EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 23: Fabio Borini of Liverpool celebrates scoring against Hearts during UEFA Europa League play-off first leg match between Hearts and Liverpool at Tynecastle Stadium on August 23, 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Liverpool take their one-goal lead back to Anfield tomorrow for the second leg of their tie with Hearts, only ninety minutes away from entering group play. The Scottish side were far better than their guests for much of the first leg, which was mostly a product of Liverpool's poor display, and while they might not be favorites to advance, they've got a chance to overturn last Thursday's result and see their way into group play for the first time.
I almost get the feeling that this one is taking a back seat for most, with transfer rumors at the forefront for most of the next 48 hours. That's fair enough, I suppose, and combined with news of Lucas' extended absence, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that there's an actual match that Liverpool will have to play tomorrow, and it's one that has some decently large stakes riding on it.
There's not the payout of the Champions League or the acclaim that comes with it, but for a squad that's working towards a new style of play, the more matches the better, and a result against Hearts will allow for that. There's some hesitation about what additional matches and travel could do to Liverpool's smaller squad, which is a valid enough concern; the assertions of Brendan Rodgers that youth will be given a more extended look this season might assuage some of those worries, however, as the Europa League would offer significant experience not only for squad players but some of the brighter faces from the academy.
Those opportunities require at least a draw tomorrow, and, even though it's terribly cliché, their opposition arrive with nothing to lose. There's not many that expect Hearts to win tomorrow, but this is the type of match that Liverpool have bottled over the past few seasons that there's a little bit of concern that the visitors could hang around just long enough to make life difficult.
They weren't overly impressive in the first leg but probably did enough to deserve better, and this past weekend they extended their unbeaten streak in domestic play with a 0-0 result at Aberdeen. They had to take off centerback Marius Zaliukas at the half, though, and he's a doubt to make the squad after two consecutive matches at less than full fitness. John McGlynn should have a full-strength squad to choose from otherwise, and they'll likely have more of their regular first-teamers involved than their hosts.
As for Liverpool:
Kelly Carragher Agger Enrique
Henderson Adam Shelvey
Downing Carroll Borini
This one's fairly hard to guess--the names linked with moves to other clubs could miss out completely, but that'd leave Brendan Rodgers with a very thin squad composed mostly of first-team regulars and kids. We know Lucas is out through injury, and Oussama Assaidi and Nuri Şahin aren't registered this round.
Pepe Reina seems a sure bet to start, as do Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger, neither of whom played a part of Sunday. The fullback positions are a little less clear; Jose Enrique made a late cameo against City and appeared to be close to full fitness, so a controlled start with a set number of minutes doesn't seem out of the question. Either of Martin Kelly or Glen Johnson could feature on the right, with the former perhaps a bit more likely given that the latter played a full ninety on Sunday. Starts for Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson are also possible, with Robinson making his first appearance of the season in the first leg.
Midfield and beyond is a crapshoot, with two of last Thursday's starters expected to be gone on Friday--both Charlie Adam and Jay Spearing are topics of exit talk, but you'd figure one (if not both) will start. I'll guess Adam starts in a midfield with Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson, with time for Henderson the most critical piece. He's fallen even further down the depth chart with the arrival of Şahin, so Europa League and domestic cup appearances are going to be chances for him to shine.
Up top a start for Andy Carroll might again be a stretch, but I don't see any way for a Luis Suarez-Fabio Borini-Raheem Sterling forward line to play both tomorrow and Sunday. Borini seems the most tireless of the three and could start on a flank opposite Stewart Downing, who could also feature at left back but seems to fit better on the right tomorrow. If rumors are to be believed Carroll doesn't have much time left in a Liverpool shirt, so it'd be nice for him to get significant minutes at Anfield.
Progress is the goal, and anything short of that will be disappointing. I don't have any doubts that Liverpool are capable of advancing with ease, but I'm also wary of times gone by when I've assumed they would have little trouble with an opponent. They're piecing their style together bit by bit, and tomorrow's less about ooh's and ahh's than it is making it to the group stage. Own goal, scoreless draw, whatever. Survive injury-free, deal with the certain headache that Friday promises, and get to the weekend.
Kickoff tomorrow is 8:05PM BST/3:05PM EST, with coverage in the US live on Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN in the UK. We'll have the matchday thread up a few hours before the start time and team sheets an hour before, and that'll include these and other TV listings we can find. We'll be sure to keep things updated from now until then; once again, Friday is likely going to bananas, but that doesn't rule out anything happening over the next 24 hours or so.