Somehow the fixture list is even more crowded to start the year, with Liverpool set to play seven matches before the end of January across three different competitions. Manchester City's got the same task, with one already done for the month and six left to play. Just yesterday City fell in the dying moments against Sunderland for just their second loss of the season, while Liverpool got an important home win over Newcastle on Friday to finish off 2011.
There's bound to be more storylines emerging as the month progresses, but for now the football looks like it'll be more than sufficient. Liverpool start with City, move to Oldham in the FA Cup, then go back to City for the two-legged League Cup semi-final with three league matches sprinkled in for good measure. The spacing of the City matches give Liverpool a little bit of breathing room, as the other league fixtures are home with Stoke City and away to Bolton and Wolves. December taught us that "winnable" doesn't really mean anything, but if they're able to build off their most recent performance, January could be a pivotal month for the club's European aspirations.
Manchester City will obviously hope otherwise, as they've stumbled a bit in the past month. They won three straight in all competitions after the 1-1 draw at Anfield in November, but in the five matches since the meaningless 2-0 win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League, they've lost twice and drawn with West Brom. All eight points lost were on the road, though, and they're still perfect in league at the Etihad and dropped only two points at home during the group stages in Europe.
Yesterday's loss at Sunderland was in many ways similar to Liverpool matches this season, with City carrying the lion's share of possession and dominating their hosts for much of the match. They never found a way through despite 27 shots (only 5 that were on goal), though, and were unable to prevent a Sunderland winner in a match that was wide open at the finish.
The task of recovering so quickly is eased by the fact that they'll return to the Etihad, but there's little doubt that Roberto Mancini will have to make more than a few changes given the short time in between matches. Of his regulars, David Silva, James Milner, Sergio Aguero, and Micah Richards started on the bench against Sunderland, with each of Silva, Aguero, and Richards playing significant minutes in the second half. There's no question that Joe Hart, man of the match for City at Anfield, will start in goal, but Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott both played a full ninety, as did Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry, Pablo Zabaleta, and Edin Dzeko. With so much depth it's doubtful that Mancini will be panicking, but the loss isn't going to do anything to calm the Italian's nerves.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Spearing Gerrard
Kuyt Suarez Maxi
---At current the only confirmed injuries are to long-term absentees Fabio Aurelio, Jack Robinson, and Lucas. The ban for Luis Suarez is pending appeal, meaning he'll be available unless things change very quickly from the club's end of things.
---Over two months running for Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, and Jose Enrique across the back in league, and no sign that there's anything worth changing. They were again mostly terrific against Newcastle on Friday, with Skrtel staking his claim as the pick of the bunch. Enrique's recovered from whatever dip in form he had a month ago, Johnson's been solid at both ends of the pitch, and while Agger hasn't been at his best over the past two, is still a vital presence.
---I'll try this pick again since it ended up being the most effective combination in the 3-1 win---Steven Gerrard, Jay Spearing, and Jordan Henderson could combine to give Liverpool a very solid midfield, and given that City will look to take advantage of Lucas' absence, the guests will need to produce in the middle of the park. And if recent production is the measure, there's no reason that Charlie Adam should be involved, as he's steadily declined and looked a liability. He could still feature if Gerrard's not ready, though, and if he does it's important that he has numbers alongside him.
---Another start for Andy Carroll is a tempting prospect, but with a break in the bans for Luis Suarez, I'm guessing he's selected over Carroll in the eleven. The flanks are where it gets a little less straightforward, with Stewart Downing playing better of late and Craig Bellamy proving to be one of the most influential players in the squad at the current moment. His ability to recover is a question, however, and with he and Maxi more or less alternating, I'd pick the Argentine on the opposite side of Dirk Kuyt, who's due for a big game (and hopefully a goal).
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
On the heels of a good home win and a weekend that saw everyone in the top six aside from Arsenal drop points, and with a busy month coming up, it's critically important that Liverpool have another strong showing. Three points would be a major boost and aren't out of the question, and if Liverpool maintain their excellent away form they should expect to get something out of the match. It's a big ask against a City side that's been unbeatable at home, particularly without Lucas to neutralize their threat in the middle and forward areas. But it's not impossible, and carrying the belief that's been created by a fine end to 2011 and a number of strong performances is essential.
The biggest match of this round of fixtures makes for easy viewing in the US and the UK, with ESPN2/ESPN3.com covering it for the former and Sky Sports 1 doing so for the latter. Any number of streams will also be available, and we'll be sure to link to the most typically reliable ones in the matchday thread. That post will also have the teamsheets around an hour or so before kickoff. Those can also be found more immediately over on Twitter, where we re-post whatever the people who actually have a clue can produce once the team is confirmed.
See you back here tomorrow for what hopefully ends up being a terrific match.