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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Manchester United, 03.06.11

The league leaders visit Anfield in Sunday's marquee matchup.

Before the preview part of things, I suppose I should acknowledge Sid Lowe's piece about Pepe Reina that ran in the Guardian this morning:

"Liverpool is still Liverpool and always will be bigger than any player. The club belongs to its fans and the fans' loyalty is to the club – not a player or a passport. Kenny Dalglish was absolutely right: anyone that doesn't want to be at Liverpool can leave. Players will come and go.

"I am not announcing my departure – far from it. I've said lots of times I'm very happy in England and comfortable at Liverpool. But I'm not prepared to swear eternal love to anyone. That's impossible. Any player who says that is lying. I can't say much because I have a contract with Liverpool. But eternal love doesn't exist. No one is master of his own destiny. When a player is at club he has to give everything – that is all you can ask of him."

The timing is obviously calculated---the quotes were gathered at the end of January by all accounts, and tomorrow's match clearly needs more hype around it---but this doesn't really add anything that we didn't know then. Yes, it's probably cause for concern at season's end, and it emphasizes the need for Liverpool to become relevant on and off the pitch sooner rather than later. Tough to read, but again, not anything earth-shattering. Likely more to come on the topic over the next few days.

Anyhow, onto a match that, as I said, doesn't really need any more build-up. United are currently top of the Premier League table and a healthy 21 points in front of Liverpool, and they'll look to expand their slowly shrinking lead over second-place Arsenal. The Gunners had a chance to close the gap to one point earlier in the day but couldn't find a goal against Sunderland, leaving United three points clear. No doubt plenty of Arsenal fans will be looking to tomorrow's match in hopes that Liverpool get the result.

United has been typically excellent at home this season, winning thirteen of the fourteen matches they've played and earning 40 points out of a possible 42. That type of form is obviously difficult to replicate on the road, and they've been a bit more vulnerable in recent weeks. The loss at Chelsea on Tuesday was United's second of the season, with the other coming back in early February at the Molinuex Stadium against Wolves. Worth noting that they've shipped twice as many goals on the road as they have at home in the same number of fixtures, with five of those coming in the two losses mentioned.

Alex Ferguson's got a few difficult decisions to make ahead of kickoff---Nemanja Vidic will be serving a ban for being sent off late against Chelsea, and with Rio Ferdinand still recovering from a calf injury and Patrice Evra listed as doubtful, there's a likelihood we see a makeshift back line. Wes Brown and Chris Smalling were the first names mentioned to fill in, but we'll have to wait to see if it's all been much ado about nothing. No need to go into any great depth about the rest of the personnel at Fergie's disposal---Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Nani, and Ryan Giggs will all be available, as will the man who did this back in September.

As for Liverpool:

1. Who will start for Liverpool?
2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?
3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

1. Who will start for Liverpool?

Johnson Carragher Agger Wilson
Meireles Lucas
Maxi Gerrard Suarez

---Still a lot of unknowns for Liverpool on the injury list, with Andy Carroll, Daniel Agger, Raul Meireles, and Fabio Aurelio all recently injured or recovering. The only certainties to miss out are Martin Kelly and Jonjo Shelvey.

---The only two names at the back we can count on are Glen Johnson and Jamie Carrgher---we could see another start for Danny Wilson, but that's largely contingent on whether or not Fabio Aurelio is anywhere near his version of fit. If Agger's ready he's got to play---we've seen Martin Skrtel steadily decline this season, and he's working his way towards being one of the biggest liabilities in the squad. Agger's much better defensively and obviously gives Liverpool another dimension going forward; if he weren't so unlucky with injuries over the past few years, there's no doubt we'd be talking about him as one of the top central defenders in Europe. Most of us still are anyway.

---Carroll's availability will change the dynamic in attack in due time, but tomorrow might be too big of an ask. If he doesn't start that makes for a little less confusion, as the front six have been a mainstay for most of the season. There's still no true forward man in the squad without Carroll, so if he doesn't start we'll probably get Dirk Kuyt and Luis Suarez in some combination as the featured attackers. Further back, the Meireles-Gerrard swap, covered in some detail around here in the past week, seems both preferred and necessary.

2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?

For all their success this year, United is still a team with plenty of weaknesses, particularly away from Old Trafford. Liverpool have been able to play them close despite underperforming for large spells in both of the season's earlier meetings (particularly the 3-2 loss in September), and getting them at Anfield, on the heels of the loss earlier in the week at Stamford Bridge, could be enough to tip things in Liverpool's favor.

Oh, and there's also the small matter of completely erasing last Sunday's performance from memory and not doing anything like that ever again.

3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

I hate myself for continuing to make predictions. 1-1, points shared.

Plenty of fanfare and coverage for this one tomorrow---Sky Sports 1 will have this as the featured part of Super Sunday, and Fox Soccer Channel has some sort of special as well. It's another early kickoff for those of you in the Pacific time zone, so we'll collectively hope there's a little better outcome this week. Matchday thread with stream links and news will run late tonight or early tomorrow, and team sheets will be posted around an hour before kickoff.

Enjoy your Saturday, and we'll see you bright and early/midday/late tomorrow.

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