It’s trips to far flung parts of Europe that makes the Europa League extra frustrating and especially gruelling, but Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has named a strong side as he goes looking for the Reds first win in the competition and a much needed bump in the Group B table.
Visiting Russia is never easy, but the the Anfield outfit have travelled in good spirits; coming off the back of a 3-1 win over Chelsea at the weekend, Klopp’s men are looking like a side vastly different to the one that played out a 1-1 draw with Rubin Kazan late last month. Bolstered by the never say die attitude of the German boss, the Reds came from behind to put three unanswered goals past Blues ‘keeper Asmir Begovic — a scenario that would be absolutely unthinkable at the start of the season.
Too bad we didn’t have that boost of confidence ahead of the last leg; playing against 10-men for almost 50-minutes following the dismissal of Oleg Kuzmin for a second bookable offence in the closing stages of the first half, Liverpool midfielder Emre Can cancelled out Marko Devic’s earlier goal before the defender could even get down the tunnel, but they couldn’t make their advantage truly count with the Russian’s hanging on for a memorable and wholly deserved draw.
“It’s not always the biggest advantage to play 11 against 10 and Rubin Kazan did well on that evening, of course. As I remember, we had our chances and the best moments from Kazan were for sure in the first half when they were 11 against 11. It’s not a problem, it’s football,” said Klopp, ploughing a familiar furrow in his pre-match interview. “We know that it’s pretty hard tomorrow so that’s why we are here, that’s why for us the Europa League is a very, very big challenge because all of these teams in this tournament have their targets,” he continued, before adding, “But we have our targets and that’s the only thing I’m interested in.”
While the German boss has named young midfielders Pedro Chirivella and Cameron Brannagan, as well as back-up goalkeeper Ryan Fulton in the squad, he’s all but eschewed the rotation policy of former boss Brendan Rodgers with a number of notable faces from the first team making the trip to Tatarstan. After netting the winner against Chelsea on Saturday, Christian Benteke could well lead the line for the Reds while Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Joe Allen could all join him in the starting eleven.
Second from the bottom in the group and sitting five points behind leaders FC Sion, Valeri Chaly’s boys need a win on Thursday if they want to have a realistic chance of going through to the knock-out round. While that might be easier said that done, one can’t discount the advantage that comes with playing at home or that they remain unbeaten thus far at the brand new Kazan Stadium. The Russian’s proved themselves to be a tough nut to crack during the first leg at Anfield, but they’ve have to do without Kuzim who is serving a suspension for getting sent off a fortnight ago.
Not too far off the bottom of the Russian Football Premier League table, Kazan’s domestic fortunes aren’t looking much better than their European ones, but they’ll be squaring up to the Reds coming off a narrow 2-1 win over relegation bound Anzhi Makhachkala on Sunday. Devic, who remains their main threat in front of the net, scored twice within the span of two minutes with attacking midfielder Carlos Eduardo picking up an assist for the Ukrainian’s second to give Chaly’s side a comfortable first half lead. Ilya Maksimov pulled one back just past the hour mark during a tense second half, but the Tartars hung on to claim a much needed win.
While anything but a victory on Thursday will almost certainly rule Kazan out of making it to the next round, the Reds spot the knock-out stages isn’t exactly a sure thing. After drawing our opening three matches, we’re hardly setting the Europa League alight — something that needs to change as soon as possible. Having Klopp name a full strength squad will add an extra sense of menace to proceedings prior to kick-off, but it’s up to the boys to go out there and win it. Enough of this nice guy football; time to get down to business.