Lille visit Anfield for the second leg of the Europa League round of 16.
Still riding the highest of highs after trouncing Portsmouth 4-1 on Monday (sarcasm, folks), Liverpool welcome French title-challengers Lille to Anfield. The Reds need a goal to bring the tie level, as they were unable to get an away goal during last week's visit to France. It was a somewhat encouraging performance---a familiar approach for Rafa in Europe, and for awhile it looked like they would escape with a 0-0 draw. But an awkward free-kick from Eden Hazard in the 85th minute caught Pepe Reina between two minds, and Lille grinded out the 1-0 victory and were unfortunate to not have a second minutes later.
A one goal deficit is not insurmountable for Liverpool, and while the performance against Portsmouth isn't exactly the best gauge for how Liverpool will approach the match tomorrow, it has to be seen as somewhat heartening. We finally saw Rafa ring in some changes, and regardless of the opposition the club experienced some much-needed success. Outside of the first twenty minutes and the last five, the attack looked fluid and threatening, we finally got the performance from Alberto Aquilani we've been waiting for, and Fernando Torres put in a classy shift up front in bagging a brace.
Again, I feel compelled to qualify all of that by noting that it was Portsmouth. But they're a Premier League side (even if they won't be come May), they've proven themselves worthy opposition on a number of occasions against more successful sides, and they took all three from Liverpool earlier this season. So yeah, it wasn't 4-1 over United or Chelsea or Arsenal, but continuing to downplay whatever significance it did have is getting cumbersome. And entering an important European fixture with the mindset of, "they beat Portsmouth, but..." won't do anyone any good.
Okay, that's a lie, because if Liverpool do approach this match like Monday's they might have a few problems. Pompey did do a bit to expose Liverpool on the counter, particularly in the first half, and Liverpool can't afford Lille similar opportunities. Yes, the roles will be reversed this leg, with Liverpool attacking and Lille likely on the defensive, but Hazard alone showed what a threat he is on the wing, and if Insua plays the way he did on Monday Liverpool are going to be punished. There's got to be a bit more balance simply by virtue of the options Lille have, but that doesn't necessarily mean Liverpool need to completely lock it up.
And apparently Rafa's hand is forced regarding his central midfield partnership---Aquilani is a doubt because of a virus and fitness, meaning we're back at Lucas and Masch. I wouldn't have been surprised to see this anyway, but the Aquilani question cements it. It's just as well, but there needs to be a willingness on Rafa's part to adapt if there's no attacking impetus. As I mentioned, though, Liverpool will have to balance their need for a goal with the need to defend a side who have the pace to absolutely punish on the counter.
Ostensibly there's no other option at left-back than Emiliano Insua, but he's damn close to needing a break. He's been shaky in recent weeks and left absolutely gaping holes on the flank against Pompey. I still think Daniel Agger could prove useful in that role, but he'll probably partner with Carra in the middle with Glen Johnson stabilizing at right back.
Up front there aren't many options---Kuyt will probably return, and it's either Benayoun or Babel on the left with Albert Riera slowly fading into oblivion. One option is sliding Gerrard deeper to partner with Lucas or Masch and putting Babel/Kuyt/Benayoun in the "hole," but nobody has flattered in that role this season---even Steven Gerrard. And after his brace on Monday, there's no other option up top than Fernando Torres. He was battered by no less than two defenders at a time in the first leg, but with this likely a more open affair I'd expect him to have more time and space. As commenters in previous threads have noted, it's amazing that he's got 15 goals with how limited he's been this season. And with all those goals coming in league competition (!), now would be as good a time as any for him to notch his first of the year in Europe.
For all the talk of make-it or break-it matches for Liverpool this season, tomorrow's really does have some finality to it. It's their only chance at a trophy, and if they don't find a way to scratch a couple goals (or at least one to send it to extra time), it'll be the last 90 minutes Liverpool play in search of actually winning something. Sure, the race for fourth is still on, and there's a nice cash windfall to accompany a potential spot in the Champions League for next season, but tomorrow demands an effort to match the importance.