Liverpool welcome Manchester United to Anfield in the first match back from the international break, with the Reds looking to continue their string of recent successes against Alex Ferguson's side. The hosts have won each of the last three meetings on Merseyside, and with a win tomorrow they could climb within three points of the current leaders.
Somewhat removed from the last round of fixtures, but both clubs are coming off 2-0 victories, neither of which were particularly overwhelming. United had a bit of a struggle getting past Norwich, who had their own share of chances to either take the lead or draw level. Liverpool's win in the derby didn't bowl anyone over either, and the "win's a win" perspective didn't hold much traction with those on the outside looking in. But it was a second consecutive win after two tough losses, and Kenny Dalglish's side .
United's form has been well publicized, as their narrow opening day win over West Brom gave way to a goalscoring barrage, highlighted by the shocking 8-2 win against Arsenal. They've more or less been going blow-for-blow with City for much of the season---both have won six and drawn an away match, and they're only separated by one on goal differential. The two goals United conceded against Arsenal were the most they've let in this season; they've surrendered only two in three away matches, one of which came in the 1-1 draw at Stoke a few weeks back.
They won't have too many fitness concerns, with only Tom Cleverly and Rafael out through injury. Nemanja Vidic is apparently in charge of whether or not he'll feature, and Chris Smalling is likely to be back after a groin injury. Anders Lindegaard started in the win over Norwich in front of David De Gea, but I'm guessing the latter will start behind a back line of Smalling, Phil Jones, Vidic, and Patrice Evra. Anderson has emerged this season as a regular starter in central midfield---along with Nani, he's the only one to start all seven of the squad's matches. Their threat wide typically comes by way of Nani and Ashley Young (who was left out of the Norwich match completely), and up top Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez have seen the most action, with Danny Welbeck getting regular time as well.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Kuyt Gerrard Downing
---For maybe the first time I can remember since I've been doing the blog, Liverpool don't have anyone on the injury list. That could turn out to be bunk, and there's going to be some worries about those coming back from international duty, but it's an encouraging prospect. Or, discouraging to acknowledge that in nearly every match in four seasons, someone's been out. Usually it was Fabio Aurelio.
---That makes predicting the side a difficult task, but at least at the back we've got three nailed-on starters in Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, and Jose Enrique. Agger might be the most suspect of the three, but he stayed in Liverpool for the entire break and should be ready to go. Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly will be vying for the right-back spot, but with Kelly coming back early from U21 duty with a knock, Johnson might be the safer option.
---The midfield is the most muddled, particularly in the forward area. I'd love to see a way to work Charlie Adam out of the equation, but if Dalglish persists with the 4231, it's likely that he'll partner Lucas again. The Brazilian is on short rest after getting to Liverpool on Thursday, but there's no option other than him centrally in a match that could see Liverpool dominate the midfield. More forward we could finally see the return of Steven Gerrard in an advanced role, and he'll ideally be flanked by Dirk Kuyt and Stewart Downing. There's a shout for Craig Bellamy wide, who was terrific after coming on late in the derby, but I think we'll probably see him coming off the bench again.
---That leaves either Andy Carroll or Luis Suarez up top, and while the former is the fresher of the pair physically, I can't see Suarez being left out tomorrow. This fixture was his coming out party last year, and I'd guess his sense of the occasion carries him through any fatigue he might experience. Partnering the two up top would probably push Dirk Kuyt out of the squad, and I don't see any sense in leaving him out in favor of Carroll.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
For whatever reason, this one feels particularly significant, and that's saying something given the typically volatile atmosphere that surrounds this fixture. Maybe it's the long layoff, or the quasi-anniversary of the change in Liverpool's ownership, or just the fact that we mostly despise United more than anyone. Regardless, it'll be another emotional encounter, and the chances for things getting out of hand at some point are pretty good. If Liverpool can remain relatively composed and use that emotion to their benefit, they've got a great chance to make it four straight and hand United their first loss of the season.
There's really no excuse for missing this one wherever you are; it's on ESPN2/ESPN3 in the US and Sky Sports 2 in England, so there's bound to be plenty of viewing options both on television and online. We'll run the matchday thread late tonight so folks have a chance to find a way to watch a bit earlier on, as kickoff, at least for those in the States, doesn't lend itself to much waking time pre-match.
See you back here first thing tomorrow morning, and let's hope for another nice start to the weekend.