Despite a disappointing draw with BSC Young Boys in the Europa League on Thursday night, Liverpool still control their own destiny in the Europa League and a win against Udinese will see them through to the knockout rounds.
With qualification to the knockout rounds on the line, and with it the chance to render December's trip to face Udinese in the final game of the Europa League group stages little more than a friendly, it would hardly have been surprising to see Brendan Rodgers run out a strong starting eleven on Thursday night when BSC Young Boys visited Anfield.
However, following a match against Wigan last Sunday, Thursday night's tie was the second of five games in a two week stretch, and so while Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, and Raheem Sterling would all appear before the night was done, in the beginning at least Rodgers looked to rest his stars, gambling on a much changed side.
The inclusion of Joe Cole paid off, and in quite stunning fashion, but nevertheless it was a touch surprising to see Rodgers get caught out trying to have his cake and eat it too for the second time in a few short weeks, following on from the club's League Cup loss to Swansea where he sought to rest his stars but in the end had to play them anyhow and still didn't get the result. This time, however, it may be harder to criticise Rodgers overmuch for his choice—this time, Liverpool really should have won regardless, and those stars were all on the pitch when things went wrong.
"Two-one up with three or four minutes to go you've got to control the game better," was Rodgers' take on the matter. "You've got to show better game management. I'm not telling you anything I haven't told the players. We get the chance to shoot at one end and then in the 87th minute we're walking back.
"That was the only disappointment. That's about management of the game at that stage. You're winning the game, you don't need to commit the bodies forward and leave yourself isolated. That's something we'll improve on."
Despite the setback, Liverpool's hopes of advancing to the round of 32 remain in their own hands thanks to an Anzhi Makhachkala victory over Udinese that puts the Russians through while ruling out the Italian representatives. With both Liverpool and Young Boys level on seven points heading into the final group game, then, Liverpool's victory over Young Boys earlier in the competition hands most of the tie breakers to the English side should the group stage end with them still level on points.
"It's simple enough," said Rodgers, "we've got to get a good result and match the result of Young Boys. Ideally we'd have qualified tonight but we haven't so it has to go to the last game and we have to control our affairs then."
With head-to-head the first tie-breaker in the Europa League, it means that if Young Boys beat an already advanced Anzhi while Liverpool defeat already demoted Udinese, all three would be level on ten points and the group would be decided by the records of the three clubs only against each other—in short, the points earned against Udinese wouldn't count, but Liverpool would need to beat Udinese to get things to the point where those points wouldn't count.
If that were to happen, Liverpool and Anzhi would advance—Liverpool thanks to a win and a draw against Young Boys and one win and one loss against Anzhi putting them on seven mini group points, while Anzhi would have six points thanks to a win and a loss against both other sides. That would leave Young Boys with a win and a loss against Anzhi, but with a loss and draw in their head-to-head with Liverpool their point total when taking only the three level sides into account would be four. Meanwhile, if both of the final matches end in a draw and Liverpool remain level on points with only Young Boys, the head-to-head tiebreaker again hands the advantage to Liverpool.
However, if both sides lose it would mean Udinese would draw level on seven points with Liverpool and Young Boys, once again resulting in advancement being determined on the basis of only the three level clubs' records against each other—and with Anzhi well clear of the congestion. In that situation, Liverpool's two defeats at the hands of Uidinese along with a win and draw against Young Boys would leave them on only four points in the mini group. Udinese would be on six thanks to their two victories over Liverpool while Young Boys would be through with two victories over the Italians and a draw with Liverpool giving them seven points.
In short, things aren't all that much different for Liverpool now than they were before Thursday's draw, as qualification still boils down to the same thing—just win. Win and Liverpool are through, no matter what happens elsewhere. It would have been nice, though, for Rodgers to be able to leave the big names at home on the sixth of December.