Timing is everything.
Nice couple days that would have been made even better if I were able to engage in selective amnesia. Luckily I have others to keep me in check and remind me that Liverpool are, in fact, one of the most pitiful footballing units since the Allied POW's took to the pitch against the Nazis. Actually, they had Bobby Moore and Pele and earned a draw, so full marks for them. But we all know that Sylvester Stallone is a horseshit keeper. Point, Liverpool!
So as the tagline cleverly reads, the timing is objectively not perfect for Liverpool to travel to Lille in the Europa League round of 16. Even more cruelly, it continues a grueling stretch for the Reds--away to Lille tomorrow, home to Portsmouth Monday, Lille again next Thursday, and then away to United in two Sundays. Unfortunately there's little "season defining" left to do---Liverpool have accomplished that with consistently weak displays that have made the "big" wins against United, Villa, and Everton the anomalies, regardless of what Rafa says.
With disappointment filling the void that hope has left, it's a mystery how the club will respond. Based on the reaction we saw in vivo against Wigan, all signs point to a less than energetic run-out for Liverpool. The club's biggest names---Gerrard, Torres, Carragher, Kuyt---all managed to underwhelm in either performance or attitude, and for me the latter is the most worrying, particularly coupled with the fact that it was Gerrard and Torres, Liverpool's two-man team, that were the worst offenders. Obviously the wear of a failed season is showing, but at this point it's so pervasive and so tangible that I worry it will poison the rest of the season if it hasn't already. And that's a very large if.
I think we can all pretty much agree that in terms of approach and identity, Liverpool are somewhat barren. They have a hodgepodge of attackers and defenders flowing in and out of position, flinging balls towards the center of the opposition's area in hopes that someone can latch on by some unearthly miracle. On the occasions that chances are truly created, it's embarrassingly inspiring. The one-two-three between Maxi, Kuyt, and Benayoun that led to Gerrard's fluffed effort in front of goal against Wigan was almost uncomfortable to watch because of how incongruous it seemed. How does a squad perform that sort of interplay, then look as though they've flatlined for the other 90 minutes?
Whatever the reason, there's no respite waiting in France. While Lille sit fifth in the Ligue One table, there's only four points between them and league leaders Bordeaux. Granted, Bordeaux have two games in hand, but the race for the league title is enviably close. They've forced themselves into the conversation after a difficult start that saw them fall to 14th, and while their hottest streak of the season is behind them (28 goals in 8 straight victories), they're going to give Liverpool a hell of a time.
In the Europa League, Lille finished second in the group stage behind Valencia and advanced to face Fenerbache in the round of 32. They took a 2-1 lead after the first leg at home, and after conceding a first-half goal that would have seen them eliminated from the competition, they battled back and found an 86th minute tie-winning goal off the head of Adil Rami. While Rami is not the most potent attacking threat for the French club, a mantle held by Pierre-Alain Frau and Eden Hazard, the tie-winner is an integral part of the Lille defense and returns from injury tomorrow.
As for the Reds, this is literally looking like the last thing left to lose. Failures in league have obviously cast fourth-place aspirations in serious doubt, and the Europa League is the only chance at redemption. We can't forget that this is Europe, and we've seen Liverpool do the impossible in Europe on more than one occasion. And in this season, with these troubles, a good result away from Anfield that could help Liverpool advance to the quarterfinals seems nearly impossible.
And they'll likely have to do it without one of the few bright spots from Monday---Yossi Benayoun is doubtful after picking up an ankle injury against Wigan. That opens things up for Ryan Babel, who again came on to relatively positive effect on Monday, at least as positive as things could have been. Besides Babel (or Riera) for Benayoun, I'm not sure how much will change. Injuries in the backline force Rafa's hand in selection, so unless he goes young we're likely to see the same faces, save for Glen Johnson if he's match-ready.
A deeper-lying Steven Gerrard was ineffectual on Monday, but with the Aquilani project moving at a snail's pace, I don't see much change here either. Some combination of Lucas, Masch (unless he's at right back), and Gerrard will form the spine, and we'll probably see Babel and Kuyt on the wings. Kuyt had an absolute shocker the other day and probably doesn't deserve a start over somebody like Babel, but he's one of Rafa's chosen ones in Europe. Even with all the troubles, we've seen that Rafa isn't budging.
Suffice to say, Liverpool are up against it and a good result tomorrow would boost morale more than it should. Don't get me wrong---Lille are a tough side, away fixtures in unfamiliar environments pose a tremendous challenge, and the potential to advance to the quarterfinals of European competition is fantastic in its own right. But when this is it, in the second week of March, for club with such a decorated history, the prospect of hoping against hope that we gut out a 0-0 draw is somewhat sobering.