As Liverpool send a shadow squad over to Russia to face Anzhi Makhachkala in the Europa League, Brendan Rodgers will get another chance to look his worst managerial nightmare right in the face (and I’m not talking about having to play Joe Cole).
With Luis Suarez certain to be left at home and wrapped in cotton wool alongside a host of other first-team regulars, Rodgers will once again have to see his side play without their mercurial forward and he must privately fear grave consequences if Suarez is injured or suspended for any period of time.
For all of his theatrics and less palatable traits, Suarez is a class act when concentrating on his football and this season he has been sensational. All those who doubted his ability to score goals on a regular basis are starting to look foolish, with the Uruguayan now up to 11 goals for club and country this season (seven in ten Premier League games), but it is a good job as far as Liverpool are concerned.
His goal against Newcastle United at Anfield on Sunday was out of this world, but as well as basking in its glory, Rodgers must go to bed at night and pray to God that nothing happens to Suarez because Liverpool would be royally screwed if it did.
With no other available senior strikers (if indeed you class the injured Fabio Borini as a striker), Liverpool are wholly reliant on Suarez until January at the earliest and such is the paucity of the Merseysiders’ squad that should Suarez get injured, they are bottom-six fodder and no better.
Considering that the Europa League is nothing but an inconvenience for a squad that can barely cope with its domestic programme, Suarez, alongside captain Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Raheem Sterling and the fit-again Glen Johnson will have no place on the flight to Russia as Liverpool attempt to keep a laboured but decent enough continental campaign on track.
Rodgers’ side lead Group A on six points, two ahead of Thursday’s opponents and Italian side Udinese in what looks like a three-way battle to get into the last 128 or however many teams are in the knock-out stages.
Liverpool were the better side when Anzhi visited Anfield a fortnight ago as the Russians flattered to deceive, but on home turf – well, the ‘neutral’ turf of Moscow, to be precise – I think it could be a different story entirely for Guus Hiddink’s men and it is no shock to see them chalked up as favourites. Makhachkala are 39/50 with bwin, with the draw at 5/2 and the away side 7/2, and I think this could be a difficult night for Liverpool’s makeshift side.
The Reds’ shadow team were woeful in losing 3-1 to Swansea at Anfield in the Capital One Cup – even when Suarez and Gerrard were summoned from the bench in a desperate attempt to salvage the match – and I don’t see them faring much better on Thursday.
When the season started, Rodgers would have envisaged Sterling and Suso playing in these type of games to gain experience, but with any youngster deemed promising fast-tracked to the first team, Liverpool’s second string is now full of the not-quite-as-talented young players and senior reserves the club are actively looking to move on in January (Stewart Downing, I’m looking at you).
The expenditure of Anzhi owner Suleyman Kerimov easily dwarfs the budget Rodgers has had to wheel and deal with, especially when it comes to wages, with Samuel Eto’o reportedly the highest paid player in the world, and at full strength they should have too much on home soil for a misfit Reds side.
Anzhi are top of the Russian Premier League, they look good to win a first top-flight title of their short history and at home they have been impenetrable. Twelve of their 13 home games in all competitions have resulted in victories and they can get another one on Thursday.
Hiddink’s men do give their opponents a chance, though, and they have only kept four clean sheets at home all year. With that in mind, I think Liverpool will get on the scoresheet in a home win and I like the 15/4 the match finishes 2-1, 3-1 or 4-1 to Anzhi.
Punters registering with bwin can claim a free £20 bet and placing this on Anzhi to win by one of those three scorelines would return a cool £95 if successful.
For all their problems scoring goals, Liverpool have only actually failed to find the net once in their last 12 games (at home to Stoke), so they can get a goal – it’s just that I expect Anzhi to get more.
Four of Anzhi’s last five home games have finished either 2-1, 3-1 or 4-1 and it can happen again at 15/4.