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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Newcastle, 04.01.12

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Liverpool head to the Northeast hoping to duplicate their performance against Newcastle from earlier in the season, when they hit the European hopefuls for three at Anfield in Steven Gerrard's return to action. Alan Pardew's side sit eight points above Liverpool in the table, however, level on points with Chelsea and only five off Spurs in fourth.

There's not much in the way of introduction---odds are Liverpool have disappointed you in some way over the past few months, and if they haven't you're clearly taking our prompts for substance abuse too seriously. It's a league match, it's away from Anfield, it's against as side that are punching above their weight, and it's Liverpool, so you know it's destined to crush your soul and then eat the rest of your french fries.

In many ways Newcastle are a club that Liverpool should be envious of, given their success in the table and shrewd moves in the transfer market. They've mocked the idea that a "settling in" period is necessary, piecing together a squad that's proven to be both inexperienced in English football and successful nonetheless. They've spent very little and gotten result after result, and with two of their supposedly more talented exports now plying their trade at Liverpool, entering tomorrow's got to be a point of pride for a club that many expected to be staving off relegation.

They've not been without the occasional setback, especially on the road, but they've been able to consistently find goals when they've needed them, providing a stark contrast from Liverpool's continued frustrations and profligacy. Their recent bruises have come away from St. James' Park, with five goals a piece conceded during trips to Craven Cottage and White Hart Lane. They still have a 100% record at home in the new year, but they've cooled off a bit, with two draws and a narrow win over Norwich in their last three.

Pardew's attacking contingent has stolen most of the headlines, with Demba Ba starting off hot and January signing Papiss Demba Cisse emerging as a legitimate goalscoring threat with five goals in six matches. Cisse got himself a brace in the first half against West Brom, and Hatem Ben Arfa spurred the side along going forward. Ben Arfa rounds out a midfield that may also feature Jonas Guitierrez, Gabriel Obertan, Yohan Cabaye, and former Liverpool man Danny Guthrie, with Cheick Tiote possibly available after returning from injury. They will be missing captain Fabricio Coloccini, though, who tore his hamstring in the win at the Hawthorns.

Who starts for Liverpool?

Reina
Kelly Skrtel Coates Enrique
Gerrard Spearing
Kuyt Downing
Suarez Carroll

---We know that Charlie Adam, Daniel Agger, and Lucas are unavailable, and there's further questions about the fitness of Craig Bellamy, Glen Johnson, and Martin Kelly. Paging the ghost of Fabio Aurelio.

---The continued absence of Agger means that we're again left to hope that Sebastian Coates gets a start ahead of Jamie Carragher, even if it's not very likely. Without confirmation about the availability of either Kelly or Johnson we could again see Jon Flanagan on the right, but Kelly seemed close to a return and should get the start if he's fit. That leaves Martin Skrtel and Jose Enrique as the mainstays, even though it'd be nice for either to get a rest at some point in the near future.

---Charlie Adam's injury leaves few choices in central midfield, and I don't know that Jordan Henderson's got a spot in the eleven after his disappointing performance against Wigan. He'd likely be much more effective were he actually played centrally, but with an insistence on pushing him wide, he's left as an observer with Steven Gerrard and Jay Spearing likely to start in the middle and Dirk Kuyt and Stewart Downing on the flanks. There's always the chance that Kenny Dalglish persists with Henderson in place of Kuyt, but not if he's actually got functioning frontal lobes.

---There's no reason that Andy Carroll shouldn't start given the avalanche of evidence that Liverpool are more successful with him on the pitch, as well as the fact that it's the first homecoming for the former Newcastle man. That means he probably starts on the bench with Kuyt up front alongside Luis Suarez, but we can dream. Wild stuff, but danger's all I know.

What's the most important factor for the Reds?

There's really nothing left for Liverpool to play for in league other than proving that they actually care about how they perform, and last week's evidence isn't the most encouraging. It's really not a matter of tiredness or bad luck, it's just that Liverpool are unable to perform with any sort of consistent quality, and they don't appear to have the collective insight to make the lasting changes that are necessary in order for them to make true progress. That applies from top to bottom, and if that doesn't change in the last month and a half of the season, we're likely to see them flail and flounder their way to the finish line.

Kickoff tomorrow is set for 1:30PM GMT/8:30AM EST, and there'll be coverage on Sky Sports 1 in England and Fox Soccer Plus in the US. Streaming links for those without television service will be available in the matchday thread, and we'll have the team sheets published around an hour or so before kickoff. If there's a way to watch or any sort of breaking news that we don't have covered, go ahead and let us know in the comments or over on Twitter, where we'll be trolling the offal's account until they stop being run by pre-teens.

For better or worse, hopefully we'll see you all back here tomorrow morning.