The Romanian champions visit Anfield in the Europa League round of 32.
I approach this match with a sort of morbid curiosity, given that there's so many different variables at play. It's not the Champions League, but it's still European competition. Liverpool are on the way up in league, but they've got a big-time match coming up on Sunday at City. Everyone associated with the club keeps talking about what a big deal it is to go balls out in the Europa League, but there's a lingering feeling that this competition is somehow "less-than."
So as we did prior to Arsenal, let's consult my shoulder sitters for the breakdown:
Regardless of the European competition, Rafa Benitez gives Liverpool a massive advantage. For all his struggles in league, everyone knows that he doesn't f**k around when things get continental. Against big sides, small sides, whatever, Rafa comes to work prepared when UEFA comes before the title of the competition. He's almost playing with a full deck in terms of personnel, and despite not knowing a hell of a lot about Unirea, he will damn well have his side organized and ready to deal with anything.
Liverpool are also riding high despite the bump in the road at Arsenal. Getting any points at the Emirates would have been a success, and had it not been for a couple of dodgy Howard Webb decisions, Liverpool could have very well come away with one, if not two points. The side are continuing to play with the grit and determination we've been waiting for, even in the absence of Carra and the Greek, who, incidentally, will both return tomorrow.
Their home form is also undoubtedly a positive, having gone three straight without conceding a goal at Anfield. Granted, it's not the stuff of records, but for a side that struggled mightily to keep the opposition out of Pepe Reina's goal earlier in the season, it's got to be a positive. And Anfield's European Nights is practically a trademarked phrase---even if it is mostly due to the nights of Champions League glory. Reds fans know how to get behind their club when it comes to the big-time competitions, and tomorrow will be no different.
What do Liverpool know about Unirea? Admittedly, nothing. And how will Rafa prepare for that nothing? Poorly. Or, similarly to how the side was prepared for Debrecen, and that was with a full-strength side. Okay, without Alberto Aquilani...but like I said, still a full-strength side. Rafa's lost his touch a bit this season in Europe---whether it's due to losing the man in the middle to make sense of his traditional tactics or losing his entire squad to unrest, Liverpool were almost lucky to earn as many points as they did in the group stage. Hell, Unirea earned more points than Liverpool did, facing sides that were arguably similar.
If Liverpool's trip to the Emirates was any indication, Unirea don't have much to be worried about. Liverpool were again somewhat lifeless, particularly in the final third. David Ngog and Dirk Kuyt, the club's best attacking options at present, were anonymous and overrun. Steven Gerrard cut a frustrated figure and managed to find the turf as often as he managed to direct anything towards Almunia's goal. Jamie Carragher is having fitness worries, with the only options at right back relatively green. There's no chance Rafa risks Carra with a visit to the Eastlands looming on Sunday, and that spells trouble for Liverpool's defense.
The biggest problem for Liverpool is that they have expected to be in the Champions League for...ever. Missing out on the knockout stages this season is a massive failure, but after the display they put on in the group stages, it was a deserved result. And despite assurances to the contrary by Rafa and every player with a voice box, Liverpool are vulnerable to the feeling that they are slumming it. Unirea, on the other hand, would love nothing more to come away from Anfield with the scalp of a fallen European giant. And who's to argue that it's not possible? Liverpool consistently struggle to get creative in attack, especially when opposing sides clutter the final third.
The issue about Liverpool being underwhelmed with their European fate is honestly a big concern for me, from the players to the manager to the supporters. How will it impact them? Who knows, but I'm hoping that they're able to find the steel needed to make this into something positive. It'll be tough to do after watching the rest of Europe's big clubs go at each other, but I'm confident Liverpool can do it.
I see Liverpool coming out of the gates to score early and often. I know next to nothing about Unirea, but I'm confident in saying that top to bottom, Liverpool have a side that's more skilled and athletic. While that's absolutely not enough, I think if Rafa can get his side going early, there's a potential to overwhelm the visitors.
I think Aquilani could and should return here, particularly considering we've seen what happens when Liverpool face "lesser" opposition with two defensive midfielders. And your testosterone is sure to get a boost with the return of the Greek, unshackled by the cowardice of the FA and its suspension. The rest of the starting eleven could be a bit of a hodge-podge---maybe Ryan Babel, maybe David Ngog, etc. etc. We know there won't be any Maxi Rodriguez, due to the fact that Atletico Madrid are Europa Leaguers as well. Whatever it is, I think the name of the game is press. Conservatism makes me nervous in these types of matches, and as I mentioned, the earlier Liverpool assert themselves the better.
Your viewing options are a bit limited---looks like DirecTV or GolTV are the only television options. I'll be sure to include streaming links in the matchday post tomorrow morning. Until then, bask in Europa League/UEFA Cup glories gone by (and consult here for how to deal with the other competition going on today):