Liverpool's fellow Europa League semi-finalist visits Anfield on Sunday.
One of the brilliant things about sport is that, more often than not, there's another day to play. Regardless of how a previous performance has gone, individually or as a team, another match is not too far off in the horizon. Sometimes it's anxiously awaited---particularly after a poor performance. But on other occasions, most notably those like Thursday night at Anfield, it'd be nice to just bask in it.
Unfortunately, there's not much time for basking. Two days between the fixtures for both sides make for a quick turnaround, but at least they're on slightly level playing fields. Liverpool might actually have the upper hand in this regard, though---the Cottagers had to travel to Wolfsburg to progress, while the Reds had the second leg at home, and will be in front of the home supporters again tomorrow.
And given their struggles away from Craven Cottage, the advantage might be leaning even further towards the Reds. Roy Hodgson's side most recently lost to Hull at the KC 2-0, part of a larger struggle that's seen only one road win all season. They've had some expected defeats on the road---against United, Spurs, and Chelsea---but they've also dropped three points at Stoke City, Blackburn, and the aforementioned Hull. And yes, I get the hypocrisy of pointing out the away form of another side.
They're also fighting some issues with fitness, as Clint Dempsey will definitely miss with a thigh injury, and Bobby Zamora (achilles) and Simon Davies (rib) had injury concerns of their own after the match with Wolfsburg. The absence of Dempsey gives Liverpool some respite on the wing, and if there's any doubt about Zamora's ability to feature it's got to hearten Liverpool---the striker has been in the form of his life and has given opposing defenses a torrid time.
As we saw at Craven Cottage, though, and throughout the Europa League campaign, Fulham can pose a threat regardless of form or fitness. As mentioned, their road form in the Premier League has been shaky at best, but then they pop up with a famous 1-0 win at Wolfsburg to advance. Zamora's been the leading scorer in league, but Damien Duff and Danny Murphy have also contributed, with the former Liverpool man continuing his influence from the central part of the pitch. They're also experienced if not resolute in defense, with Brede Hangeland, Aaron Hughes, and Paul Konchesky anchoring the back line.
For Liverpool, it's might almost be a matter of avoiding a hangover from a nearly perfect night on Thursday. The crowd, the atmosphere, the tactics, the performance---all were about as spot-on as we've seen from the Reds this season. It's hard to forget those types of nights, but it's also hard to forget the maddening inconsistency that's seen Liverpool surrender their Champions League fate to Spurs, City, and Villa.
But I'm doubting that there will be much of a hangover, if any. You have to believe that Liverpool are encouraged by how things went midweek and will take some confidence from how they performed. There's got to be some self-belief that comes from the Benfica match, even if it's mostly a product of contrasting it with how poorly they've played at so many other points throughout the season.
As usual, it starts at the back with Pepe Reina, who just recently signed a six-year extension with the club. Even with the resurgence of Fernando Torres, Reina is the player of the season for his work on and off the pitch. He'll be behind a back line that'll to return to normalcy, with Emiliano Insua back and Daniel Agger likely shifting into central defense. In the midfield, the performance of Lucas on Thursday, brilliantly summed up by Rafa Benitez as "running and working hard," might indicate another run-out for the Brazilian along with Javier Mascherano.
Liverpool will also see the return of Ryan Babel and Maxi Rodriguez, who were both ineligible against Benfica. While Yossi Benayoun had a positive performance midweek, I wouldn't be surprised to see Babel return to the starting eleven and Benayoun back to the bench. But guessing the wing selection is always a fool's errand, with a relative bevy of options in league competition. And up front it's Gerrard and Torres through the middle, although there is some question about Torres' fitness after needing treatment Thursday.
With Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi-finals today, it's a chance for Liverpool to push ahead in the race for fourth, even if it would be slightly spoiled by having a game in hand. Spurs are likewise in the FA Cup, and with a win tomorrow Liverpool can draw level on points for the time being. And while it's been nice to see Liverpool experience such success in the Europa League, the task of scraping and clawing for their Champions League lives comes back to the forefront, and only three points will.