Lille v Liverpool, Europa League last 16, first-leg, March 11, 2010
Liverpool travel to Lille on Thursday night fresh from their chastening 1-nil defeat at the DW Stadium to Wigan earlier this week. Although Rafa Benitezâ€™s side have prioritised fourth place in the Premier League as their main ambition this season, a result here could go some way to getting their confidence back on track. (Liverpool are 3.00 to reach the Europa League final, Lille are 15.00.)
The problem for Liverpool though, are that Lille are far from being a team of chumps. (Liverpool are 1.33 to qualify the tie, Lille are 3.25.)
Lille have scored a league leading 50 goals in 27 matches this season, and at home they have won nine of their 14 league matches. Accordingly, Rudy Garcia’s side are currently fifth in Ligue 1, just four points off leaders Bordeaux, and the northern French outfit have a talented squad who can make life very difficult for Rafael Benitez’ men.
Unfortunately for the hosts, star striker Gervinho will be missing with a knee injury. Without dwelling on a talented footballer who’ll be watching from the stands though, it is a testament to Garcia’s squad that even without their top scorer Lille should pose a serious threat in the final third.
The player Liverpool will be most concerned about is Belgian youngster Eden Hazard. A 19-years-old, Hazard had 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. Should the Lille playmaker be on-song against Liverpool, the Merseysiders could yet sufferÂ toÂ another Gallic team this term.
Leading the Lille line will be Frenchman Pierre-Alain Frau, who has scored 13 goals in 30 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 Lille’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.
Turning to the Reds, after their horrible evening at Wigan on Monday night, the Merseysiders will be looking for not only a result, but also a performance to help boost confidence ahead of the difficult end to a forgettable season.
The main selection problem for the Premier Leaguers surrounds Yossi Benayoun, who picked up a knock in the defeat to the Latics last time out. Benitez is also without Maxi Rodriguez (ineligible) and Fabio Aurelio (injured) for the final sixteen clash in France, although Daniel Agger has returned from illness and is available. Glenn Johnson is also pushing for a start after his 35 minute substitute appearance at the DW Stadium.
Like a broken record, Liverpool’s central hopes for success rest on the shoulders of leading lights Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. For a variety of reasons neither player has performed anything near their best this season, but there is still just about enough time for either superstar to rewrite Liverpool’s season if they can rediscover that killer instinct once more.
For that to happen though, Liverpool will need to cure their biggest problem this season which appears to be mental rather than anything else. With rumours circulating that Javier Mascherano and Jamie Carragher could be about to leave Anfield, with Alberto Aquilani rapidly looking like one of the most expensive flops in Premier League history (although the jury is definitely still out on that issue), and with the likes of Ryan Babel and David Ngog continually failing to perform to the levels the team needs, Liverpool look like a team who are constantly questioning themselves and with their confidence shot to pieces.
On that note, a couple of tough stats for Liverpudlians to suck on. In their last 16 home European matches in all competitions, Lille have only lost once, and that was a narrow 1-nil defeat to Manchester United back in 2007-08. And, save for a 2-1 home defeat to Auxerre in their last home match, Lille have been in sparkling home form this season with having won their previous 14 matches on the spin.
Unquestionably, Liverpool have it all to prove.
101gg predicts: Lille 1 – Liverpool 1 (6.28)