By Christopher Boulay
Liverpool returns to Europe after one season’s absence in the third qualifying round of the Europa League, where it must get past F.C. Gomel of Belarus.The two-legged affair will take place on August 2nd and August 9th, and these fixtures are the first two competitive matches for Brendan Rodgers since he was hired in June. Pressure will be not only on Rodgers, but also the squad, as advancement to the group stage is the goal. An aggregate win here would put Liverpool within 180 minutes of that achievement, as the side would have to play and additional two legs to reach to the play-off round.
The squad has already traveled to Belarus, but is without Craig Bellamy, Sebastian Coates and Luis Suarez due to participation in the Olympics. In addition, a third forward will miss the first leg, as Andy Carroll remained in Liverpool to deal with a groin issue. No doubt remaining in England has helped fuel rumors that he is on his way out of the club.
While Pepe Reina is back, he may not be match ready. This could very well leave the door open for Australian international Brad Jones to play as shot-stopper. With the thin and inexperienced squad available, it may be difficult for Rodgers to put out a side that could overwhelm the Belarussians.
Gomel won’t be easy competition. Not only did the club finish third in the domestic league, but it won the 2011 Belarussian Cup, as well as the 2012 Belarussian Super Cup. Gomel has experienced an interesting ride during qualifying. It began the tournament against Faroe Islands club Vikingur, but the Belarussian squad brushed their opponents aside 10-0 on aggregate.
The club then played Macedonia’s FK Renova where it had to hold onto a 2-1 aggregate victory.
Liverpool must play strong in the away leg if it wants to take as few risks as possible next week, and an away goal in Belarus may be critical, especially if the offensive attack is considered to be makeshift.
The winner of the tie will enter the playoff round pot, and whichever club wins, it will learn of its fate in that round on August 10th. Furthermore, those matches take place from August 23rd – 30th, before the group stage draw on the final day of the month.
Gomel v Liverpool
When: Thursday, August 2, 1400 EST/1900 GMT
Where: Central Stadion, Gomel, Belarus
League Position 2011-12: Liverpool eighth in EPL 2011-12 (52 points), Gomel third in Belarussian Premier League 2011 (54 points)
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