One of the few positives of the Roy Hodgson era was that Liverpool won their Europa League group with such ease, remaining unbeaten in the process and conceding just three goals. The fact that the group contained Serie A title challengers Napoli makes it even more of an achievement and leads you to wonder how Hodgson managed to do so well in Europe whilst failing so miserably domestically.
After comfortable qualifying victories over Macedonian side Rabotnički and Turkey’s Trabzonspor the Reds advanced to the group stage where they were placed alongside the already mentioned Napoli, FC Utrecht of Holland and Romania’s Steaua Bucureşti. Qualification no longer looked a forgone conclusion after Liverpool were handed one of the trickiest draws with three potential banana skins and with Hodgson stating that Torres and Gerrard would play no part in the competition, things looked doubly tough.
But Liverpool as a club have European pedigree and experience at this level and with seasoned veterans such as Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic paired with the youth of Martin Kelly and David N’Gog, Hodgson had plenty of firepower that ultimately proved to be more than enough to help see the Reds through to the knockout stage with a record of 2 wins, 4 draws and 0 defeats.
Hodgson’s mediocre record in the group was not enough to save his job and after a series of poor results in the Premier League he was relieved of his duties and replaced by club legend Kenny Dalglish. The club has seen an instant change in fortunes with the Scotsman completely revitalising the side; turning them from relegation battlers to European contenders. Tonight’s trip to Prague will be his first European game as Liverpool manager, with Dalglish amazingly never having tested himself against the continents finest due to a ban placed on English clubs in the aftermath of Heysel.
A tactical innovator, Dalglish will surely relish the opportunity to test his skills on a bigger stage after all these years and the chance of lifting yet another trophy will surely be a big motivation for him to take the competition seriously. Despite the opportunity to lift silverware it appears Dalglish is taking a similar approach to Hodgson by not taking his best players (though injuries have dictated that) and giving youth a chance with the inclusion of 16-year old wonderkid Raheem Sterling.
Sterling earned his spot in the squad with a stunning five goal display against Southend in the Youth Cup during the week and the former QPR winger will make Liverpool history if he makes an appearance tonight, becoming the youngest man (or should we say, boy) to pull on the Red shirt.
Dalglish may not have his best team available but one major difference between his management and Hodgson’s is that Dalglish makes his entire squad feel wanted and valued, with everyone getting their chance if they train well. This approach should mean we see greater unity between the so-called reserves in Prague tonight.
Joe Cole returns from injury to make the squad for the competition in which he has seen the most success and game-time during his short and quite frankly, disappointing Liverpool career. Jamie Carragher, who returned from injury a few weeks ago, is also back in Europa League contention after a string of outstanding league performances. Steven Gerrard and Daniel Agger miss out again through injury.
So what about the opposition?
Having won the Czech championship again last season, Sparta Prague earned their place in the Champions League qualifiers only to surprisingly lose over two legs to MSK Zilina. The loss meant that Josef Chovanec’s side faced a season in the less-prestigious Europa League where they drew Palermo, CSKA Moscow and Swiss side Lausanne-Sports in what was one of the toughest groups in the competition.
Despite their European pedigree and the fact they were domestic champions, Sparta were expected to go out of their group at the expense of the better-known Rosanero and CSKA. The group certainly turned out to be competitive with Sparta beating Palermo 3-2 in the opening game, before a 3-0 loss to CSKA, a 3-3 draw and 3-1 victory in their two meetings with Lausanne and two score draws that saw them finish 2nd in group F on nine points.
Their star player in the group stage was Ivory Coast forward Wilfred Bony who struck 5 goals and got an assist in their six games. A high scoring team, Prague will be a threat at the cauldron that is the Generali Arena where they scored 7 goals to reach this stage. It’ll certainly be a tough test for the visiting side who have failed to win away from home in Europe this season. Dalglish will hope to change that when the two sides meet tonight.
This article first appeared on Matthew Kenny’s personal blog.