Liverpool's big week culminates with Manchester United's trip to Anfield in the fourth round of the FA Cup tomorrow, two weeks ahead of their visit to Old Trafford in league. United had the more arduous task in the third round, traveling across town to the Etihad, where they scraped past City in a 3-2 win. Liverpool eventually eased past Oldham Athletic in the last round in a match that was unfortunately more notable for what happened in the stands than what happened on the pitch. Nobody's worried about that for tomorrow, though, right? Right?
Oh, nevermind, everybody's hard at work convincing themselves that tomorrow will be one of the ugliest encounters on the English football calendar. And in fairness, there's plenty of cause for concern, with neither fan base exactly covering themselves in glory when the two sides have met recently, and tensions have obviously heightened as a result of the neverending Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra saga. Suffice to say we're probably not going to see Anfield transformed into a late '60s Golden Gate Park.
But hopefully Steven Gerrard's words turn prophetic and this one's remembered for the football, with Liverpool looking to continue their recent home dominance of tomorrow's guests. Had they not wasted a number of chances in mid-October, Kenny Dalglish's side could have made it four straight victories at Anfield against United. It'd be naive to expect anything to come easily, particularly in this season, but if the hosts can find a way to get a win, it'd cap a fantastic week and provide the club with a huge boost headed into a challenging stretch.
And despite the tough third round draw, United looked to be cruising against City, taking advantage of Vincent Kompany's red card and hitting them for three prior to the halftime whistle. The hosts were back within a goal with 25 minutes remaining but couldn't find an equalizer despite waves of late pressure, and Alex Ferguson's side handed their neighbors their first home loss of the season and an early exit from the FA Cup.
Against City, and in the subsequent wins against Bolton and Arsenal, Ferguson opted to go with Anders Lindegaard in goal ahead of the oft-maligned David De Gea, who's struggled at times and drawn loads of criticism for not being Edwin van der Sar. With Rio Ferdinand a doubt and Phil Jones recovering from an ankle injury, United might go with Rafael-Smalling-Evans-Evra at the back. They'll miss Nani further forward after the Portuguese winger suffered a foot injury against Arsenal, leaving Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia, and Paul Scholes to round out the midfield behind the preferred partnership of Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Kelly Carragher Coates Enrique
Downing Henderson Maxi
---No new injuries emerged after Wednesday's match with City, leaving Lucas and Luis Suarez as the only names out for sure. Plenty of rumors about an extended absence for Jay Spearing, but no confirmed reports about the nature or extent of his hamstring problem. And while it's not an official injury, it's a safe bet that the cotton candy that calls itself Craig Bellamy's knee ligaments won't be ready for another start.
---I don't know that anyone at the back necessarily needs a spell tomorrow, but I wouldn't be surprised if Kenny Dalglish shakes things up after an emotional result on Wednesday. With the match at Wolves following on Tuesday, there's going to be changes at some point, and while I'd like to see the best back four play all three in a week, I just don't know that it's possible. So I'll say Jamie Carragher and Sebastian Coates in the middle and Martin Kelly right, with Jose Enrique the only holdover from the midweek action.
---Central midfield's a slightly different story given the lack of options, with Jonjo Shelvey as the only replacement available. I don't think he'll displace any of the three that started Wednesday, so I'm guessing we're left to hope that Steven Gerrard can once again carry the water deeper in midfield alongside Charlie Adam, with Jordan Henderson hopefully building off his impressive display against City.
---Bellamy's almost certainly ruled out, which means that Maxi will be in contention wide, with either Stewart Downing, Dirk Kuyt, or Shelvey operating on the opposite flank. I'll go with Maxi left and Downing right, as the latter turned in one of his more confident displays in the past few months on Wednesday. That leaves either Kuyt or Andy Carroll to lead the attack up top, and while it'd be nice to be able to count on Carroll having an impact in a big match, Kuyt's a more reliable option despite his struggles this season.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
It's been rare for Liverpool to carry over their success in big matches this season, but they also haven't had a stretch as consistently difficult as the one they're the midst of---City and United at home, Wolves away, Spurs at Anfield, and then a trip to United before the League Cup final at Wembley, and a home date with Arsenal to close out a season-defining stretch. Tomorrow might not be season-defining in isolation, especially with the success in the League Cup, but two emotionally uplifting results in such quick succession would be immense for a club that's struggled to put together positive results with much consistency.
Another one that'll be easy enough to catch live, with ITV1 televising the match live in the UK and Fox Soccer Channel airing it in the US. The only challenge for those stateside is kickoff, which comes at 7:45AM EST and 4:45AM for those on the west coast. But tomorrow's match is one that's probably worth dragging your ass out of bed to see, and if you don't have television coverage we'll have the links for streams in the matchday thread, which will have team sheets updated about an hour or so before kickoff.
See you bright and early tomorrow, and in the meantime you can ruminate on ways to get new knee ligaments for Craig Bellamy below:
Video by Aidefors Compilations