In my second week back in England, and I will be heading back to Anfield tonight.
I arrived back in the North after a few days down south to find the heavens are emptying themselves all over the streets, houses and fields here. Grey clouds are hanging low over the land, pregnant with North-West water, sucked up from the Irish Sea. The weather forecast says “intermittent drizzle” while the news reports are forecasting extra Police on duty to watch out for supposed hordes of Italian knife carriers… I am more concerned about the constant November Rain in these parts.
I have been going to Anfield since the 1980’s and in all honesty I have never seen a single fight or even cross word between rival fans (apart from an Everton fan after another derby victory for the Reds who, a mile from the stadium, who snarled while walking past my friend and I, “I hope your kids are blind”). The isolated incidents that took place in Napoli for the first game were precisely that, isolated incidents. If there is any comeback tonight I would be surprised. There is greater chance of contracting pneumonia.
On the field it looks like there will be a few changes for Liverpool from the team that has managed to scrape a couple of wins on the bounce in the Premier League. Joe Cole is out and Liverpool’s main goal threat Sotirios Kyrgiakos is unlikely to be risked. Add that to the long term casualties of Dirk Kuyt, Fabio Aurelio, Daniel Agger and someone called Ryan Babel, whatever he does, and Liverpool are missing some good players. Glen Johnson may be in line to make a comeback from a bout of injury, he had a serious case of inability-to-defend, reports are saying he will never make a full recovery.
With those players out we can expect to see some of the young players, and Christian Poulsen, getting a game tonight. I hope that among them is Martin Kelly, a far better right-back than Johnson, and the improving David N’Gog. Possibly with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard starting on the bench.
While Liverpool’s first 11 is uncertain about it’s own quality, Napoli’s contains some real class. In particular I am excited to see Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani. Lavezzi is known more as a playmaker but is fresh from scoring a late winner against Brescia this Sunday, and the only Napoli goal in a 1-2 loss to AC Milan the week before. Slovakian Hamsik is well-known to most fans of Italian football, and is one the hottest properties on the continent, and for no other reason than he is playing against a Premier League team this week there is a sudden suspicious flood of rumours of him moving to England in the near future. Uruguay-born Cavani is the second highest scorer in Serie A this season with 6 goals. One of the most interesting things about Napoli is their formation. Often they line up in a 3-4-3, that can change to 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1, the unusual thing is the 3-man backline. As Zonal Marking describes here much better than I could, when they are facing a 1 man attack they can struggle to get forward in sufficient numbers. This makes it easy for the opposing team to keep possession, even if they have 0/6-Poulsen in midfield. At home though Liverpool should be more attacking, if Gerrard isn’t starting I would expect most of this to come down the wings, which will probably feature Milan Jovanovic on the left and Maxi Rodriguez on the right. Maxi played pretty well against Blackburn and scored the winner against Bolton, and it looks like we might finally be starting to see the best of the former Atletico Madrid man. He is certainly in the running for the most-improved-player-so-far award, if such a thing exists. I expect him to find space on the right flank, and hopefully build on quality performances in his last two games.
Napoli are in fifth position in the Italian league at the moment, and have only lost twice. Oddly enough both their losses came at home whilst on their travels they won three and drawn two. In the Europa League they have three draws so far, including the 0-0 bore draw against a weak Liverpool team. A win at Anfield is by no means beyond their reach and would go a long way to help secure their progress to the next round.
As for Liverpool, a win would virtually see them through to the next stage of the Europa League and would a confidence booster ahead of the certain pasting that Chelsea will hand them on Sunday.
The rain seems to be easing up a little bit, as do the dark clouds that were hanging over Anfield for most of this season. Tom Hicks and his ventriloquist’s dummy, George (Gillett), have now left, and the quiet, sensible John W Henry has replaced them. Henry hasn’t done a lot yet, at least not publicly, but he hasn’t put a foot wrong. The appointment of Damien Comolli is a step in the right direction. Even if it only means that we now have a transfer policy, it will be a massive improvement on the haphazard, cobbled together approach of the last few years. Tonight should also be the first home game Henry will attend. Whether this will any influence on the players is unlikely but hopefully they will put in a good performance to welcome the new man.
I am hoping for a good game, dry seats and a few goals for the Reds.