08 December 2014

Liverpool v Basel 12.09.14

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Sunderland (h); 3-1 Leicester (a); 1-0 Stoke (h)
Basel: 3-0 Luzern (h); 2-1 Zürich (a); 0-1 Madrid (h)

Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Ludogorets (a); 0-1 Real (a); 0-3 Real (h); 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Basel: 0-1 Madrid (h); 4-0 Ludogorets (h); 0-1 Ludogorets (a); 1-0 Liverpool (h); 1-5 Madrid (a)

Goalscorers (CL):
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard, Henderson, Lambert 1
Basel: Gonzalez 2; Embolo, Gashi, Streller, Suchy 1

Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED)

Kuipers has actually been in charge of three previous Liverpool matches, all three ending in Liverpool wins.

Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Toure Johnson
Henderson Gerrard
Lallana Lambert Sterling

Once again, I worry about players' fatigue – especially Lambert, Sterling, Lucas, Johnson, Toure, and Henderson – but I doubt we'll see much change from the last few starting XIs. Other than (finally) resting Gerrard on occasion, there hasn't been much rotation in the last few lineups. Any port in a storm, and even if Liverpool have been unconvincing at best, they're still unbeaten in the last four matches.

Only two spots seem up for grabs: the right-sided attacker, whether Lallana, Coutinho, or Markovic, and the fullback opposite Johnson.

Both Lallana and Markovic seem more likely than Coutinho, still struggling and also used centrally in his last two appearances. I'd prefer Markovic's pace opposite Sterling's, for two quick players buzzing around Lambert rather than just one, but I suspect Lallana will be preferred, with Markovic used off the bench if needed, as he was against Sunderland.

As for the fullback, your guess is as good as mine. Manquillo's started four of the five Champions League matches so far and is the best defensive fullback available, but Johnson could stay on the right with either Enrique or Moreno on the other side. We've seen all of those combinations in the last four matches.

Since Gerrard will assuredly come back into the side and since Lucas has become crucial to Liverpool's defensive security, if Rodgers wants to change the midfield, Henderson seems the most likely change, but I still doubt that the vice-captain will be left out.

There's no point in continuing to guess Borini will start, despite my fervent wish to see something different up front, because Rodgers has shown absolutely zero signs of considering him as an alternative. He hasn't even made the squad since the 2-2 draw at Ludogorets, hasn't made an appearance since getting 20 minutes at Crystal Palace. And with Balotelli still injured, it has to be Lambert, for his sixth start in 13 days, playing the full 90 minutes in the previous five matches. That seems a recipe for disaster.

Basel are currently dominating the Swiss League, eight points clear of second place and with five consecutive league wins, outscoring the opposition by a 14-1 margin during than span.

As in the reverse fixture, Basel have the option of playing three or four at the back. They're equally comfortable in both formations, but were better against Liverpool after switching to back three, a change necessitated by an early injury. But they've used a back four far more often of late, in both in the league and Champions League. If that's the case, the XI seems likely to be Vaclik; Degen, Schär, Suchy, Safari; El Nenny, Serey Die, Frei; Gonzalez, Streller, Embolo. Which is pretty much the same XI that started when these sides met in Basel.

But, only needing a draw to progress, Basel may play more defensively, with three center-backs and restrained wing-backs, Xhaka or the experienced Walter Samuel coming in as a third CB. Given how Liverpool have tried, struggled, and usually failed to break down deep defenses who pack the middle of the pitch, it makes a certain amount of sense.

Basel's only absentee is Ivan Ivanov, who also missed the reverse fixture. Philipp Degen, who missed the last meeting through injury (surprise!), is available, having started the last five matches. Which is exciting.

Despite five less-than-convincing performances, despite scoring all of four goals in those five matches (all four coming against Ludogorets), if Liverpool win tomorrow, Liverpool progress to the knockout rounds. Considering how bad Liverpool have looked in this competition, that's an indictment of the rest of the group (Real Madrid excluded, obviously). But if Liverpool fail to win, they'll drop into the European competition no one wants to be in, because Ludogorets aren't taking points off of an already-qualified Real Madrid in Madrid. That's less than ideal given where Liverpool (and Liverpool's squad) are at the moment.

Unfortunately, Liverpool will need actually need to attack to win, and that's where things get tricky.

This has the potential to be one of those special European nights at Anfield, the type of nights Liverpool have dreamed about during this five-year exile from the Champions League. But Liverpool will have to be better than we've seen of late to reach that potential.

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