Back to action for Liverpool as they host Brighton in the 5th round of the FA Cup tomorrow at Anfield. It's a chance for the hosts to rebound after the disappointing display last Saturday at Old Trafford, as well as to continue their excellent form in domestic cup competition. Brighton come to town after narrowly progressing in each of the past two rounds, and just a few points away from playoff contention in the Championship after a terrific start to 2012.
A season marred by controversy off the pitch has a chance to get a slight bit better, with increased talk of salvation through cup triumphs increased during a one week stretch with plenty on the line. Tomorrow gives Liverpool a chance to progress past the 5th round for the first time since their trophy-winning campaign in 2005-2006, and with a Wembley final already on the cards in the League Cup, it's understandable that there's an air of optimism and excitement regardless of the fact that the last week was mostly depressing.
When they last made it to the 5th round in the 2007-2008 season, Liverpool were derailed by a Championship side at Anfield---Barnsley defeated the hosts 2-1 on the strength of a well-taken strike from midfielder Brian Howard in the dying moments of the match. On the day Rafa Benitez picked a relatively under-strength side with a Champions League fixture against Inter following days later, but Barnsley were more than deserved winners.
So there's at least precedent for a side from the second division to send Liverpool out at Anfield in this round, and it's probably not a stretch to say that this Brighton side is better than the Barnsley side that sent Liverpool home. Gus Poyet's side have struggled at times in league but are still poised to make a playoff run, with only two points separating them from the sixth and final playoff spot and a run that's seen them remain unbeaten in the new year. They didn't shy away from Liverpool in their meeting in the League Cup back in September, playing stylish and effective football and pressing Liverpool early in the second half but failing to find an equalizer before Dirk Kuyt got the second.
They were more fortunate against Newcastle in the last round, earning the win after Will Buckley's streaking run down the left ended with a deflected shot off Mike Williamson and past Tim Krul. Things were similarly tight in the previous round, with a replay, extra time, and penalties needed to secure progression past non-league side Wrexham.
Poyet will likely have all of his regulars available, although the league tie away to Hull might factor into his decision-making for tomorrow's eleven. Buckley's recently returned from injury and should be available, and each of Craig Mackail-Smith, Gordon Greer, and Liam Bridcutt have featured in nearly every match this season. Ashley Barnes, Lewis Dunk, and Inigo Calderon have been familiar faces as well, Sam Vokes has started twice up front since arriving on loan from Wolves on January 30th. Poyet will also be able to call on the newly arrived loanees Gai Assulin and Abdul Razak, both from Manchester City.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Kelly Skrtel Agger Enrique
---As of yesterday there were no confirmed injuries other than Lucas, with Maxi declared fit after an injury nobody knew he suffered, and Jack Robinson and Jon Flanagan back from their respective injuries as well. But as usual, don't count Fabio Aurelio out of being out.
---It feels like time to give Martin Kelly a start, even if the regular back four's been consistently excellent. Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger shouldn't make way for either Jamie Carragher or Sebastian Coates despite the lack of action for the second-choice pairing, and the only way Jose Enrique sits is if Kelly starts and Glen Johnson shifts left.
---There's the usual questions about the midfield---namely, who starts in the middle from the four of Steven Gerrard, Jay Spearing, Charlie Adam, and Jordan Henderson. For now I'll guess Gerrard and Spearing, particularly if both Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez start up front as expected. It could just as easily be Adam or Henderson in for Spearing, but I don't see Gerrard being left out in any scenario unless he's injured.
---Wide and up front aren't necessarily any clearer, but as I said, I think both Suarez and Carroll will be in the eleven, with the pair finally fit and available for the first time in what seems like forever. I don't know that Maxi's return equates to an automatic start, which leaves Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy to operate on either flank, with Maxi on the bench and Stewart Downing hopefully at home.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
Lessons learned, from their match back in September, from previous failings against "lesser" opposition both home and away, and from the trials and tribulations they've experienced this season, many of which have been self-inflicted. Liverpool desperately need success on the pitch after such a stormy week, and it'd be terrific if tomorrow rung in a change in the way the club goes about their business. Spurts of success sprinkled among underwhelming results and the latest media controversy hasn't made for easy viewing this season, but a win tomorrow could set the table for a run-in that, if nothing else, could have us feeling roundly positive about Liverpool Football Club again.
Viewers in the US will have the chance to watch the match live on Fox Soccer Channel, while folks in the UK can catch it on ESPN. Thankfully streams have proven reliable enough when there's widespread television coverage, and we'll have those links in the matchday thread late tonight into the early morning tomorrow. I'll update the post with teamsheets once they're released, which is usually around an hour before kickoff.
Hope you all have a nice start to the weekend, and we'll see you back here tomorrow.