Liverpool start their last challenge before the group stages of the Europa League tomorrow, facing Hearts in the first leg of their fourth qualifying round tie. It's the second year in a row the Scottish side will face English opposition in the final playoff round, and they'll hope it turns out a bit better this time than a 5-0 aggregate loss to Tottenham. For Liverpool it's a chance to bounce back from a disappointing weekend and bring a decent result into the second leg at Anfield.
I don't know what to make of the Europa League this season, and it's similarly hard to gauge popular opinion on how Liverpool should approach the competition. I think I'm fairly middle of the road in that I'd like to see the club do well and go as far as possible, but I'd also like to see more of the younger players involved regardless of whether or not that brings success. I know that I certainly don't want to see the lackadaisical approach that many teams--especially those in England--have taken, as I'm of the opinion that this competition has plenty to offer.
It's not the Champions League, so we can just get that out of the way up front, like it or not. But it's still European football, and I think we saw last season that it presents the opportunity for some memorable moments. Athletic were everyone's adopted team, piecing together some terrific performances and earning one of the results of the knockout stages with a comprehensive defeat of Manchester United at Old Trafford. Liverpool don't have the plucky foreign underdog lovability, but they can make the most out of their involvement if they progress past Hearts.
As with Gomel, there's the risk of overlooking an opposition that's ostensibly weaker, and if that's the case Liverpool could leave themselves with too much work to accomplish next week. Hearts currently lie second in the Scottish Premier League table, earning a 2-0 win over St. Johnstone to open the season and drawing their next two matches, first against Hibernian (whom they defeated to win last season's Scottish Cup) and then with Inverness, who equalized in the 90th minute on Saturday.
Of the five goals they've scored this season, John Sutton has two--both from the penalty spot--and Andrew Driver, Arvydas Novikovas, and David Templeton have the others. Central defenders Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas led the way last season in appearances, with the former starting 40 matches and the latter leading the squad with 46. John McGlynn might not have Zaliukas tomorrow after he left early against Inverness with a dead leg, and first-choice goalkeeper Jamie McDonald might be absent for the birth of his child, which would leave the recently signed Peter Enckelman to fill in for a man who's started every match this season.
As for Liverpool:
Kelly Coates Agger Robinson
Downing Carroll Sterling
There's a fairly large contingent missing--Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Glen Johnson, and Martin Skrtel were all left out, Jose Enrique's still injured, and Oussama Assaidi is cup-tied, leaving Brendan Rodgers with some juggling to do. He spoke of the opportunity to see the kids earlier today, so odds are there'll be a few surprises throughout.
At the back it seems likely that we'll get Daniel Agger in some capacity, and I'd like for him to partner with Sebastian Coates. We can probably expect the standard catastrophe from the young Uruguayan, but he's otherwise continued to show promise as another ball-playing central defender. With Johnson out Martin Kelly is a near-lock, and if Jack Robinson is back to full fitness he should start. It's essentially the same spot Liverpool have been in since they shopped Emiliano Insua, with no cover once the lone left-back in the squad is unable to feature. Progress.
In the midfield I'm hopeful that we see both Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey, but the third piece is still unclear. Lucas doesn't seem ready to do double-dutyyet and was subbed off against West Brom, and Joe Allen played over 180 minutes in four days last week. Allen's the more fit of the duo and looks able to recover well enough, so I'd be happy with a midfield three with those names involved.
Up top, the only thing we know is that there's no Luis Suarez and there aren't many options beyond what we got at the weekend. Andy Carroll's clearly down the pecking order and might not get a run out, although I'd like to see him get a few more significant minutes than what he's seen so far. And while Fabio Borini could play a part, too, I'd rather see Raheem Sterling on the left, leaving Stewart Downing the only realistic option on the right unless Shelvey's fill-in during the preseason is a signal of things to come.
I'd be happy with a much better performance and a similar scoreline as the first Gomel fixture; Hearts are going to be better than the Belarusian side and will likely cause a more serious threat to Liverpool's chances at progress, and Liverpool will need to up their game accordingly. Even if it's the kids and squad players, there's improvement needed across the board, and the threat is that a lack of cohesion derails their approach, leading to the type of regression we saw Saturday. They can't afford that tomorrow, so hopefully we see forward movement in spite of the changing faces.
Kickoff tomorrow is set for 7:45PM BST/2:45PM EST, with television coverage on ITV4 in the UK and Fox Soccer Channel in the US. It's been helpful to have folks provide other viewing options in the comments section, so if there's anything we've omitted let us know and we'll include it in the matchday post if we can. As usual, team sheets will run around an hour before kickoff, and you can hang around the comments here or over on Twitter throughout the match. Hope to see you around.