February kicks off for Liverpool on Monday, with Spurs set to visit Anfield in the first match of another important month. Liverpool will look to carry their momentum from the domestic cup triumphs and a comfortable 3-0 win at Wolves into the match, which hopefully signals a turnaround from a disappointing league stretch to open 2012 that had seen them winless until the final day of January. Tottenham have shown signs of vulnerability on the road, with three of their four losses on the season coming away from White Hart Lane. They're all alone in third and still in reach of the top two, though, and will look to keep pace after the weekend's action.
Even though things are spaced out a bit more in February, it's just as unrelenting for Liverpool---Spurs come first, then a trip to Old Trafford, followed by the tricky 5th Round FA Cup tie at Anfield with Brighton, and finally capped with the League Cup Final against Cardiff at Wembley on February 26th before Arsenal visit to open March. There might not be the pace of December and January, but there's certainly some added weight to each of these fixtures.
It's tough to stand up to a match against United, the chance to progress in the FA Cup, or the final at Wembley, but with Spurs surging over the past few seasons, they've become a side that Liverpool have had to either directly compete with or, more recently, try to track down.
This season's been no different, with the London club sweeping past Liverpool in the fall and separating themselves from everyone outside of Manchester in the race for a Champions League spot. Talk of a serious title challenge might be a little premature, as they've got ground to make up and a number of injuries to deal with, but they pushed on from the two ugly losses to start the campaign (to United and City, incidentally) to put themselves in position to at least make some noise if they finish strong.
The aforementioned injuries have to be concerning, though, with Emmanuel Adebayor, Rafa van der Vaart, Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon, and Kyle Walker are all questionable, and William Gallas and Tom Huddlestone out for sure. The latter two absences aren't as impactful, but the doubts up front---to Adebayor and van der Vaart in particular---are a worry, even if they've got plenty of talent elsewhere. Veteran goalkeeper Brad Friedel's be consistent and reliable in goal after a few season spent riding the Heurelho Gomes howler train, and the defense has been solid, with Benoi Assou-Ekotto and Walker wide and Younes Kaboul and Ledley King centrally. Midfield's their clear strength, as Luka Modric and Scott Parker have partnered to great effect and Gareth Bale has continued to develop into one of the league's best wingers. Their ability to work the ball up the pitch, whether by sheer pace or patient possession through a talented midfield, has plenty of potential to cause problems.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Kuyt Henderson Bellamy
---The ban for Luis Suarez has finally ended, and Fabio Aurelio even made the squad against Wolves. That leaves Lucas as the only confirmed absence.
---Little variations needed at the back, even if there's been tinkering over the past few weeks. Martin Skrtel will hopefully be looking to exact a bit of revenge after his sending off at White Hart Lane back in September, partnering with Daniel Agger in the middle. Agger missed the reverse fixture in the fall through injury, making this one a far better prospect defensively. With Spurs' ability to counter quickly and expose space on the flanks, Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique will have their work cut out for them in the fullback positions.
---Tuesday's win at Wolves saw Liverpool line up to better effect in the midfield, and with hopes that Steven Gerrard replaces Charlie Adam, we should get the best available personnel. I don't know that Kenny Dalglish feels similarly, but a pairing of Gerrard and Jay Spearing sitting deep with Jordan Henderson in an advanced position seems to be the best option. That allows Gerrard to aid Spearing when needed but still push on, and gives Henderson the license to roam and use his engine throughout the forward areas.
---While Luis Suarez is available, I'm not joining in with those who want to see him back in the eleven straight away. It doesn't make sense to plug him in after such a long layoff, and with Dirk Kuyt, Andy Carroll, and Craig Bellamy putting in good performances on Tuesday, I think they'll each retain their spots. I'm sure Suarez makes the squad and a late cameo, but asking for more than a half-hour or so after not featuring since Boxing Day might be too much. Plus, the narrative's not as fun if his first start back isn't at Old Trafford. Ugh.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
There's nowhere to hide for Dalglish and Liverpool over the next month, with something at stake both practically and emotionally every time they take the pitch. A win, loss or draw against Spurs doesn't define the season, and in isolation few of the matches the rest of the way will, save for maybe the League Cup final at the end of the month. But as noted in the intro, we'll have a much clearer picture about Liverpool after the month's up, with Spurs, United, and Arsenal in league, a cup final, and chance at running deep into another competition, all on tap. It's exciting and nervy and terrifying, and it's an extended look at whether or not Liverpool's ability can match their ambition.
This one has the deluxe viewing treatment, with Sky Sports 1 airing the match in England and ESPN2/ESPN3 carrying coverage in the US. Streaming will be easy enough as well, and updated listings for those will be included in the matchday thread first thing Monday morning. Team sheets will run after they're released, typically an hour or so before kickoff. And for more immediate updates prior to kickoff or during the match, you can head over to our Twitter, where we've somehow managed to not be banned completely yet. Give it time.
Hope you all have a nice end to your weekend, and we'll see you back here to start the week.