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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Unirea, 02.25.10

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Looking towards the second leg and pretending I'm not interested in what's going on at the San Siro...

Okay, I can't ignore it, Chelsea and Inter in the Champions League is too intriguing to pass up. Clearly you can't support either side, but depending on your sympathies you can check out Jack at the Chelsea Offside or Johonna and MAD at the Inter Offside. And of course, refer back to the potentially liver-damaging survival guide I prepared last week. CSKA Moscow and Sevilla are also taking to the pitch, and you can likely follow that matchup at the Sevilla Offside, but no clue if the Russian League Offside has any plans. The Offside frontpage will likely be running an Inter/Chelsea-centric liveblog around kickoff. Don't pretend that you don't have options.

For Liverpool it's a day of preparation, though, as they look to advance to the round of 16 in the Europa League after tomorrow's second leg. The trip to Bucharest won't be without its challenges, the biggest of which is, very simply, venturing into the unknown. Don't take my ignorance as indicative of how Liverpool have prepared themselves, but I have a tough time buying that the squad enter tomorrow's match with great awareness of how things will unfold. And you don't need the Amazing Kreskin to tell you that it probably won't be a walk in the park.

And unfortunately, I'm not convinced the first leg gives us much of an idea how this one will play out. Unirea was always going to go into turtle mode at Anfield, and it's a credit to them that they enter the second leg needing only a goal to deadlock the tie. It was not uncommon to see the penalty box full of white jerseys, and they made it extraordinarily difficult for Liverpool to find a way through. Only after bringing on Ryan Babel in an attempt to shake things up did Liverpool get their winner.

They're obviously going to have to attack in search of a goal to level the tie, and I just can't see how Liverpool could allow it. Even on their few attacking spells of the last leg, Unirea never threatened Pepe Reina and looked outmanned up against the Liverpool backline. That's not to say Liverpool won't find a way to concede, and set pieces will likely be one of the only ways for Unirea to really get into it. But I think Liverpool has too much pace, strength, and quality to not advance against this opposition.

And it'll likely be without Fernando Torres, as Rafa has proclaimed that he won't risk the striker. I don't think there's much point for him to figure either---we saw Liverpool search for plenty of different ways to score at Anfield with 10 behind the ball (and in the box), and there's likely to be more space tomorrow. Besides what will hopefully be a late run-out to work towards fitness, it's not worth the risk. There's no reason that some combination of Alberto Aquilani, Steven Gerrard, Yossi Benayoun, Albert Riera, etc. etc. can't open up the Unirea defense. And yes, I'm engaging in selective remembering.

I sincerely hope that I'm not coming across as dismissive of the opposition---I think Unirea have a great chance of making it tough for Liverpool, especially at home (edit: Home as in Steaua Stadium). And we've all seen that Liverpool have managed to make things plenty interesting throughout the season, underwhelming when it didn't seem possible. But with a defense that has steadily improved, a resolve that I'll cautiously say is strengthening, and a talent level that has to be seen as superior, I don't see any other result than Liverpool going through. Doesn't mean I won't be biting my fingernails if it's 0-0 in the 68th minute tomorrow, but there's got to be some sort of expectation other than preparing for disappointment.

As for who we'll see tomorrow, I'm not expecting many surprises. The backline has clearly been the strongest part of Liverpool's recent form, and it'll probably be Carra deputizing on the right, some combination of Skrtel/Kyrgiakos/Agger in the middle, and Aurelio on the left. I prefer Aurelio here simply because of craft, which I get the feeling Liverpool are going to need to kill off the tie. And I can't shake the feeling that we might see Lucas and Masch partner tomorrow, even as much as I want to see Aquilani. Rafa will want to put a stopgap in the midfield, and when that's the goal we've typically seen two defensive mids.

The picture in front of and outside midfield is a little less clear---it's been anybody's guess who starts on the wings, and the return of Yossi Benayoun makes it an even tougher guess. Neither Riera nor Maxi have flattered (and the latter is cup tied), Dirk Kuyt continues to wear out his spikes, and Yossi looked fit in his time on the pitch against City. David Ngog's struggles with form and fitness might see him start on the bench, particularly in light of the apparent rebirth of Ryan Babel. Steven Gerrard is likely the only constant. And again, hopefully we'll see Aquilani in front of Masch, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

It's gonna be a grind, and it probably won't be pretty. But if Liverpool advance after the 90 minutes tomorrow, it'll be a success regardless of how they earned it, and this side has been desperately in need of successes in any shape or form.