After securing their first league win of the season in emphatic fashion against Norwich last weekend, Brendan Rodgers is likely to keep his trust in Liverpool’s youngsters who have impressed so far this season as they face Udinese in the Europa League. The Reds’ ‘second string’ have won every game they’ve played in the cups, so will be full of confidence as they get their chance to impress at Anfield for the first time this season as they look to extend their lead at the top of Group A.
They face an Udinese side who have only won one game all season – a 2-1 win over Milan, who ended the game with nine men – and are feeling the effects of seeing practically an entire starting eleven depart the club – often to their direct rivals - over the past two seasons: Samir Handanovic, Cristian Zapata, Mauricio Isla, Gokhan Inler, Simone Pepe, Kwadwo Asamoah and Alexis Sanchez, which is the core of an excellent side, all left the Friuli for an estimated €100m, and the squad is suffering from a distinct lack of genuine quality.
Despite losing most of their best players, Francesco Guidolin’s side Udinese amazingly beat the odds and finished third last season (they finished fourth the season before with a better squad) qualifying for the Champions League, only to fall at the playoff stages for the second successive season when the group stage – and the big payday that comes with it - was within touching distance. The chances of them getting the same chance next year looks extremely unlikely, but their tremendous achievements should not be overlooked.
Pablo Armero, the left wing-back, is strong, quick and direct, and should he play will give Andre Wisdom a tough test.
The Zebrette’s main threat will be their evergreen, talismanic striker, Antonio Di Natale, who is likely to return to the starting line-up after being dropped from the squad for the weekend’s 0-0 draw with Genoa after a row with an unnamed teammate. Serie A’s Capocannoniere (top scorer) for the 09/10 and 10/11 seasons has stayed loyal to Udinese for nearly a decade despite a plethora of more financially rewarding offers to move elsewhere to more successful, glamorous clubs, and having scored just short of a 100 goals over the past three seasons Sebastian Coates and Jamie Carragher will have to be at their best to keep him quiet.
They have other players who will threaten Liverpool, too, particularly with their pace on the counter attack. Pablo Armero, the left wing-back, is strong, quick and direct, and should he play will give Andre Wisdom a tough test. Luis Muriel, Roberto Pereyra and Maicosuel are a trio of South American attackers who are quick and talented dribblers and if they play will constantly look to run at the defence and target the immobility of Liverpool’s two centre-backs, and their lack of a natural holding midfielder, as weaknesses to exploit.
They are solid at the back and play three solid, technical defenders, with Mehdi Banatia, who has been linked with Liverpool in the past, the pick of the bunch. Behind them, Zeljko Brkic has proven himself to be a very good shot stopper. It will be a good test for Liverpool on both sides of the ball going up against an unfamiliar system, and the sternest test yet for the youngsters who have broken in to the side this season.
They are solid at the back and play three solid, technical defenders, with Mehdi Banatia, who has been linked with Liverpool in the past, the pick of the bunch.
Udinese’s main problem, which should play in to Liverpool’s hands, is their lack of quality in the centre of midfield and their subsequent inability to maintain possession and build an attack through the midfield. Too often Di Natale is isolated up front as is forced to battle for long balls, which is no good for a player of his ilk. They look to break with pace on the counter, which is where the Reds have struggled this season, so this will come down to which team can execute their plan more effectively.
Much depends on how seriously Guidolin takes the match. Italian clubs, much like their English counterparts, are generally ambivalent towards the Europa League and use it to give fringe players and youngsters their chance to impress, which is part of the reason why Serie A’s UEFA coefficient has declined over recent years; it is now way short of La Liga, the Premiership and the Bundesliga, and just ahead of Ligue 1 and the Primeira Liga, and Italian clubs in the Champions League have failed to maintain success like the Spanish and English clubs have. Having played 7 games in 21 days it is likely changes will be made, but it is likely a few of their key players will feature.
Rodgers has so far found the right balance between experience and youth in the cup games, but this game, and then the upcoming double header against Anzhi Makhachkala, will prove to be much more difficult fixtures than any Liverpool have played this season. Irrespective of the results the experience will be extremely beneficial for the young players, but he will be hoping to progress further in the competition, and should be wary of underestimating two sides packed full of quality and experience.
You can follow Alex on twitter @woolfc
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