The Europa League is proving no sanctuary for Liverpool, a side so short on confidence that their goal-scoring legend Ian Rush suggested yesterday that unless they lift their spirits they might struggle to finish in the top six of the Premier League, let alone one of next season's Champions League places.
There would be a welcome financial bonus if they can progress beyond this last 16 stage: the club calculated when eliminated from the Champions League that three rounds of Europa League football would allow them to achieve the level of European earnings for which they had budgeted this season. But the conundrum for the Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, is how to pick up a side which was back to full strength against Wigan Athletic in the Premier League on Monday and yet still so dismal in losing 1-0.
Fernando Torres demonstrated that he cannot simply return to the side and click each time and his continental goalscoring record away from home defies the simplistic logic that he is always their talisman. Torres has not found the net for Liverpool in Europe since the sixth-minute strike at home to Chelsea in the Champions League last April. Liverpool have never looked comfortable in European competition since.
There are potentially plenty of tough challenges beyond the last 16 – Anderlecht, Juventus and Valencia are other former winners of the Uefa Cup who are through to this stage – but Lille, tonight's opponents in the first leg, are quite enough to contend with in the short term, with Benitez declaring that his players should now "approach every game thinking it is the most important game of the season." Les Dogues – "the Mastiffs" – threaten to be precisely what their nickname suggests.
Currently lying fifth in Ligue 1, just four points behind the leaders Bordeaux, they have lost seven matches this season – which is two fewer than Liverpool. They have also developed a genuine attacking flair now that Rudi Garcia has succeeded Claude Puel as coach. Ludovic Obraniak, Pierre-Alain Frau and Eden Hazar all have pace and Benitez has cause to fear for a defence which has not coped well with that property this season.
Lille have also lost only one of their last 16 European home games, though the consolations for Benitez are that Daniel Agger is expected to be back while the Ivorian Yao Gervinho, Lille's top goalscorer, should be missing. Yossi Benayoun missed training yesterday and is a doubt, having left the field at Wigan with an ankle injury.
Lille (possible 4-4-2): Landrou; Beria, Rami, Conceicao, Chedjou; Obraniak, Dumont, Hazard, Balmont; Frau, Aubameyang.
Liverpool (possible 4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Babel, Gerrard, Benayoun; NgogReuse content