Liverpool head into this evening’s UEFA Europa League Round of 16 second-leg tie against SC Braga of Portugal knowing that winning the competition offers the best chance of competing in European competition again next season.
With one of Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City guaranteed a place in the FA Cup final, it is looking less and less likely that a finish outside the top five in the Barclays Premier League will be good enough for European qualification.
Liverpool currently sit just outside the automatic qualification places in sixth place, but are six points behind fifth-placed Tottenham Hotspur having played a game more than the North London club.
Liverpool need to beat their Portuguese opponents by two goals to progress to the quarter final stage following the disappointing 1-0 defeat in Braga last week, and the Reds boss Kenny Dalglish is aware of the importance of the game to the club’s ambitions next season: “We
Dalglish continued by stressing the importance of European competition to the club’s supporters: “We’ve got to win by two goals to maintain our European status this year. European football and this football club are synonymous. We’d love that to continue.”
Liverpool will have to improve on their below par showing last week, a fact reiterated by Dalglish: “We’d like to think we can play a lot better than we did and if we do it’s up to Braga to step up to the plate and lift their game, If they don’t they could be in a bit of trouble.”
Dalglish obviously feels that Liverpool will offer more attacking threat at Anfield than they did in Portugal. It is unlikely though that Andy Carroll will make his first start, with Liverpool more concerned with his long term fitness than risking further injury by rushing him back before he is ready.
Liverpool are definitely without Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool skipper having undertaken an operation on his groin last week. The England midfielder is expected to be out for at least a month, although Kenny Dalglish confirmed that the operation was successful and that Gerrard had already begun his recuperation.
With a passionate Anfield crowd behind them, Liverpool will be looking to grab an early goal to heap the pressure on Braga; but with Luis Suarez cup-tied, the Reds again look light in the forward areas. Dirk Kuyt is expected to start up front and Liverpool will be hoping for more creativity from Raul Meireles and Joe Cole before unleashing Carroll from the substitute’s bench.
There have been many memorable European nights at Anfield and Liverpool will be hoping that tonight provides another; otherwise a campaign of mediocrity will fizzle out leaving the Reds with nothing but domestic duties to look forward to next season.