MONACO - AUGUST 25: The official launch of the adidas UEFA Europa League matchball at the Grimaldi Forum on August 25, 2011 in Monaco. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images for adidas)
Liverpool travel to Belarus to get their Europa League campaign underway against Gomel, who progressed past Renova in the second qualifying round. It'll be Brendan Rodgers' first competitive match as Liverpool manager, and despite the fact that it comes so early in August, you can expect that he'll want to come out on the front foot to set the tone for his Liverpool tenure.
As was the case with the preseason matches, it can be a little difficult to get back into the swing of things when both Liverpool and their opposition are unknown quantities. That small annoyance--or the fact that it's a tie in which Liverpool are expected to romp--doesn't take away from the excitement of the season getting back underway, however, especially after the way things wound down during the last campaign.
I hesitate to say we'll be getting a new look Liverpool tomorrow, particularly with the stop-start performances during the preseason, but Rodgers will undoubtedly want to impress, and that means putting out a squad that he feels is most capable of producing quality in terms of both the performance and the result. Absences hamstring that a bit, with fitness and international duty ruling out a couple of the bigger names, but we're getting competitive football once again, and that comes with the expectation that whoever's out there will be doing everything they can to help Liverpool win.
We spent a fairly significant chunk of time in July discussing the potential consequences of the travel Liverpool have had to endure; their North American tour wasn't too expansive, but they only returned to Merseyside late Saturday and traveled to Belarus today, leaving little recovery time for a squad that still hasn't come together in full. That the opposition is "weaker" doesn't provide much comfort either, as similar sides have proven pesky over the past few years.
As noted above, Gomel defeated Renova in the last round via a 2-1 aggregate score, losing the second leg at home after they'd notched two in Macedonia. Their win in the first leg capped a spell in which they scored twelve goals in three Europa League matches without conceding--during the first qualifying round they hammered Vikingur 10-0 (0-6, 4-0). Vadim Demidovich leads the squad with three goals in the competition, and Vyacheslav Hleb (brother of former Arsenal man Aleksander) and Nikolai Kashevski each have two.
Gomel's form in all competitions has been very good of late, with only one loss in their last seven in the Belarusian Premier League, which has left them seven points off the top in third (albeit with two in hand on leaders BATE and three on second-place Shakhtyor Soligorsk). Beyond the facts there's very little for me to report, other than to repeat that if you've paid attention to Liverpool over the past few seasons, the size, pedigree, and prestige of the opposition matters little.
As for Liverpool:
Carragher Skrtel Agger Enrique
Shelvey Gerrard Henderson
Cole Borini Sterling
We still don't know the full traveling squad, but we do know that Andy Carroll didn't make the trip due to a groin injury--likely transfer related--and many of the younger names, including Dani Pacheco, Suso (who scored both goals), Stephen Sama, and Andre Wisdom featured in the reserves' 2-0 win today over Huddersfield Town. Martin Kelly and Glen Johnson were held back through the preseason as well, and it might be a stretch for either to start.
The likely absence of Kelly and Johnson leaves either Jon Flanagan or Jamie Carragher on the right, and with the latter being lauded consistently by Brendan Rodgers since his arrival, I'm guessing he deputizes there tomorrow. Wouldn't be surprising to see Flanagan, but Carragher would get time and allow for Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger to get their partnership going early. Jose Enrique will go uncontested I'd guess, but he's sorely in need of competition to push him forward after a mostly disappointing preseason. Not sure if Jack Robinson's back and ready to go after suffering a training injury last week.
Midfield and attack will probably be less clear--Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson are recently back but looked good against Spurs during the time they had, and Jonjo Shelvey was one of the most effective performers throughout the preseason. I'd love to see Lucas start, but I'm wary of Rodgers asking too much too soon, so I'd prefer they go without a "holding" mid and opt for the three mentioned above.
With Carroll out there's really no choice but to play Borini (I think), so most of the uncertainty is who he'll be flanked by. Right now it looks like either Stewart Downing or Joe Cole will take up one wing, and hopefully Raheem Sterling is handed a chance on the opposite side. Given that there isn't a whole lot of clarity about who else is with the squad, it could turn out differently, but I'd be surprised if Sterling didn't play some part in tomorrow's proceedings.
Whoever's involved, Liverpool will need to switch into gear after a number of fairly pedestrian preseason displays. Fitness was the primary objective, now it's winning. That's the point from here on out (except for the friendly with Bayer Leverkusen, but still), and to start Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool career with an assertive and confident display is critical, as is taking a lead back to Anfield for the return leg next week. Liverpool's back in Europe, and their new identity starts to emerge tomorrow. Whether that's exciting or terrifying is up to you.
Kickoff will be slightly earlier given that it's in Belarus, with the start time set for 7:00PM BST/2:00PM EST. Fox Soccer Channel will be airing the match live in the US;
at current there isn't a listing on the official site for viewers in the UK Premier Sports will have it in the UK, and Setanta Ireland has it as well (thanks to the Biceps and Trev for the tips) so please feel free to share any other ways to watch in the comments thread of this or the matchday post. The matchday post will go up earlyish tomorrow morning, with team sheets included when they're released around an hour or so before kickoff.
Hope to see you all around here later on, as we start this whole thing over again.