20 February 2013

Liverpool v Zenit St Petersburg 02.21.13

Zenit lead 2-0 on aggregate

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Group Stage matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Udinese (a); 2-2 BSC Young Boys (h); 0-1 Anzhi (a); 1-0 Anzhi (h); 2-3 Udinese (h); 5-3 BSC Young Boys (a)
Zenit: 1-0 Milan (a); 2-2 Malaga (h); 0-1 Anderlecht (a); 1-0 Anderlecht (h); 2-3 MIlan (a); 0-3 Malaga (a) [Champions League]

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Swansea (h); 0-2 Zenit (a); 0-2 West Brom (h)
Zenit: 2-0 Liverpool (h); 1-1 Anzhi (h); 1-0 Milan (a)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Shelvey 4; Downing, Suarez 2; Borini, Coates, Cole, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Wisdom 1
Zenit: Danny, Hulk 2; Faizulin, Kerzhakov, Semak, Shirokov 1

Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED)

Kuipers has done two previous Liverpool matches, both in 2009-10: a 1-0 win at Debrecen in the Champions League (not the supposed match-fixing one) and a 4-1 win over Benfica in the Europa League quarterfinal – a match where Liverpool needed to overcome a 1-2 away leg deficit.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Henderson Sterling

Just once in Liverpool's history have they overturned a two-goal first leg deficit in European competition. Once. Against Auxerre in the second round of the 1991-92 UEFA Cup, winning 3-0 at Anfield after a 0-2 loss at the Stade de l'Abbe Deschamps.

One-goal deficits? That's happened. Quite often, in fact; most recently against both Lille and Benfica on the way to the Europa League semi-final in 2009-10.

Liverpool have lost a European first leg by two or more goals 10 previous times in its history. Nine of those first legs were away from home, the 10th was the last time that result's happened: against Chelsea in 2008-09, losing 1-3 at home before mounting a comeback at Stamford Bridge, scoring the first two goals but then conceding four in the second half in a 4-4 draw. Liverpool have won five of those 10 second legs, but either didn't score enough or conceded away goals, with two draws and three home losses.

Precedent is not helpful in this case.

That said, I'm not trying to bury the body before even checking for a pulse. But Liverpool have a hell of a hole to dig themselves out of.

Rodgers is 100% right. The first goal, especially if it comes early in the match, could make all the difference. It'll shift much of the pressure on Zenit, hopefully buckling under a Liverpool onslaught and Anfield's vocal fury.

However, concede, and it's the nail in the coffin. If Zenit get an away goal, Liverpool will need four. And in both Hulk and Semak's goals last week, we saw how dangerous Zenit can be on the break.

I'm curious to see just who's available for the fourth match in 11 days. Seven Liverpool players – Gerrard, Suarez, Downing, Carragher, Johnson, Enrique, and Reina – have all started the previous three.

You can write Gerrard, Suarez, and Reina's names on the team sheet now. Both Johnson and Enrique have had good and bad moments in the last few matches, but both are basically certainties as well, with Liverpool needing their abilities in attack and lacking for options. With Sturridge and Coutinho cup-tied and Borini injured again, Downing – who has started more matches than anyone else over the last two months – will also be needed. Which leaves Carragher as the only question. And it's not really a question with Skrtel struggling with a knee problem. It might be a question if Skrtel were fit, as I continue to worry about Carragher's recuperation after so many matches in quick succession and as the Slovakian did well in the previous leg, but – as with far too many other positions – it seems Liverpool don't really have a choice.

Otherwise, Henderson seems more likely than Shelvey, Suso, or Allen to play in the advanced midfield role, and Lucas will almost certainly feature as the deepest midfielder. The only alternative seems playing Henderson on the left again, more defensively solid than Sterling – as we saw in Zenit's second goal last week – with either of the other three listed attacking midfielder options playing centrally. But I reckon that's a much less likely alternative.

This guessed XI isn't very different from the sides which won 3-0 against Sunderland and QPR during the festive season. We know there are goals in it, or at least the potential for goals. But it also isn't very different from the side which struggled a week ago in Russia, with Lucas coming in for Allen and Agger for Skrtel. And unfortunately, as we're all well aware, Zenit is slightly stronger than those other two sides.

As in the previous leg and as against West Brom, there are two overriding concerns. The first, the more important, is Liverpool's attacking capabilities without Sturridge in the squad. If Liverpool – read: Suarez – take their chances, Liverpool could well shock Zenit. If they're wasteful, forced to press harder and harder in search of the needed goals, Zenit has the potential to decimate them on the break. Zenit's ability on the counter-attack, Spalletti's preferred method of attack, and Liverpool's frequent susceptibility to counter-attacks is the other concern.

I'd be surprised if Spalletti's XI deviated much from the one we saw last week. They've no new reported injuries, having played no matches in the meantime thanks to the Russian league's winter break, and having nullified Liverpool fairly effectively in St Petersburg. Danny hobbled off with a knock early in the second half, but trained during the week. Domenico Criscito is also back in the squad, recovered from a month-long calf injury, but Zenit might be better served by keeping the more-defensive Hubočan at left-back. Bruno Alves returns from a one-match suspension incurred for three yellows in the Champions League group stage, and could replace either Neto or Lombaerts (more likely the latter) at center-back. Midfielder Zyryanov will again miss out through injury.

Getting back into this tie will be a difficult task. Keeping Zenit from scoring once, if not more, will be just as difficult. Liverpool will need one of those often-referenced historic Anfield nights to stay in this competition, its only remaining chance at a trophy this season. And while no one's pretending that the Europa League's comparable to those Champions League matches we saw from 2004-2009, were Liverpool to come back to win this tie, it'd undoubtedly join the list of those cherished historic nights.

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