Europa League action is back underway, with Liverpool capping off the first round of group play by hosting Russian Premier League leaders Anzhi Makhachkala on Thursday night at Anfield.
A European night at Anfield and a Merseyside derby make for an exciting four-day stretch, and the importance of Thursday's date with Anzhi--joint top with Udinese, one point ahead of Liverpool--hopefully creates an atmosphere of urgency and excitement. We knew coming in that Liverpool were going to be tested in one of the more challenging groups of the competition, and Thursday night kicks off a month that will determine whether or not Liverpool will be playing European football past the first week of December.
Their approach to the competition has been mixed, with periods of droll, listless performances sprinkled among a string of positive results--the terrible twenty minutes in the second half against Udinese condemned Liverpool to their first defeat in the competition, the only time they haven't won aside from the 1-1 draw with Hearts in the second leg of the final qualifying tie. Complete performances from Liverpool have been few and far between this season, but if they can manage to put together the encouraging pieces we've witnessed in their last two outings, there's no reason to believe that they can't wrap up tomorrow in one of the top two spots of Group A.
If they can't manage to produce on Thursday could make for a long evening; Anzhi are the most impressive and successful opponent Liverpool will have faced in the Europa League, entering Thursday night's match with an impressive resume in the competition and a two-point lead in the Russian Premier League. They've only conceded one goal in Europe, an injury time equalizer by Antonio Di Natale in Italy in the first match of group play. Aside from that they've outscored the opposition 17-0, with 11 of those goals coming with Anzhi as the away side. It may be their first-ever appearance in the group stage of a UEFA competition, but on form they're among the strongest teams in the competition.
There's a litany of familiar Premier League faces for Anzhi, starting on the touchline with former Chelsea caretaker Guus Hiddink and extending into the squad with Yuri Zhirkov, Christopher Samba, and Lassana Diarra (who's a doubt with an injury) all starting each of the first two matches in group play. Samuel Eto'o will likely start up top after getting a brace against Young Boys last time out; the Cameroonian striker has seven goals in league and will be supported by Lacina Traore, the tall striker who's scored six of his own in Anzhi's league campaign.
Absentees for Thursday are largely the same as the weekend--Pepe Reina was confirmed as unavailable, and Fabio Borini, Martin Kelly, and Lucas all continue to be ruled out with no concrete return dates. No other concerns emerged from the Reading victory, but with the derby on Sunday it wouldn't be too surprising to see a handful of key names left out.
Reina's absence seems to make for a fairly straightforward selection of Brad Jones, even if third-choice Peter Gulacsi has continued to build off his impressive showings in the preseason. In front of goal it's easy enough to pick the central defensive pairing, with Sebastian Coates and Jamie Carragher the back-up pairing for cup competition. On either side we could see the original academy breakthroughs; Jack Robinson might be nudged out in favor of Jose Enrique, who impressed in a brief cameo on Saturday, but there's a good chance he features on the opposite side of Glen Johnson, who likely starts again with Jon Flanagan's fitness status unknown.
Unless Conor Coady ascends the ranks quickly, we're going to see one of Joe Allen, Steven Gerrard, or Nuri Sahin, and Allen seems the most likely. Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson both got minutes on Saturday, with the former playing a decent chunk of the second half and the latter on to see the match out. Both should start on Thursday and play a large role; this is a midfield three that really excites, and one that was very, very impressive in the first half against Udinese.
Both Stewart Downing and Oussama Assaidi seem in line for a start unless Rodgers opts to go very young, as I would think that Samed Yesil is one of the only options in the middle. Luis Suarez very well could start again, but after a busy international "break" and an active but frustrating 90 minutes over the weekend, a rest should be on the cards, especially with such a busy end to the year on tap. Dani Pacheco, Adam Morgan, and Joe Cole could all be in the mix as well, and Raheem Sterling and Suso could make substitute appearances if needed.