For the third time in two months, Liverpool and Manchester City square off, this time in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final. Liverpool's trip to the Eastlands last week ended with the visitors on the wrong end of a 0-3 result that saw City concede most of the possession but take the chances they managed to create. Liverpool can't afford a similar scoreline tomorrow, and will hope to leave themselves in good standing ahead of the return leg at Anfield.
With the win over Oldham on Friday, Liverpool ensured that they'll have the busiest month possible, bumping the already overcrowded fixture list from seven to eight for the month. Manchester United will head to Anfield for the fourth round FA Cup match-up on the last weekend of the month, with a trip to Wolves either two or three days later. There's been plenty to lament over the past few months, but there's a growing sense of anticipation around the sheer number of chances we have to watch Liverpool play football---in some cases, actually important-seeming football---over the coming weeks.
And while the win over Oldham was important enough, tomorrow's got a little more gravity to it, with the club's first chance at a domestic cup final since 2006 hanging in the balance. That it's spread out over two legs surely benefits Liverpool, as City have been the Premier League's best at home over the course of the season.
There was a slight vulnerability exposed early on Sunday by Manchester United, though, who sprinted out to a 3-0 lead on the strength of two goals from Wayne Rooney sandwiched around a terrific Danny Welbeck volley. City's problems were exacerbated early with Chris Foy's decision to send off Vincent Kompany, however, for a challenge on Nani that may or may not have been worth a booking. They chased the match with ten men and eventually narrowed the gap to one, but they couldn't find the equalizer in the final twenty-five minutes.
That they played most of the match with ten men has to be a boost for Liverpool, but with such a talented squad, I'd be surprised if there was a huge drop-off for Roberto Mancini. We know that Vincent Kompany will miss out after his appeal was turned down by the FA earlier today, and both of the Toures will be away on international duty in preparation for the Africa Cup of Nations. There's injury concerns for Mario Balotelli, Edin Dzeko, and Sergio Aguero as well, but Gareth Barry will be back after serving a one-match ban for the two yellows he picked up against Liverpool last week. It all leaves Mancini with some sorting to do, but the aforementioned depth in quality will give Liverpool a firm test.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Downing Henderson Adam Maxi
---Luis Suarez is banned, Lucas is out forever, there's no news about Jack Robinson, and Fabio Aurelio will be in the mountains of Nepal for the next seven months recovering from the three-quarters of a match he played against Oldham. Otherwise, nothing new.
---I'm expecting a complete line change at the back after seeing fresh faces throughout the defense against Oldham save for Pepe Reina. The Kelly-Carragher-Coates-Aurelio collective was shaky at times and fairly decent at others, but there was nothing to suggest that Kenny Dalglish should think about including them ahead of the Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique quartet that's been so good over the past few months.
---As usual, midfield is where things start to get hairy, and it's almost nailed-on that Charlie Adam gets a start after sitting out the Oldham match. He was woefully overmatched a week ago, though, and I'd much prefer to see a possibly tired Jay Spearing holding with Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard further forward. That might be a big ask of Gerrard, who played a full ninety at Anfield and might not have had enough time to recover. Jonjo Shelvey's an option as well, either through the middle or wide, but I'm not sure he'll make a second consecutive start.
---There's uncertainty wide as well---Stewart Downing had an eventful few days off the pitch, and Maxi, Dirk Kuyt, and Craig Bellamy all played significant minutes earlier in the week. Kuyt's the most enduring of the three, but he's been worryingly ineffective and probably doesn't merit a start over either of Maxi or Bellamy.
---Andy Carroll up top seems like another sure thing, with Suarez out and Bellamy likely resting after his MOTM performance on Friday. He could be supported directly by Kuyt (or the Welshman, if four days is enough for his ailing knees), but packing the midfield seems more important than including support that hasn't really been all that supportive. The hope is obviously that the goal he scored late against Oldham spurs him on to bigger and better things, so we'll see what happens when he's not hungover.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
This one screaming out for the Rafa Benitez in Europe treatment---play it tight, don't make any silly mistakes, get back to Anfield with a chance at progressing to the final. Between Liverpool's struggles at home (which were hopefully exorcised against Oldham) and the quality of the opposition, though, a result tomorrow is even more critical. The amount of possession and general display last week was relatively encouraging, but they'll have to be much better tomorrow if they want to have a realistic chance at their first ever trip to the new Wembley.
Plenty of ways to watch again tomorrow, with Fox Soccer Plus airing the match live in the US and BBC One carrying coverage in England. That means more than a few streams as well, which will be linked in the matchday thread. Team sheets and any other news will also be included around an hour before kickoff, and you can follow the match here or over on Twitter.
Either way, hopefully we'll see you around.