TORONTO, CANADA - JULY 21: Lucas Leiva #21 of Liverpool advances the ball against Toronto FC during the World Football Challenge friendly match on July 21, 2012 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
European football's back tomorrow night at Anfield, with Liverpool set to host Gomel in the second leg of their third qualifying round tie. Brendan Rodgers' squad left Belarus with a one-goal advantage thanks to Stewart Downing's arrowed second-half strike, but on the whole Liverpool were underwhelming and clearly still finding their legs. Despite losing Gomel were impressive and created a number of chances, and while Liverpool should expect to win, it might not be a stroll.
Amid the talk of exits for Daniel Agger and Craig Bellamy it'd be understandable if you forgot Liverpool were actually playing tomorrow--nearly all of the news this week has focused on the comings and (mostly) goings in the squad, and with the relatively high profile of both players, there's naturally going to be more attention paid to their futures. The extension for Luis Suarez was a nice break, but it's mostly been concern and uncertainty about what happens next.
So tomorrow promises at least a bit of a break from transfer talk, as well as a chance to see how things will take shape with more of the regular first-teamers closer to fitness. I'd still expect some choppy play lacking in fluidity, but I'd also expect that the squad will be working towards Rodgers' vision. He's been open about the fact that he needs to adapt to his players rather than them to him, but with such a disappointing performance last week, they'd do well to alter their approach a bit.
It was hard to tell last week if I could actually be impressed with Gomel given how poor Liverpool were, but I think the Belarusian side actually were quite good at times, and the chances they were able to create should have been enough to scored at least once or twice. There's a much more detailed and intelligible discussion about who and what to expect from Gomel (and everything else) over at nate's preview of the match. Bonus is that you can ridicule him for still not knowing the whereabouts of Vyacheslav Hleb.
As painfully cliche as it is, there is nothing for Gomel to lose tomorrow, and if they manage to nick an early goal they'll have more than enough belief that they could somehow steal the tie. With Liverpool's struggles last time out, it wouldn't be too surprising to see the hosts on their heels at times, and there's enough of a gap in the sides' form and fitness that they could cause fairly signficant problems.
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Shelvey Lucas Gerrard
Downing Suarez Borini
The return of Pepe Reina, Sebastian Coates, and Luis Suarez gives Rodgers some sorely-needed depth, and in the cases of Coates and Suarez, he's got players that are match-fit and apparently ready to go. There hasn't been much discussion about any injuries or knocks, leaving questions about whether or not Joe Cole's injury was something that would keep him out of the squad tomorrow. As always, hope he's healthy, just that he doesn't play.
This is the best back five I think Liverpool can produce and a defensive unit that was very good for most of last season. The lack of clarity about Daniel Agger's future might be enough to keep him out and Jamie Carragher in, but Liverpool are better with him than without him, and if he's here he should be playing so long as he's fit. The scheduled split for Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly will probably not be replicated, and I'm guessing the former gets the lion's share of the time.
Last week's midfield was absolutely horrible--Jay Spearing was inconsistent across the board, Steven Gerrard spent much of the time flinging balls downfield, and Jordan Henderson was a ghost. That all changed when Lucas came on, naturally, so I think the Brazilian gets his first start since returning along with Jonjo Shelvey and Gerrard. There's a chance we get the same midfield, but with Lucas' rehab going well and Shelvey's success in the preseason, I'm hopeful they'll get starts.
Whether or not Luis Suarez starts is probably the only question up top, with Fabio Borini pretty much guaranteed a spot and Stewart Downing likely to play again after getting the winner last week. I don't see why he wouldn't at least get an extended run-out, especially given that Borini's likely to get a majority of the minutes. Their working relationship--I hesitate to call it a partnership--will be critical to Liverpool's success up front, so it might as well start sooner rather than later.
For all the talk of last week basically being preseason, it has to be viewed as the absolute minimum Liverpool can do in order to get a result. They can probably be less than average and still get the win tomorrow, but I'm sure Brendan Rodgers will be looking to get the squad up to speed, and for things to look very differently this time around. Cohesion and quality are works in progress, and tomorrow needs to represent just that--Liverpool moving forward, getting better, and working towards a future that promises more success.
There will once again be plenty of ways to watch tomorrow, with Fox Soccer Channel airing the match in the US and ESPNUK carrying coverage in England. Kickoff's set for 8:05PM BST/3:05PM EST, and we'll have the matchday thread--which will have team sheets once they're released--up and running a few hours prior to the start. Probably a bit to cover between now and then as well, so we'll build off of whatever's around as we wait.
Hope to see you all back here throughout the day leading up to kickoff, and that we'll be able to celebrate a Liverpool victory tomorrow night.