At long last, Liverpool have a match that means something. Buckle up.
Who: FK Rabotnički
What: Europa League Third Qualifying Round
Where: Philip II Arena, Skopje, Macedonia
When: Thursday, July 28th 20:45GMT, 2:45EST
Why: Because it's fun to play matches that are an ongoing reminder of the failures of the 2009-2010 season.
Plenty of questions headed into tomorrow's match with Rabotnički---most importantly, who the hell are Rabotnički?
Before we get to that, though, let's answer a couple of questions about Liverpool. In the build-up to the match we've been left wondering what Liverpool we'd get, and this morning we have the answer:
Cavalieri, Aquilani, Agger, Jovanovic, Kyrgiakos, Lucas, Wilson, Ngog, Spearing, Darby, Shelvey, Kelly, Skrtel, Eccleston, Ayala, Hansen, Gulacsi, Amoo, Dalla Valle, Ince
The naming of this squad also answers the question about the club's priorities headed into the 2010-2011 campaign. Not that it's a bad thing, but we know now that this competition is not going to be the place to catch Liverpool's regular first-teamers. Maybe jumping to conclusions based on the squad for one early match, but I have a feeling that if the club were really invested in the Europa League we would have seen a couple more of Liverpool's big names.
In fairness, Roy Hodgson did include a couple of names we didn't see earlier in the preseason---Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger both make the squad and have to be locks to start. Even with all the younger players featuring heavily in the matches against Grasshoppers and Kaiserslautern, an experienced and solid back line has to be preferred. Martin Kelly and/or Stephen Darby might be the only young players to start, with Sotirios Kyrgiakos likely partnering Skrtel in the middle and Agger deputizing at left-back in front of Diego Cavalieri. Danny Wilson makes the squad, and has voiced his willingness to feature any and everywhere, but I can't see him making his Liverpool bow out of position in Macedonia.
And that potential line is as experienced as Liverpool's squad will get tomorrow, as both the midfield and attacking players will surely be a mixture of new signings and youth/reserve players. I'd guess that Hodgson packs the midfield area similar to what we saw against Grasshoppers---it's not Rafa in Europe, but it's still European competition, and midfield dominance is going to be pivotal. Given the dearth of central midfielders named in the squad, it likely means that Lucas and Jay Spearing will partner in central/defensive midfield. We could also see Jonjo Shelvey at some point, but I'm guessing Spearing and Lucas.
They'll play behind a front four that, regardless of personnel, is relatively inexperienced and unproven. You'd have to guess that Milan Jovanovic will be the senior player up front in some capacity, with either Nathan Eccleston or David Amoo countering him on the other wing. I'd hope that Alberto Aquilani is fit after picking up a knock against Grasshoppers---if so, he could feature in the hole behind David Ngog. I'm very tentative to make any sort of assertions about Liverpool in attack tomorrow, as I: a) don't think they'll be doing much attacking, and b) have no idea who's going to be fit and/or effective.
But if I don't have much of a clue about what we'll get from Liverpool, I'm a blank slate about Rabotnički. I didn't mean any disrespect earlier when I posed the "who the hell are they" question---I'm very much in the dark about what they've accomplished in seasons past. They absolutely overwhelmed minnows Lusitans by an 11-0 aggregate in the first qualifying round, and worked their way past Mika 1-0 in the second round.
They do start their league campaign on Monday, though, which might play into the decisions that manager Zoran Stratev makes. Wandeir scored the only goal in the tie against Mika and has four in the competition, while Fabio Silva has notched five thus far. They also haven't conceded in the competition---granted, they haven't likely played any sides with much attacking flair, but it probably means they'll be organized and stingy, even at home. And especially against a young, unproven Liverpool collective.
The only other news worth mentioning in the lead-in is the Luke Young transfer, but even that isn't quite news. Apparently he's joined up with Villa in Portugal as he makes up his mind, which also gives us time to make up our minds about how we feel. He would provide depth at fullback in a squad that sorely needs it, but it's also another head-scratcher when the club are without a left-back. As usual, it's not a slight to the player; rather, more evidence that there's bound to be plenty more questions asked (and hopefully answered) prior to the end of August.
All focus is on the pitch tomorrow, though, and it's what we've been waiting for. I'm hopeful that the switch is turned on since the Kaiserslautern match, because even if we have no idea who Rabotnički is, tomorrow's result has very real consequences. Sure, it's not the top priority, but it's got to mean something.