Not too much has been predictable about Liverpool's season so far. Pre-season optimism was quickly snuffed out by a terrible start to the campaign while boardroom machinations considerably complicated the situation at Anfield. Just as the crisis was picking up steam, Roy Hodgson's side enjoyed an unlikely victory against Chelsea and the revival began. Just as things started to look up though, Newcastle put the brakes on the Reds' upturn in fortunes.
However, the Europa League has provided a curious degree of stability to Liverpool's season so far. Hodgson has generally deployed a side full of younger talents and fringe players during the competition. The motley crew has already qualified as winners of Group K and should they defeat Dutch side FC Utrecht on Wednesday, they will equal a club record of nine successive home victories in Europe.
FC Utrecht themselves cannot qualify for the next phase of the competition and the trip to Anfield will be their farewell to European football for this season. Having said that, travelling to Liverpool is most probably the highlight of the competition for Ton du Chatinier's side and they will hope for a memorable victory. Utrecht has failed to reach the heights of last season so far this term, but are in a handy eighth position in the Dutch Eredivisie. They also boast one of Europe's in form strikers in the shape of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel .
While Hodgson is almost certain to play the kind of inexperienced side that has served him so well so far in the competition, Utrecht will most likely field a strong team including plenty of internationals in addition to star man Van Wolfswinkel. Technically, Wednesday's clash is a dead rubber, but Utrecht will hope to rescue some pride with a glamorous victory while Liverpool will be very eager to get back to winning ways in advance of a busy period of fixtures.
Strangely some of Liverpool's best performances this season have come when they have been missing key players. Roy Hodgson was full of praise for the young side that brought back a point from the trip to Steaua Bucharest in the last round of Europa League matches, while their comprehensive victory over Aston Villa at Anfield last week was achieved despite the absence of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Jamie Carragher.
Carragher is a long-term absentee with a shoulder injury while Gerrard is expected to return at the weekend against Fulham. Although it was thought that Torres is almost certain to be rested ahead of a batch of fixtures against the likes of Blackburn, Wolves and Blackpool, Hodgson has now indicated that the Spaniard will play.
Although the exact line-up is difficult to predict, three youngsters have been consistently impressive during the European campaign so far and should be given the chance to impress again. Defender Martin Kelly has looked very composed, not only in the Europa League, but also deputizing for Glen Johnson in the Premier League. Meanwhile, Jonjo Shelvey has given reason to believe that he may well fulfill his youthful potential and Spanish striker Dani Pacheco did well at Steaua Bucharest last time out in the competition. There is also every chance that Scottish centre-back Danny Wilson will come into the side in place of Martin Skrtel or Sotirios Kyrgiakos.
Hodgson has made it clear that David N'Gog will not be risked, having had stitches in a cut to his eye and so Ryan Babel should start up front. Milan Jovanovic scored at Steaua Bucharest and may also be given a chance. It will be interesting to see if Joe Cole plays a role and is given the chance to put in a confidence-boosting display.
Meanwhile, Dirk Kuyt is hoping that he will get to play against his former club, having starred at Utrecht between 1998 and 2003. He commented, "We play a lot of games in a season and obviously you can't play in every game but it would be nice to play against Utrecht at Anfield."
Tom Du Chatinier's side have enjoyed mixed fortunes of late. Two wins, two defeats and a draw in their last five games sees them in eighth place in the Eredivisie. On their day, they are capable of giving teams a bit of a hiding, as they showed in defeating NEC 4-0 last month. On the other hand, they have managed just two away victories so far this season. Utrecht can no longer qualify for the next stage of the Europa League, but have lost only once in the competition, away at Steaua Bucharest and two draws against Napoli and a goalless game at home to Liverpool in September show that they are to be taken seriously in European competition.
Their solidity begins at the back with goalkeeper Michel Vorm between the sticks. He is considered to be one of the best shot-stoppers in Holland and is also good in one-on-one situations. Although at only 6ft, he does not command his area as he might, Vorm has impressed enough over the last couple of years that he forced his way into the Holland World Cup squad, although he did not play in South Africa. At the back, Du Chatinier is likely to use a conventional back four with the experienced Alje Schut partnering Belgian centre-back Jan Wuytens at the heart of defence and Romanian international Mihai Nesu at left-back.
Utrecht can also call upon a talented midfield, which Liverpool will have to get to grips with. Danish international Michael Silberbauer is an elegant midfielder with an eye for a pass and he is likely to provide much of the creativity to make Utrecht tick. Dries Mertens will also provide a very real threat to the Reds' goal. The Belgian international is a dangerous attacking midfielder, who enjoys cutting in from the left. What's more, Mertens is in excellent form, having scored seven goals and provided ten assists already this season.
Talking of form players, look no further than striker Ricky Van Wolfswinkel. The 21-year-old poses an obvious physical threat at 6ft tall. But, more importantly perhaps he has a knack of being in the right place at the right time. He recently made his international debut and has a stunning nineteen goals to his name already this season.
Players To Watch
Liverpool – Jonjo Shelvey
Perhaps it is no wonder that Shelvey has progressed at a more rapid rate than most of Liverpool's promising youngsters, given that he has plenty of experience under his belt already. He became Charlton Athletic's youngest ever player at 16 years and 59 days and soon became their youngest ever scorer too.
Shelvey rejected the interest of Chelsea before Charlton finally cashed in on the youngster, Liverpool paying a not insignificant £1.7 million for the player last April. He has since gone on to captain the England under-19 side and has made an impact on Roy Hodgson's first team squad, playing three Premier League appearances and anchoring the midfield in the Europa League.
Shelvey's style brings about automatic comparisons to Steven Gerrard. Time will tell whether that eventually serves to help or hinder him. He has a real dynamism to his game and possesses the energy to be a very effective box-to-box player. Shelvey also has an eye for goal and can make things happen going forward. Considered something of a set-piece specialist, Shelvey is also capable of playing as a second striker. All in all, that £1.7 million could prove to be a real bargain for Liverpool in the long run.
FC Utrecht - Ricky Van Wolfswinkel
No question that Van Wolfswinkel is the star man for the Dutch side. He scored nine goals last season and has begun this term on fire, including a hat-trick against Celtic earlier in the competition. He also scored twice in Amsterdam to hand Utrecht victory at Ajax in October. This term is already guaranteed to be his best goalscoring season so far. There is a touch of Ruud Van Nistelrooy about him. Not only is Van Wolfswinkel a handful to deal with as a physical presence, but he has the same ability as Van NIstelrooy to be in the right place to score goals.
Newcastle United was linked to Van Wolfswinkel over the summer and Liverpool too were rumoured to be sniffing around the 21-year-old. His stock continues to rise and should he cause damage on Wednesday, don’t be surprised if the Reds are linked with him once more. Van Wolfswinkel has worked his way through the Dutch under-19 and under-20 sides and was handed his senior international debut against Ukraine in August.