0 Utrecht (h); 1-1 Steaua (a); 3-1 Napoli (a); 0-0 Napoli (a); 0-0 Utrecht (a); 4-1 Steaua (h)
Sparta: 1-1 CSKA Moscow (h); 2-2 Palermo (a); 3-1 Lausanne (a); 3-3 Lausanne (h); 0-3 CSKA Moscow; 3-2 Palermo (h)
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Wigan (h); 1-0 Chelsea (a); 2-0 Stoke (h)
Sparta: 1-1 CSKA Moscow (h); 2-2 Palermo (a); 2-0 České Budějovice (h)
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Babel, Cole, Jovanovic, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Sparta: Kadlec, Kladrubsky 2; Kweuke 1
Referee: Florian Meyer (GER)
Meyer has actually done a Liverpool match before: a 2003 UEFA Cup tie against Steaua at Anfield, which Liverpool won 1-0.
Guess at a lineup:
Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel
Kelly Lucas Aurelio Johnson
As usual in the Europa League, the lineup is a complete guess. How strong will the starting XI be and will Liverpool return to three at the back after Saturday's disappointing result?
The 23-man traveling squad is:
Reina, Jones, Gulacsi, Johnson, Flanagan, Aurelio, Robinson, Kyrgiakos, Wilson, Carragher, Kelly, Skrtel, Meireles, Cole, Maxi, Jovanovic, Lucas, Coady, Ince, Sterling, Pacheco, Kuyt, Ngog.
Andy Carroll has also traveled for team-building and training reasons. And because beer is exceptionally cheap in the Czech Republic. Gerrard and Agger are still injured, while Poulsen misses out because his wife's gone into labor.
Notably, four u-18s are also along for the ride: Conor Coady, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson, and Raheem Sterling, as is 19-year-old Thomas Ince, who was an unused substitute against Rabotnicki. I'd be surprised if any of the above featured, let alone started; as with Carroll, all have probably been brought for the learning experience.
Whether Liverpool play three at the back is probably dependent on Skrtel's recovery from the knock suffered against Chelsea. Liverpool's defense has looked far firmer in that formation, and – as Play Waved On excellently explains – Sparta are likely to rely on long balls and crosses towards powerful strikers.
It's tough to leave Ngog – Liverpool's top scorer in the competition – out of the above lineup. He hasn't gotten as many opportunities under Dalglish, coming off the bench in three of the eight matches and disappointing in the last outing against Wigan. If Liverpool play with a flat-back four, he's more likely to start, but it's hard to see how he fits into the formation with three center-backs. Last game aside, where everyone underperformed, Kuyt has done well as a striker under the new manager.
Sparta Prague – a surprise qualifier over a strong Palermo side and unbeaten at home in the competition – are currently second in the Czech league. They haven't had a league match since November because of the extended winter break – a similar situation to Liverpool's opponents in last year's first Europa League knockout round. Sparta played two friendlies in the last month, losing 0-3 to Zenit and drawing 2-2 with Ukrainian side Dnipro (losing 8-9 on penalties).
The January transfer window saw a fairly large exodus. Top scorer Wilfried Bony – who had five goals in the group stage – was sold to Vitesse Arnhem, while Slovakian international midfielder Kucka left for Genoa. The aforementioned Play Waved On article has an excellent round-up of the Czech side, unsurprisingly highlighting 18-year-old prodigy Vaclav Kadlec, who should get a chance to shine in Bony's absence.
I'd like to see as strong a lineup as possible, even with the notable absences. Liverpool haven't played since Saturday and don't have a league match before the return leg. If the hard work's done tomorrow, we might see some of those hyped youngsters in the next leg.
Tomorrow marks Dalglish's first match in European competition. That alone should be enough motivation.