15 September 2014

Liverpool v Ludogorets Razgrad 09.16.14

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Villa (h); 3-0 Tottenham (a); 1-3 City (a)
Ludogorets: 2-1 Botev Plovdiv (a); 1-1 Beroe (h); 1-0 Steaua Bucharest (h) [6-5 pens]

Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: n/a
Ludogorets: 1-0 Steaua Bucharest (h) [6-5 pens]; 0-1 Steaua Bucharest (a); 2-2 Partizan (a); 0-0 Partizan (h); 1-1 F91 Dudelange (a); 4-0 F91 Dudelange (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Sterling 2; Gerrard, Moreno, Sturridge 1
Ludogorets: Misidjan 4; Anicet, Bezjak, Marcelinho, Quixada 3; Abalo, Wanderson, Younes 2; Barthe, Espinho 1

Referee: Matej Jug (SVN)

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Coutinho
Lambert Balotelli

I am very curious to see what sort of line-up and formation Rodgers chooses in his first Champions League match.

Once again, his hands are somewhat tied thanks to injury. Sturridge, Can, Johnson, Allen, and Skrtel are all still injured, although the latter two should thankfully be back by the weekend. Markovic will also miss out, suspended for the first two Champions League because of a ban picked up with Benfica.

The only certainty that's different from the loss to Aston Villa is that Sterling will come back into the starting XI. You can guess most of the other starters: the back five, Gerrard, Henderson, Balotelli. But the other two places will be determined by which formation Rodgers thinks will be most effective against very unfamiliar opposition.

I'm tempted to think that Liverpool can get the most out of the available personnel by reverting to the 4-4-2 diamond. More attacking firepower, so obviously needed after Saturday and in Sturridge's absence, Sterling playing centrally, and a decently strong midfield base, although Liverpool will obviously miss both Allen and Can.

But Ludogorets' style may not be suitable for the diamond formation. From Rodgers, in today's press conference:

"They play an open and attacking style of football. They play 4-2-3-1 and the two full-backs look to get forward. They have two controlling players in midfield, a No.10 who moves well and wingers who are probably a little more stretched than you usually see with wingers nowadays.

The diamond can leave you vulnerable on the flanks, although that hasn't been a massive problem when Liverpool have used the formation, partly thanks to the work that Henderson and Allen have put in as the wide midfielders. And the Welshman won't be available tomorrow. With Can also absent, the options opposite Henderson are Coutinho, Lallana, and Lucas. The former two aren't as energetic or defensive – although I'm not entirely sure how much that will be needed – while the latter's mobility has rightfully come into question pretty much every time he's played over the last year or so.

The other options are 4-3-3, with Henderson, Coutinho, and Gerrard in midfield and Sterling and Lallana flanking Balotelli; or 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard and either Henderson or Lucas as the holders and some combination of Sterling, Coutinho, Lallana in the attacking line of three (or Henderson, if Lucas starts). The above 4-3-3 may be more likely – Henderson and Coutinho can press those controlling midfielders; Sterling and Lallana will help protect against the fullbacks getting forward – and I will readily admit I'm biased because I very much favor the diamond in most circumstances.

I won't pretend to know much else (read: pretty much anything) about Ludogorets, and instead direct you to much better-researched previews from Anfield Index, FourFourTwo, and the Liverpool Echo. That both the first- and second-string goalkeeper will miss out through suspension and injury respectively seems important; the only available keeper on Ludogorets' UEFA squad list is 17-year-old Emil Gospodinov, although the aforementioned Anfield Index preview suggests that 23-year-old Georgi Argilashki will start (*shrugs*).

Ludogorets have been playing since mid-July thanks to Champions League qualifiers and the early start to the Bulgarian league. They currently sit fourth in their domestic league, having played eight matches, two points behind CSKA Sofia, but are unbeaten since losing on opening day nearly two months ago. They may not have the talent or name recognition that Liverpool's players have, but they are a more settled side with more match practice.

As if rejoining the Champions League for the first time since 2009 weren't enough motivation, Liverpool have the chance to quickly dispel the bad feelings induced by defeat to Aston Villa. Liverpool have lost consecutive matches under Rodgers just three: to West Brom and Zenit in 2012-13; Southampton and Manchester United (in the League Cup), and Manchester City and Chelsea in 2013-14.

After Saturday's disappointment, Anfield really needs to see the proper response.

Meta: Once again, the usual schedule will be disrupted by a weekday match. I *may* have a match review up sometime during the evening; if I write one, it'll probably be up around 8pm ET and I will let you know on Twitter beforehand. There will definitely be a match infographic up Wednesday. Like for weekday Premier League matches, Champions League match reviews will be infrequent and late at best, but I will have an infographic up the day after. And if there's no match review, I'll try to cover more in the infographic write-up.