Finally. After two long weeks, we're finally back to Liverpool. It's admittedly not the inspiring prospect in the world, watching Liverpool play out a season in which they've got little left to play for, but at this point any sort of Liverpool is better than a few weeks without.
The season's last few weeks won't be packed by any measure--only one game a week for a club that narrowly missed out on progression in the Europa League and faltered so badly at Oldham in the FA Cup, leaving the Premier League campaign as the only chance to see Liverpool in action. With chances at European qualification hanging on by a thread, the primary goal will be to develop consistency; it's a moral victory at best if they do achieve it, and the hope will be that any sort of positive run can be maintained into and across the summer months, and that any changes in the squad during the transfer window only serve to make Liverpool stronger on a regular basis.
Tomorrow's opponent's will serve as a stark reminder of Liverpool's failures to produce quality performances week-in, week-out, as Aston Villa laid Liverpool bare at Anfield back in December just six days after the wonderful fight-back at West Ham. It's up and down for Paul Lambert's young squad as well, who are still hovering above the relegation zone, boosted by two straight wins over fellow relegation struggles Reading and QPR. They've been much, much better since January, playing Arsenal and Manchester City close and drawing at Everton (which they gave away), which has to have Lambert feeling good about their chances to stay up.
He'll have to wait to see if Ciaran Clark and Brett Holman are available after injuries on international duty, but they'll have Fabian Delph, Darren Bent, Nathan Baker, and Karim El Ahmadi back and available for selection. Lambert's started the same eleven in their last two wins, with Clark and Baker hopefully back to continue in the eleven, and the primary focus of late has been on the form of American Brad Guzan in goal and Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann in attack. Gaby Agbonlahor and Barry Bannan have been regulars as well, with Agbonlahor leveling the score against QPR before Weimann put them ahead and Benteke got the winner.
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Downing Suarez Coutinho
Per Brendan Rodgers' injury update the other day, Liverpool shouldn't have any surprises in terms of fitness--Joe Allen, Fabio Borini, and Martin Kelly will all miss out as expected, but questions about the fitness of Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson, and Jamie Carragher should be settled. Usual concerns about fitness after the long international break do linger, though.
With Reina and Carragher back and Johnson in the clear, it should be a return to normal service in defense. Brad Jones did well against Southampton, but Martin Skrtel was rusty and out of sorts, and neither will be keeping anyone out of the eleven. Reina will return, as will Carragher alongside Daniel Agger, and Johnson and Jose Enrique should fill the fullback slots.
Lucas had the international break off and should be fresh, while Steven Gerrard spent only 90-odd minutes in action at Montenegro on Tuesday. They'll play their usual roles in central midfield, which means that they'll either be joined by Jordan Henderson (pleasepleasepleaseplease) or go it alone, a strategy that Rodgers has opted for more recently with varied success.
The front four crowds out the potential for a third midfielder, as the apparent need to include each of Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suarez, and Daniel Sturridge doesn't allow for more numbers in the midfield. I can't see Rodgers changing up the personnel here, even though I'd probably prefer to see Sturridge start on the bench with Henderson just ahead of Gerrard and Lucas, Coutinho on the left, Suarez up top, and Stewart Downing continuing on the right flank.
Kickoff tomorrow is set for 12:30PM GMT/8:30AM EST, with Fox Soccer Channel carrying coverage in the US and Sky Sports 1 airing the match live in the UK. We'll be getting back to coverage as usual, with the overnight open thread and matchday post leading us into kickoff. Hopefully all the regulars will be back around after the long break, and hopefully Liverpool will kick off the season's final stretch on a positive note.