After playing six of their last seven at home, Liverpool are back out on the road, this time heading to Moscow to face Anzhi Makhachkala as the final half of Europa League group play gets started.
The experiment continues for Liverpool, with significant changes in cup competition the norm, and a constant sense of anxious excitement about seeing youngsters and fringe first-teamers compete in matches that they're not necessarily ready for. They can over-perform and inspire as evidenced against Young Boys and West Brom, or they can look lost and disorganized, as witnessed against Swansea in the League Cup loss last week.
At least on Thursday there's not really any purgatory for Brendan Rodgers, the club announced the names that traveled earlier in the day, and it's a squad with more youngsters than squad regulars, with only a handful who have seen consistent minutes in league. The cup competitions have been an excellent avenue for Rodgers to bleed those from the Academy, and Thursday looks to be another chance for the manager to challenge his younger players.
Anzhi poses a significant challenge, even if there's a few factors negating what would otherwise make for an overwhelming atmosphere; the club play their home matches in Moscow, meaning a shorter trip, and the crowd is expected to be sparse in an effort to control the hostility that's marred Anzhi's appearances to date. They've played twice since their loss at Anfield, first losing away to Rubin Kazan 2-1 before bouncing back with a 3-1 home win over Terek Grozny. It's certainly an important match for both sides, but with Anzhi two points off Liverpool and Udinese facing Young Boys at home, three points are vital for Guus Hiddink's squad going into their final group fixtures.
A host of changes are in store, meaning that in addition to the absences of Martin Kelly, Lucas, and Fabio Borini through injury, Liverpool will be without most of their first-choice eleven and the recovering Glen Johnson and Pepe Reina.
That means matchups against Young Boys, West Brom, and Swansea will serve as the template, with a side that'll leave no middle ground about where the priorities lie ahead of Sunday's challenging trip to London to face Chelsea. It looks like another opportunity for Brad Jones in goal barring an appearance for Peter Gulacsi, and either a quick return for Andre Wisdom, the re-emergence of Jon Flanagan, or Jordan Henderson deputizing at right back.
Hopefully it's Flanagan, which would spell Wisdom ahead of the weekend and leave Henderson available for the midfield, where options are limited even with his presence. The rest of the back line seems easy enough, with Jamie Carragher, Sebastian Coates, and Jack Robinson the most likely to feature.
It’s a threadbare midfield without Gerrard, Allen, and Sahin, leaving either Conor Coady or Dani Pacheco in line for an appearance and a mandate that Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey start. I suppose Suso could make his way into the midfield as well, but like Wisdom, he seems set for a spot at Stamford Bridge, and anything other than a substitute appearance could prove too taxing. Pacheco was very impressive for the U21s against Wolves and might get the nod, and after the appearance against Swansea, the less said about Joe Cole the better.
We saw against Swansea that Samed Yesil is nowhere near ready to lead the line at the senior level yet, and on short rest (like Pacheco) another start might not be likely. Rodgers doesn't have many other options if he wants a striker in the lineup aside from Yesil and Adam Morgan, so it's got to be one of the two. I'll go with Morgan given Yesil's outing earlier in the week, and we're left to hope that he receives more direct support than Yesil did against Swansea. Stewart Downing and Oussama Assaidi have started in every cup match Liverpool have played since advancing to the group stage, with Downing getting the winner at Anfield when these teams faced off two weeks ago.