Round of 32:
Liverpool: 1-0 Sparta (h); 0-0 Sparta (a)
Braga: 2-0 Lech Poznan (h); 0-1 Lech Poznan (a)
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)
Braga: 0-2 Shakhtar (a); 2-0 Arsenal (h); 1-0 Partizan (a); 2-0 Partizan (h); 0-2 Shakhtar (h); 0-6 Arsenal (a) [Champions League]
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 United (h); 1-3 West Ham (a); 1-0 Sparta (h)
Braga: 2-1 Benfica (h); 0-0 Naval (a); 2-0 Lech Poznan (h)
Liverpool: Ngog 5; Gerrard 4; Kuyt 2; Cole, Jovanovic, Lucas 1
Braga: Lima 5; Alan 2; Echiejlie, Paulo Cesar 1
Referee: Serge Gumienny (BEL)
Guess at a lineup:
Carragher Kyrgiakos Skrtel Johnson
Maxi Meireles Cole
We knew that Shelvey, Kelly, Aurelio, and Agger would definitely be out. The 21-man squad announced today confirms that the worries about Gerrard were correct, as the captain didn't travel.
The travelling party is: Jones, Johnson, Meireles, Suarez, Carroll, Cole, Pacheco, Kyrgiakos, Maxi, Kuyt, Lucas, Wilson, Carragher, Ngog, Reina, Spearing, Poulsen, Shelvey, Kelly, Skrtel, Hansen, Gulacsi, Flanagan, Mendy.
Suarez is still ineligible, Kelly and Shelvey are still injured. Those three are on the trip for experience, the same reason Carroll traveled to Prague in the last round. Of those 21 players, four are keepers – Reina, Jones, Hansen, and Gulasci – only two of whom should be involved. Which means one of youngsters Flanagan and Mendy will make the bench.
The big question is about Andy Carroll's participation. He'll play some part, but will he start after Sunday's cameo or appear off the bench again? The official site was unsurprisingly coy, while an over-excited copy editor at the Liverpool Echo gave the same interview a headline of 'Andy Carroll set to start Liverpool FC Europa League clash vs Braga' before editing the article about an hour ago (the URL still gives it away). In Carroll's favor is the fact that – like following the first leg in Prague – Liverpool won't have another match for a week. If the big Geordie somehow starts, Kuyt would shift to the right with one of Maxi or Cole on the left. Another alternative is Ngog up top with Kuyt on the right, as in both legs against Sparta Prague.
Liverpool will have to deploy a makeshift defense again, especially at full-back. On the flanks will be Carra and Johnson or Johnson and Wilson. There are few other options. The back line did well after Aurelio went off against the Mancs, which is an argument for the above rather than Johnson-Carra-Skrtel-Wilson.
With Quim and Kaka (no, not that one) on the roster, Braga are a puerile writer's dream. I'll do my best to not beat that dead horse into the ground, but no promises.
Braga are currently sixth in the Portuguese Liga on 31 points. Porto's running away with the league, with double the points that Braga have, 11 ahead of second-placed Benfica. Those two have an incredible gap on the chasing pack, with Braga amidst a tightly-packed mid-table. The difference between third – Sporting Lisbon – and 11th – Beira-Mar – is the same as the difference between first and second.
Braga sold its top scorer in Europe, Matheus (among others) in the January window, but this is still the club that beat Arsenal at home in the CL group stage. They play a pressing and physical style, a 4-2-3-1 formation which can become 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3. Both goals against Arsenal were late and on quick counters (although, admittedly, Arsenal were down to 10 men at that point). All of this sounds vaguely similar to Benfica's tactics in the 2005-06 Champions League.
They've won three, lost three, and drawn once since the beginning of February. Braga's line-up in the last Europa League match against Lech was: Artur; Miguel Garcia, Rodriguez, Kaka, Silvio; Viana, Custodio; Alan, Mossoro, Barbosa; Lima. Last weekend saw a 2-1 victory over Benfica, but Alan, Custodio, and Silvio picked up knocks which make them doubts for Thursday's match. RAWK's Spyin' Kop – a question and answer with Braga fans – in an interesting read for more information about the club.
Without a league match until March 20, Liverpool have to use the Europa League to build on last Sunday's big win. Now into the round of 16, I expect Liverpool's side to be increasingly stronger, less reliant on youngsters and the B-team. Beating Sparta Prague was a struggle over two legs, failing to score for almost the entire 180 minutes. Yes, it's Europe, and yes, it's away from Anfield, but Liverpool can't play as cagily against more dangerous opposition.