23 February 2011

Liverpool v Sparta Prague 02.24.11

1pm, live in the US on DirecTV channel 481 (HD on 481-1)

0-0 on aggregate

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: 0-0 Sparta (a); 1-1 Wigan (h); 1-0 Chelsea (a)
Sparta: 0-0 Liverpool (h); 1-1 CSKA Moscow (h); 2-2 Palermo (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Babel, Cole, Jovanovic, Kuyt, Lucas 1
Sparta: Kadlec, Kladrubsky 2; Kweuke 1

Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB)

Guess at a lineup:
Carragher Skrtel Agger
Kelly Lucas Spearing Johnson
Meireles Cole

With the resumption of league matches on Sunday after a two-week respite, pre-match questions remain the same. Will Liverpool rest certain players, continuing to prioritize the Premiership? And now that Agger's fit again, will Liverpool return to three at the back, a formation we've only seen in two of Dalglish's nine matches but one that was remarkably well-received?

Once again, Gerrard's omission seems likely. The captain's back in training after missing the last two games with a groin injury, but Dalglish emphasized that Liverpool wouldn't take any risks with the player. He'll be pushing to return against West Ham. Liverpool have two replacements in Spearing and Poulsen, although both are far more defensive. The former is finally fit after an extended injury, while the latter's back after his wife gave birth yesterday.

Dalglish also highlighted Joe Cole in his pre-match press conference. Cole's first action under the new manager was the hour off the bench last week. His inclusion would allow Liverpool to rest Maxi, Meireles, or Kuyt depending on the formation; because I've guessed 3-4-2-1, I've left out the Argentinean, but Liverpool obviously have options. Ngog, who disappointed last week but remains the club's top scorer in the competition, is unsurprisingly in contention.

I'm convinced Agger is the key to playing three at the back, and his absence since the international break is the main reason why Liverpool used the 'standard' back four against Wigan and Sparta. There has to be at least one defender comfortable on the ball to make the formation work, and Agger's one of the best in the business in possession. Liverpool desperately missed his cool head in the draw against the Latics. But it's worth noting that Kyrgiakos did well last Thursday marking Kweuke.

Sparta tried to play on the front foot in the last leg, often threatening down Liverpool's flanks (especially through the overlapping left back), but lacked guile in front of goal. Three CBs plus wing-backs would give Liverpool an extra defender in those situations, ideally nullifying the main threat. At Anfield, Liverpool has to attack more than in Prague, but we saw against Stoke that the above isn't necessarily a defensive system, especially if midfield runners like Meireles, Cole, or Maxi link with the forward(s).

Last week's landmark was Dalglish's first game in Europe; tomorrow will be his first European game at Anfield. A Europa League tie against Sparta Prague isn't what springs to mind when mentioning historic European nights at Anfield, but this season's struggles coupled with King Kenny at the helm should have the stadium rocking and the team raring to go no matter the lineup.


Marlon said...

Nate, our 3/5 man defense has been most useful against teams that play with very little width. Do you think the formation would work properly against Sparta?

nate said...

We should find out the lineup in less than 10min, so this might be a moot comment but...

Depends on the personnel, but it can be effective against teams with width. Pennant and Walters stayed wide – Pennant more than Walters' – in Stoke's 4-5-1. In theory, three at the back works best against 4-4-2, which Sparta plays, as well. As long as Kelly and Johnson track back. Which shouldn't be a problem.

nate said...

...and, yep, moot.

Different personnel but similar formation as last leg. Looks most like 4-2-3-1 depending on how high up Cole and Kuyt play. Potentially 4-3-3 but doubtful.