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Match Preview: Liverpool v. SC Braga, 03.17.11

Down 1-0, Liverpool host the second leg tomorrow at Anfield.

We're slowly easing into a spell that sees Liverpool pick up the pace---Braga tomorrow and Sunderland on Sunday before another brief hiatus, and then a sprint to the finish line with eight league matches between April and the third week of May.

Success tomorrow would not only add to that load, with the Europa League quarterfinals scheduled for April 7th and April 14th, but it would get the club a bit closer to some sort of symbol of success. Folks seemed to be carrying plenty of optimism through the last week, with a majority holding out hope that either a Europe League trophy or 5th place in league was still attainable.

And if it's victory in Dublin that we're collectively crossing our fingers for, Liverpool's performance tomorrow is going to have to be a world apart from what we witnessed in Portugal a week ago. If "better" exists for a match like last Thursday's, you'd have to say that Braga were the better side on the night. They created more and pressed early, and were rightfully rewarded with the opener. No doubt tomorrow will see less pressure, but Liverpool will need to stifle their swiftness on the counter if an away goal is to be avoided. With the weekend off, Braga's been rested (and may see the return of their captain, Vandinho), and their only doubts for fitness are Kaka and Alan, both of whom suffered knocks in the first leg.

For Liverpool:

1. Who will start for Liverpool?
2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?
3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

1. Who will start for Liverpool?

Carragher Skrtel Agger Johnson
Lucas Spearing
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

---Earlier in the week Kenny Dalglish announced that both Daniel Agger and Jonjo Shelvey were making their way back into full training, with the former closer to match readiness. That leaves Steven Gerrard, Martin Kelly, and Fabio Aurelio on the injured list, with the ineligible Luis Suarez joining them on the inactive list.

---It might be too early for Andy Carroll to make a start, but I'm jumping off the deep end and reading way too far into Dalglish's comments from today's press conference. Besides the nice chunk of awesome that is "he won't be forgetting that elbow any time soon," the manager mentions that at current the main decision is whether they use him from the opening whistle or whether they leave it late. Given that Liverpool really only looked threatening with Carroll on the pitch, I'm hoping he gets the start. More time to blend in with the squad, and no need to crowd the midfield with alice bands.

---It's probably a bit too much to include Daniel Agger as well---we all know he's had a hell of a time with injuries throughout his career, and tomorrow might be too soon. It's a delicate balance of throwing whatever's available at Braga and making sure that long-term fitness isn't compromised. If there's any doubt, there's a likely spot for Martin Skrtel or Sotirios Kyrgiakos, as well as the option of keeping Glen Johnson on the right and including Danny Wilson on the left.

---Christian Poulsen and Joe Cole cannot start.

---Jay Spearing wasn't any less effective than anyone else in the eleven last Thursday, and while that's not exactly high praise, he seems most fit to feature alongside Lucas in central midfield. This pushes Raul Meireles further forward behind Andy Carroll, and leaves spots for Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez on the flanks. That's about as strong a front four as Liverpool are capable of given the personnel available, although some could argue that David Ngog or Joe Cole have a place. To those some, I say, "probably not."

2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?

A nice balance of scoring and not conceding, obviously. The goals simply have to come from somewhere---whether that's down to a positive impact from Andy Carroll's presence or more attack-minded tactics from the opening whistle, it's an occasion that absolutely demands that Liverpool pour a couple in. Preferably not in the final seconds via a Dirk Kuyt thigh. But I'll take whatever so long as it sees Liverpool come out on top.

That being said, it's no secret that Braga excel on the counter, and if Liverpool get caught too far forward, the tie could be over in a matter of seconds. We know Liverpool are capable of coming up big, especially in Europe, but an away goal for Braga is worst-case scenario.

3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

I can't bet against Liverpool on a European night at Anfield, even if that hasn't meant as much in the past few seasons. 2-0 to the Reds.

Kickoff tomorrow is at 20:05 GMT and 4:05 EST, as daylight savings time continues to rear its ugly head. Or at least until Europe decides to join us. Either way, the match will again be televised live on Five for English viewers and GolTV for those in North America, the latter of which comes with the requisite suffering induced everyone's favorite by announcing duo. As usual, streams will be available, so links for those will be up in the matchday thread earlier in the day.

In the meantime, enjoy your Wednesday, and with the NCAA basketball tournament about to take over the sporting landscape in the US, get in the spirit and use this Gus Johnson soundboard to pass the time. And then imagine him announcing a 90th minute winner and strangling Andy Gray or something.

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