Liverpool v Lille, Europa League last 16, second-leg, March 18, 2010
It is probably too far to stretch it by claiming that Liverpool’s next two matches have the potential of redefining their season. First up on Thursday night is the arrival of Lille in the Europa League, followed by a meeting against their old adversary Manchester United on Sunday at Old Trafford.
Looking to end the season on a high which has been lacking for the majority of the campaign, the Reds will head into their second leg with Lille with an uncharacteristic gentle spring in their step this week. Monday night’s swashbuckling 4-1 victory over Portsmouth was up there with Liverpool’s finest attacking displays of the season. Their devastating six minute spell in the first half in which they crashed home three goals to kill the match before the interval was a real confidence booster, in which the Merseysiders passing was top-notch and the team’s morale appeared to be visibly growing on the pitch.
Such a shot in the arm could scarcely have arrived at a better time.
Eden Hazard’s late free-kick handed Lille a slender advantage after their first leg, leaving Liverpool to walk a tightrope knowing that should they concede an away goal at Anfield, then the Reds will need to score three to book a place in the Europa League’s last eight. (Liverpool are 3.75 to reach the Europa League final, and 7.50 to win the competition outright.)
Benitez will be forced into at least one change. Maxi Rodriguez is ineligible for European competition, and his place on the right of midfield is likely to go to either Dirk Kuyt or Yossi Benayoun, both of whom were rested as the Reds ran riot against Pompey.
Liverpool’s midfield may be shaken up further as, after netting his first goal since arriving at Liverpool last summer against Pompey, Alberto Aquilani could also be forced to watch from the sidelines with news that the Italian has been struck down with a virus. In Aquilani’s absence, Lucas Leiva will likely step into the breach.
Elsewhere, there is little selection news report. Martin Skrtel (foot) and Fabio Aurelio (thigh) will be out until at least next month. And although Javier Mascherano was limping towards the end of the Portsmouth match, manager Rafa Benitez has since dispelled fears that the Argentine picked up a serious knock. Liverpool’s defence, with Glen Johnson having returned to fitness, picks itself, as does the Reds’ attack which will be spearheaded by captain Steven Gerrard and Spanish super-striker Fernando Torres.
Liverpool, though, are unlikely to find Lille an easy team to turn over. After beating Grenoble 1-nil last weekend in Ligue 1, Rudy Garciaâ€™s men are currently fourth in the French top flight, where they now have real ambitions of upsetting the odds to steal the title from under the noses of Bordeaux, Lyon and Marseille.
Lille will also undoubtedly pose a threat to the Scouse backline, being the top scorers in Ligue 1 with 51 goals in 28 matches this season. Unfortunately for the visitors though, star striker Gervinho will be missing with a knee injury, however having only failed to score in four matches this season the Ivorians’ absence should be managed by the Frenchmen. (1.94 to be over 2.5 goals, 1.81 to be under.)
The player Liverpool will be most concerned about is Belgian youngster Eden Hazard. A 19-years-old and having scored the winner in the first leg, Hazard has already forged himself a reputation to strike fear into the Scousers, being one of the most highly-sought after players of his generation. With his low centre of gravity, excellent technique and pace to burn, it would not be a stretch to place Hazard in the top bracket of players plying their trade in Ligue 1 this season.
Leading the Lille line will be Frenchman Pierre-Alain Frau, who has scored 13 goals in 31 appearances this season and is in the midst of his most productive season for some time. Alongside Frau, Polish winger Ludovic Obraniak, with five goals and four assists this term, will also look to join in the attacks from high on the left-hand side.
Looking more broadly around the Lille team, tough tackling Rio Mavuba will be employed as Lilleâ€™s enforcer in the middle of the park, while at the back Adil Rami, the giant centre-half, will not only prove himself robust in a defensive sense, but with three goals already this season he can also pose a threat from set-pieces at the other end of the pitch.
While Liverpool may be confident of claiming a win over Lille in front of the Kop, the bigger question will be whether they can shut out Lille to win the tie on aggregate. On that note the Liverpudlians have reasons to be slightly concerned as Lille have managed to score in every single away trip in the competition so far this season, and so a tense night of nail-biting may be in store on Thursday.
101gg predicts: Liverpool 2 – Lille 0 (6.47)