Poll: Best Eleven or Fringe and Youth? Who Starts the Cups?

jamie carragher captain cup

It seems as though every week we say it all over again: The next three games could decide whether Liverpool have a chance of making this at times infuriatingly uneven season a successful one in the end. And this time around we mean it. At least as long as Liverpool come out with three wins signifying advancement to the FA Cup quarter-finals, their first trophy in six years, and victory over a rival for fourth that could conceivably see them one point out of a Champions League spot.

If they don't manage three wins in the next three games I'm sure we'll manage to call a later stretch the most important of the season and integral to any chances of calling it a success. But until then, this is when Liverpool get to show if they can finally turn things around and put their struggles behind them. Though given that two of those next three games are against lower league competition in the FA and League Cup, there's still some reason to wonder just who will be lining up for Liverpool come this weekend and the next.

The reality is that England's cup competitions are often seen as chances to give playing time to those who might not start were it an important league match, but does Kenny Dalglish have room to play anything but his best eleven in each and every game from here to the end of the season? Is there any room next weekend at Wembley for sentiment and giving Jamie Carragher what could end up being his last important start for the club he's spent his career at? Is there room against Brighton to give Daniel Agger or Martin Skrtel the week off in favour of youth development and allowing the likes of Sebastian Coates a major role? And is there even room for Dalglish to give a misfiring player like Stewart Downing another chance to find his feet when he may not give the club its best chance to win?

Without European football, February represents one of the club's least strenuous mid-season months of the past decade. That means that if there's a real desire to succeed in all competitions, Dalglish has the freedom to play his strongest side with no need to consider fitness or late-season burnout. In fact, it might even be best for the club's league prospects if those who will be counted on most to make the drive for fourth are given a taste of glory in the cup competitions.

Beyond the simple need to win the games, with only four matches in the entire month of February there's an argument to be made that playing youth, fringe, or under-performing players could backfire in less obvious ways. After all, that it would take a near-title winning run of form in the league to make it into the top four seems almost certain, and giving players who will be counted on to make that happen a week or two off when games are sparse could actually lead to them being rusty instead of rested when league action returns.

On the other hand, it's difficult to entirely dismiss the prevailing wisdom that says the League and FA Cup are suited to blooding youngsters, giving veterans one last hurrah, and tinkering with players and approaches that haven't quite worked in the hopes that if they can find success it will only make the club stronger in the league.

Stewart Downing might not be the best man to get the job done against Brighton on current form, but if the manager believes he can still come good then a chance to do so would only help the club in March, April, and May. And neither Sebastian Coates nor Jamie Carragher might be the first choices to start at centre back once it's time to face Arsenal or Everton with three points on the line, but giving one an extra game for experience or the other some action to help keep in match shape could end up crucial to success should a starter stumble down the stretch.

And after all, doesn't Jamie Carragher deserve a start at Wembley for all his years of loyal service to the club? When you consider that it could make him sharper should he be needed for a league match in March, that only makes any argument to start him more convincing. And surely Stewart Downing must have some potential worth to the club to have convinced Dalglish and Damien Comolli that he was worth £20M. If he starts and scores a brace against Brighton, it can only help Liverpool's chances of pipping Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle for fourth.

On the surface it might seem a fairly easy choice: Winning every match right now is all that matters, and there's enough downtime between games to make rotation redundant. But even with that in mind there are legitimate arguments for giving game time to players who most fans wouldn't want to see on the pitch were it a league match. And so for this week, we want to know what you would do in the coming cup ties.

Would you start the best players available for both games, approaching them as though they were important league or Champions League matches at a time when fitness wasn't an issue? Would you mix a small number of veterans, youth, and fringe players in amongst whatever you consider the best eleven for each game? Or would you play your best eleven in one match and in the other deploy a squad that relies heavily on less regular options? Give us your vote and let us know any details in the comments section.

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