05 December 2012

Liverpool at Udinese 12.06.12

1:00pm ET, live in the US on FSC

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

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 1-1 Hearts (h), 1-0 Hearts (a); 3-0 Gomel (h), 1-0 Gomel (a)
Udinese: 1-1 Braga [4-5 pens] (h); 1-1 Braga (a) [CL Qualifier]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Southampton (h); 1-2 Spurs (a); 0-0 Swansea (a)
Udinese: 4-1 Cagliari (h); 0-3 Lazio (a); 0-2 Anzhi (a)

Goalscorers (Europa League):
Liverpool: Shelvey 4 Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Cole, Gerrard, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Udinese: Di Natale 3; Coda, Fabbrini, Pasquale 1

Referee: Duarte Gomes (POR)

Gomes has actually done a Liverpool match before, the insipid 0-0 draw at Utrecht in this competition two years ago.

Guess at a line-up
Wisdom Coates Skrtel Enrique
Henderson Şahin
Suso Suarez Assaidi

Last round's loss means Liverpool have to play a much stronger line-up than Rodgers would prefer. And if they don't win or draw, equalling or bettering Young Boys' result at home against an already-qualified Anzhi, they'll be out of this competition.

At the least, Liverpool will have to qualify without Gerrard, Agger, or, Lucas. The latter two aren't a surprise – Lucas having just returned from a long injury, Agger's fitness perpetually needing to be managed – but Gerrard, despite his age and injury record, would probably feature if not for illness.

Henderson's started four of the five group matches. Şahin and Shelvey have started three of the five. Those three seem the likely midfield starters, but Allen could also replace one of the latter two. Similarly, Suso's played as an attacking midfielder in a couple of these matches, but three from Henderson, Allen, Şahin and Shelvey is more probable.

With Suarez suspended for Sunday's match at West Ham, he'll undoubtedly start tomorrow. And probably would have anyway had he not picked up his fifth yellow of the league campaign against Southampton. Similar to the midfield, Liverpool have been fairly consistent in the front three, with Assaidi and Downing the usual wide forwards in this competition. Except at Anzhi, when Liverpool played the strange, ineffective 3-5-1-1 system, and against Young Boys, with Downing at left back and Cole in his place. Those seem the primary options for the flanks tomorrow, with an outside chance for Suso or Shelvey – the former having played there earlier in the season and the latter doing well against Southampton. Simply put, I'd rather not see Downing, either at left-back or on the right flank, while odds are Joe Cole can't replicate his excellent performance against the Swiss. My preference is that one of Shelvey or Suso play as the attacking midfielder, the other on the flank opposite Assaidi. Either way, Sterling needs to be another of those rested, hopefully left on the bench for the duration.

This will probably be the match where Wisdom finally returns from injury. With the young right-back likely to feature, chances are Rodgers won't use another inexperienced defender on the opposite flank, even if Robinson should have received more appearances so far this season. Which would make it a choice between Enrique and Downing, with Johnson hopefully rested, at left back. Either Coates or Carragher will partner Skrtel, neither performing wondrously against Di Natale in the last meeting. I obviously hope it'll be the young Uruguayan, ideally improved by the presence of Martin Skrtel, but Carragher's often been preferred since Coates' unlikely start against Manchester City three months ago.

Udinese were on a seven-match winless streak, beginning on Halloween, until hammering Cagliari 4-1 at home on Sunday. That massive drop in form now sees them with the same number of points in the league after the same number of games as Liverpool, albeit in 9th in Serie A compared to Liverpool's current 11th place position.

The home side will undoubtedly play some variation of three at the back again, whether the 3-4-2-1 we saw in the first half of the last meeting, the more-usual 3-5-1-1 we saw in the second half, or an orthodox 3-5-2. No matter the fact that Udinese are already condemned to exiting this competition, they'll probably play a full-strength side, looking to find form after that long winless streak and looking to end their European participation on a high. If that's the case, the XI will be something like Brkic; Heurtaux, Danilo, Coda; Faraoni, Pereyra, Pinzi, Badu, Pasquale; Fabbrini; Di Natale.

Two of the three center-backs who played against Liverpool – Benetia and Domizzi – are injured, while Willians is suspended. Pinzi, who started in the last match (and probably should have been sent off), should return from an injury layoff.

I guess the question is: how badly does Liverpool want to stay in this competition?

The permutations are simple. Liverpool cannot lose no matter what Young Boys do against Anzhi; the Swiss side would top a three-team mini group with Udinese and Liverpool. Otherwise, Liverpool need to match Young Boys' result. The two matches, obviously, will be played at the same time, but you can be certain that someone in Liverpool's dugout will know what's going on in Bern.

Liverpool should have sealed progression in the last round, twice taking the lead against Young Boys no matter the understrength lineup, only to twice throw it away. Now it's backs against the wall, needing to start a stronger XI than we've seen in most group matches, against the opposition that's given Liverpool the most trouble in the group stage. Win and you're in. Lose and go home. Draw and you're reliant on Young Boys dropping points.

The Europa League is rarely a high priority. We saw that in Liverpool's form in the final two games of 2010-11, dire losses against Tottenham and Villa where it seemed the side did everything it could to not qualify for the competition. You saw it yesterday in Manchester City's tepid defeat in Dortmund, obviously preferring to put all its eggs in the league basket rather than drop down to the second-choice European competition for the second successive season.

But, for all the group stage struggles, the Europa League has been beneficial to this Liverpool side, whether in additional starts for the youngsters such as Shelvey, Suso, Henderson, et al, or appearances for Şahin, Downing, and Cole when they otherwise wouldn't have played in the league. No matter the lack of squad depth we've been screaming about since August (and earlier), Liverpool will want to keep accruing the benefits of being in this competition.

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