Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool climbed to the top of their Europa League group after recording a 1-0 victory over Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala at Anfield on Thursday night. The Reds’ boss surprised many by selecting a strong starting eleven to face Guus Hiddink’s expensively-assembled team, with the likes of Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel risked despite the upcoming Premier League clash against bitter rivals Everton.
Of all those players, Suarez’s inclusion was the most intriguing. The talented Uruguayan is Rodgers’ only fit and available striker, therefore some supporters thought that the manager would instead opt to field a younger forward such as Samed Yesil or Adam Morgan. Fortunately for Liverpool, Suarez got through the game without picking up an injury – whether he will continue to do so until January remains to be seen.
By selecting a strong team, Rodgers made it clear that he feels the Europa League is an important competition for the Reds this season. The Merseysiders’ priority is to claim a place in the Champions League by finishing in the top-four of the Premier League come the end of the season, but not only will remaining in the other competitions allow the team to gain momentum at various points of the campaign, it will also give Rodgers a chance to take a good look at his fringe players.
Take Stewart Downing as an example. The experienced winger, signed by Kenny Dalglish from Aston Villa in the summer of 2011, has fallen behind Raheem Sterling and Spanish starlet Suso in the pecking order at Anfield. However, competitions such as the Europa League and the Capital One Cup provide him with an opportunity to impress the manager and to try and work his way back into the first-team for Premier League fixtures. After switching to left-back at the half-way point against Anzhi, Downing scampered forward in the 53rd minute, cut inside and sent an unstoppable shot into the back of the net. That tremendous goal will have given his confidence a boost and planted a seed in Rodgers’ mind ahead of a tough schedule.
Whether Downing has done enough to claim a place in the team for the highly-anticipated Merseyside derby remains to be seen. Both Sterling and Suso have impressed in recent top-flight games, while another competitor in the wide positions, Oussama Assaidi, had a good game himself against the Russians. The two wingers’ performances against Anzhi will give Rodgers a welcome selection headache.
A win over Everton on Sunday would cap off a tremendous week for the Reds and would prove Rodgers right over his team selection on Thursday. However, a loss would see Liverpool fall nine points behind their rivals. The important clash comes at a crucial time for the Anfield outfit. The fans will be hoping that Suarez and Gerrard are not too tired from their midweek exploits.
See what the expert tipsters at OLBG are tipping on Everton