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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Manchester City, 02.21.10

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It's off to the Eastlands for Liverpool, where fourth place awaits.

This trip to City comes at a somewhat crowded time in the fixture list, with Liverpool on their way to playing four matches in ten days. Tomorrow will mark the second game in that stretch, and at least on the surface, it's the most important. The matches against Unirea obviously have their own importance, but like the previous matches against Villa and Spurs, Liverpool have a chance to take points away from their direct challengers for the fourth spot.

And it looks to be coming at a good time for both clubs, at least from the Liverpool perspective. Outside of the loss to Arsenal at the Emirates, Liverpool have been in a fine run of form, anchored by a nearly impenetrable back line. They haven't shown the attacking verve they developed last season in their title run, but they seem to have stabilized and have been able to pop up with the vital goal when they've needed it. City's not headed in the completely opposite direction, but they have been unquestionably up and down. Starting with the loss to Everton on 16 January, they're 4-2-3 in all competitions, a stretch that has given Liverpool hope, particularly after City had rattled of four straight wins in league.

Roberto Mancini's arrival came after the first win of that stretch, and since he's settled in the squad has had its share of success, and there's the matter of extending their unbeaten home record. Damned impressive considering they've hosted Arsenal twice, in addition to both United and Chelsea. They've done it by spreading things out in attack and stretching teams with their pace, and tomorrow will see something similar, albeit with slightly different personnel.

The most notable absence for City is Carlos Tevez, and it comes under the worst possible circumstances. He'll be back in Argentina with his girlfriend and his daughter, who's apparently still in intensive care after a premature birth. You can't see an absence like this as a positive---you can only hope for the best when the health of a player's family is in jeopardy.

Outside of Tevez, who's been in inspirational form most of the season, City will also be missing the suspended Patrick Vieira, and Martin Petrov is out of contention with a knee injury. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Craig Bellamy's looking like he will feature, and prior to injury he was a terror for opposing defenses. I'm not sure how much veracity there is in the reports of a bust-up between him and Mancini, but I do know that he's got the quality to give Liverpool's defense fits.

Manchester City: Given, Taylor, Richards, Zabaleta, Onuoha, Toure, Lescott, Boyata, Garrido, Sylvinho, Bridge, Wright-Phillips, Ireland, Barry, De Jong, Ibrahim, Johnson, Bellamy, Adebayor.

On the Liverpool side, it's going to have to be another case of grinding it out and hoping that grittiness leads to goals. Rafa's placed great emphasis on the defensive aspect of Liverpool's game in the past few weeks, with only one goal conceded in their last six. Initially it was the play of Sotirios Kyrgiakos that seemed to revive Liverpool in defense, but more recently a rotating cast of characters has continued to stifle opposing attackers. The lone goal, Abou Diaby's at Arsenal, came on a complete breakdown, and outside of that we've seen Liverpool's defense make few mistakes. And should mistakes be made, there's always Pepe Reina, who's continued his player of the year form between the sticks.

In front of the back line there haven't been many surprises, and I don't expect tomorrow to be much different. Rafa has promised that Liverpool will come to attack, but without a bevy of true-attack minded players it's hard to see Liverpool pouring in the goals. David Ngog has been relatively inconsistent up top, where he's traded off appearances with Dirk Kuyt, but on the whole you have to say he's improving. It's a hell of a big ask for him to fill in for one of the best strikers in the world at the age of 20, especially in a side that had trouble creating before the aforementioned striker went out through injury. But the play of Ryan Babel recently causes some questions for Rafa Benitez---I doubt the Dutchman will start but he's been a spirited option off the bench, and provides a much-needed attacking presence. His single-mindedness came across as selfish and immature when Liverpool were flying high, but at this point it's almost impressive. In such a down season, it's hard to tell up from down.

And on the injury front, Liverpool are still missing that striker, Fernando Torres, as well as Glen Johnson and potentially Yossi Benayoun. The latter will apparently be a game-time decision, but with Rafa's track record I'd be very surprised to see him feature from the start after an extended spell in the stands. Outside of those three names, the club's official injury list is looking less and less crowded, and the only other absence of note is Kyrgiakos, who will serve the second of his three-match ban.

Liverpool: Reina, Skrtel, Agger, Carragher, Insua, Gerrard, Lucas, Aquilani, Rodriguez, Riera, Benayoun, Ngog, Kuyt, Cavalieri, Pacheco, Spearing, Babel, Aurelio, Degen.

It feels redundant to continually close match previews with the sentiment that the coming match is crucial, but with the season rapidly winding down and Liverpool still in a precarious position, it's never been truer. They'll need to piece together everything they've done well recently to get the result they need, so let's hope they find a way.

Matchday thread and stream links tomorrow morning, in the meantime, hope you all have a nice Saturday.