Nearly everyone has returned to training ahead of Thursday's opener...
Although that doesn't mean have any more knowledge than we've had in the past few weeks.
The Javier Mascherano transfer saga has been in the mill for over a year now---it started last summer with his reported desire to move to Barcelona, and while those rumors fell by the wayside near season's end, they flared up again with the departure of Rafa Benitez. The two seemed to have a good working relationship during their time together at Liverpool, but once Benitez headed to Inter that connection was set on fire, and soon enough the "Mascherano set for Inter move" headlines were running.
And at some point, at least for me, his leaving became a certainty. I started dreaming in 4-4-2's with Steven Gerrard and Alberto Aquilani in the center of the pitch--not a whiff of Mascherano in the airspace, his days marauding around English midfields but a distant memory. He was fantastic and dominant while he wore a red shirt, but it was time to move on.
So today I had a bit of jolt when I read that Masch had returned to training and was set for Showdown Talks with Roy Hodgson. It doesn't change my belief that he'll eventually be sold, and if he is, it's better that it happens sooner than later (particularly if the rumored £35m could be put to use). But it also doesn't mean that I think Liverpool are a better team without him---they could certainly do without the up-and-down over whether or not he wants to be with the team, but in terms of sheer ability it would be a big loss.
It all just causes more questions around the club heading into Thursday's Europa League match in Skopje against Rabotnicki, even if Mascherano was never going to feature in the match. But apparently Hodgson is toying with the idea of including a few of the other regular first-teamers that featured in South Africa:
"I don't know what to do at this stage. I will have to liaise with them and (head of sports science) Peter Brukner and make a decision by Tuesday on what sort of team I can put out. It is going to be a difficult discussion between myself and Peter because his feeling is we shouldn't use any of them and I am going to be tempted to say I want to use quite a few of them.
"The only players I will take will be the ones that I definitely think will play a valuable part in the game. If we are talking about senior players, it would be players prepared to start the game. I would not take Steven Gerrard there to play for the last 10 minutes as a substitute."
Not the most straightforward of responses, but you'd guess after a couple of unconvincing displays by the younger players and reserves against Grasshoppers and Kaiserslautern, there's plenty of uncertainty about the team selection. It's basically the conundrum he outlined a few days back---what's best for this season's future versus what could pay off in the short term.
Potentially sacrificing the long-term fitness of players like Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson would not be a well-received decision, but neither would fielding a vastly overmatched squad in the first leg and paying for it. If it's similar to the output against Kaiserslautern, it could get real ugly real quick.
Either way it's likely going to be a challenging first leg, and it's going to be a difficult first test for Hodgson. Regardless, it's encouraging to know there's a match that means something in only a few short days, which means that the focus turns to the pitch (hopefully).