24 October 2012

Liverpool v Anzhi Makhachkala 10.25.12

3:05pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Anzhi: 2-0 BSC Young Boys (h); 1-1 Udinese (a)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Anzhi:: 5-0 AZ (a), 1-0 AZ (h); 2-0 Vitesse (a), 2-0 Vitesse (h); 4-0 Honved (a), 1-0 Honved (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Reading (h); 0-1 Stoke (h); 2-3 Udinese (h)
Anzhi: 2-1 Spartak Moscow (h); 2-0 Dinamo Moscow (a); 2-0 BSC Young Boys (H)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Shelvey 3; Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Downing, Gerrard, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Anzhi: Eto'o 7; Traore 3; Shatov 2; Boussoufa, Carcela, Jucilei, Lakhiyalov, Smolov 1

Referee: Bas Nijhuis (NED)

Guess at a line-up
Johnson Coates Carragher Robinson
Henderson Allen
Downing Suarez Assaidi

Anzhi Makhachkala will be Liverpool's toughest Europa League opponents by some distance, which is saying something considering the Reds are coming off a home loss to Udinese in this competition. However, Sunday's Merseyside Derby means that Liverpool have little choice but to continue with its predominantly second-string lineup, with maybe three or four recognized first-team players starting against the Russian side.

Despite the slim squad and prioritizing the league, I honestly think Suarez may well start. Brendan Rodgers has little choice otherwise, hinting as much last week when discussing Liverpool's striking "options". Suarez won't play every match until Borini's fit/the January transfer window, but he'll play an awful lot of them. Tomorrow seems far too soon for Samed Yesil, especially against opponents of this quality – Samba and Joao Carlos are both excellent, physical center-backs – while the other options are Pacheco in a false nine role (as against Young Boys) or Adam Morgan. The one thing that would preclude Suarez from playing is if the knock he picked up against Reading – limping out of the tunnel after the half-time interval – is more serious than expected. In which case, good luck Samed.

I suspect Suarez will be flanked by the "usual" Europa League starters – two from Assaidi, Downing, Cole, and Pacheco. Unlike Suarez, who's experienced enough to cope with game after game after game, both Suso and Sterling need to be protected from overuse. Personally, I'd vastly prefer Assaidi and Pacheco, but either Downing and Cole will probably start opposite the Moroccan. Downing and Assaidi has been the pairing in the last two group stage matches. Hopefully, he – or Joe Cole – will make use of the opportunity. For a change.

It'll mostly likely be three from a probable for in midfield as well, but I'm far less certain who the three will be. Henderson is basically nailed-on, as in the two previous group stage matches, but he could be joined by Shelvey, Allen, or Şahin. Both Shelvey and Şahin could use the match time – the former after his three-match league suspension, the latter in his continuing quest for form and fitness. At the same time, Allen remains utterly crucial to Liverpool's style of play, with no one else in the squad capable of filling the role that he fills as long as Lucas is injured. The midfield against Young Boys – Suso, Henderson, and Şahin – was obviously overexposed without a clear holder, especially on Zarate's counter-attacking goal. And Anzhi will mostly likely counter at pace through Eto'o and the wingers.

Wisdom is another who probably needs to be rested after consecutive league starts, also suffering from a shoulder injury during the international break. Which means that Johnson probably has to start at right back, as we haven't seen proof that Flanagan even exists anymore other than cameos on Being: Liverpool. Robinson should start every Europa League match, but Enrique's long-awaited return to fitness may mean he plays tomorrow in order to shake off the ring rust. Carragher and Coates has been the default Europa League pairing, but Rodgers may want to consider partnering the Uruguayan with Skrtel because of the threat posed by Eto'o and Lacina Traore. Jones will again start in goal as Reina attempts to recover in time to face Everton.

