Depleted Liverpool Versus Advantageous Benfica: Europa League Preview
Liverpool are set to take on Benfica at Anfield this Thursday, in the second leg of the Europa League quarter-finals.
Having lost 2-1 in the first leg at Estadio da Luz last week, struggling Liverpool face a difficult task to overturn the one-goal deficit despite having an away goal against the current Portuguese Liga leaders.
However, most Liverpool fans are optimistic that their team will make the semi-finals.
Liverpool stars Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, and Lucas Leiva have all also expressed their confidence in beating Benfica at Anfield, and book a place in this term's Europa League semi-finals.
Despite having the away goal, Liverpool are not in a good position to progress into the next phase of the competition. A defeat is a defeat, you can never be content with a defeat in the first of a two-legged encounter, especially against a tough opponent like Benfica.
Liverpool's manager Rafa Benitez will, of course, have a headache with little options from his current depleted squad to select for the starting line-up against Benfica.
Ryan Babel will not be available due to his sent off in the first leg. Emiliano Insua—Liverpool's only fit senior left-back—will also serve a one-match ban for the return leg.
Fabio Aurelio, Martin Kelly, and Martin Skrtel are still out injured, and are not expected to make the squad so soon.
Maxi Rodriguez, of course, is ineligible to play due to his involvement in European competition with Atletico Madrid in the first half of the season.
Despite indirectly expressing his regrets, Albert Riera is highly unlikely to play any part—not just for the coming match, but chances are he will not play any football at Liverpool again.
Not to mention that the likes of Jay Spearing, Stephen Darby, and Robbie Threlfall (who were all registered for the Europa League by Liverpool) will also not be available for selections, as they are all out on loans.
On the other hand, Benfica's Javier Saviola is expected to miss the encounter due to injury as well. Luisao is doubtful and may start at Anfield.
Therefore, I expect Jorge Jesus to field more or less the same Benfica team that defeated Liverpool 2-1 last week.
But the big question is, how will Liverpool's team look like?
Left-back is of course one of Rafa's biggest headaches, if not the biggest. I expect either Jamie Carragher or Glen Johnson to temporarily fill the role. I'll come back to this later on.
That means that the obvious choice for the centre-back pairing would be Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Daniel Agger, who was rested against Birmingham City yesterday.
Such line-up could well benefit the Reds, as Kyrgiakos could take on the towering Oscar Cardozo, who probably was Liverpool's biggest threat in the first leg. Apart from the two penalties the Paraguayan converted beautifully, Cardozo did miss several golden chances as well. Many would agree that had he been more clinical, Liverpool would've lost the match by a bigger margin.
Those are the chances that Liverpool have to stop Cardozo from getting in the return leg, if they are to stand any chance to progress further in the competition. And I believe that Kyrgiakos' strong physique and awareness could be the key to stop Cardozo (Benfica's best chance of getting goals) from scoring at Anfield.
As for the positioning of the two full-backs, that depends solely on how Rafa Benitez wants to stop Benfica's dangerous winger Angel di Maria. Johnson's pace could be an advantage to stop di Maria, but at the same time, Carragher's experience and awareness could be useful to stop the Argentine as well.
Next, Lucas and Mascherano are expected to sit in front of the back four, and behind skipper Steven Gerrard. Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun will play on the right and left flanks then, considering that Rafa doesn't have much option. The other alternatives are Dani Pacheco and Nabil el Zhar.
Alberto Aquilani is expected to start from the bench then, his introduction into the match will depend on the score and situation after the one-hour mark.
Fernando Torres will of course start up front. The Spaniard was substituted out rather early against Birmingham City, as a precaution. Torres was seen with a pack of ice on his knee on the bench later on, which means that Rafa was right to take Torres off.
Had Torres stayed on, he might get injured and miss out the rest of this campaign, which would be a worse scenario than the draw at St. Andrews.
David N'gog—who has just made his 50th appearance for Liverpool—will then start on the bench, and may play some part.
I expect the match between Liverpool and Benfica this Thursday to be a close one. Benfica will definitely not sit back and defend, so I expect them to play with the mentality similar to the previous leg, which would allow Liverpool to create opportunities from the breaks.
Prediction: Liverpool to win 2-0 or 2-1, or a 1-1 draw.
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