Guus Hiddink's Anzhi currently leads the Russian Premier League, on 29 points after 12 matches (9W-2D-1L), two points ahead of CSKA Moscow. They're on a 13-match unbeaten run in all competitions, without a loss since August 12 at CSKA and with just two draws – against Zenit and Udinese – during that stretch.

Anzhi have been playing first-choice line-ups in the Europa League so far, with Eto'o – among others – starting all six matches. The usual line-up has been a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 with both Eto'o dropping off Lacina Traore up front; Boussoufa and Shatov on the flanks; Jucilei and Lass Diarra in midfield; Agalarov, João Carlos, Samba, and Tagirbekov or Zhirkov in defense; and Gabulov in goal. Through eight matches, Russians have conceded just one goal in this competition (at Udinese in the first group stage match), while scoring 18 of their own. Other than that draw in Italy, Anzhi have been more impressive away from home, with 1-0 wins against Honved and AZ in the first leg of the qualifying rounds before demolishing them 4-0 and 5-0 respectively in the second away leg.

Lass Diarra will most likely miss both matches against Liverpool through injury, but it's not as if Anzhi are without alternatives. Boussoufa can drop into midfield, with Smolov or Carcela coming in on the flanks, or Anzhi could shift to a 4-3-1-2 system – which they used more often before signing Diarra on deadline day – with Boussoufa in the hole and two from Shatov, Carcela, Zhirkov, and Smolov on the flanks. As we saw when he was at Chelsea, Yuri Zhirkov is equally comfortable on the wing or at full-back.

Samuel Eto'o needs no introduction; even at 31, he's still a world-class striker, Anzhi's top scorer in both the Russian Premier League and Europa League, with 7 goals in each competition. Only two players have scored more through the Russian Premier League's 12 matches. 6'8" Lacina Traore, formerly of CFR Cluj, isn't far behind with six in the league; his height and aerial ability will present a formidable challenge to Coates or Carra if he (or they) start. Liverpool fans will recognize both Zhirkov and Christopher Samba from their time with Chelsea and Blackburn. Oussama Assaidi's international teammate, the versatile Mbark Boussoufa – a Chelsea academy graduate and two-time Belgian Footballer of the Year (winning the award in the two years following Milan Jovanovic, who also you may remember) – has also become one of Anzhi's key players: able to play anywhere in attack, by far Anzhi's most creative player with seven league assists. Only Tagirbekov and Eto'o have played more league minutes so far this season.

Put simply, anything Liverpool get from the Europa League is a bonus. Rodgers knows full well that he'll be judged on league results alone. It would be disappointing were Liverpool to lose tomorrow and/or fail to progress from the group stage, but it wouldn't be the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination, and wouldn't really hinder the club's development as a whole. Like against Udinese, this will one of Anzhi's matches of the season because of the caché Liverpool and Anfield still have around the world, but it's not even Liverpool's most important match this week. Which will be reflected in Rodgers' starting XI. That's not an excuse for any failings which may or may not occur tomorrow, but a warning nonetheless. Expect little, and you're not disappointed if nothing comes to fruition.

1 comment :

Steve Jensen said...

I hope we let Morgan or Yeşil play this one, rather than Suárez. Based on how Anzhi have steamrolled their way through both the Russian league and the Europa League, I think they will beat us soundly regardless of whether Suárez plays. Yes, he's always capable of some moments of magic that could change the outcome. On the other hand, the young guys are both far more accurate shooters than he is, at least based on their performances against youth competition.
Plus, I thought that our young team was playing better against Udinese before Suárez and Gerrard made their superhero substitute appearances in that match. And, in general, I think our cup teams have played more patient, tactically-disciplined football than our first XI for the league. But once you add Suárez and/or Gerrard into that mix, much of the tactical discipline and patience is put at risk. Especially when those stars are matched with the "bench" players who otherwise dot the Cup lineups.
Having thus vented, I suspect you're right that Suárez will start. I hope I'm wrong that he won't make a difference. And I REALLY hope he doesn't get hurt.