One of the biggest matches on the Premier League calendar is set for Anfield tomorrow, with Manchester United visiting and Liverpool in search of their first league win under Brendan Rodgers. Despite the hype and build-up, these aren't the most enjoyable matches, with recent meetings proving more uncomfortable and unpleasant than exciting, and more reasons for concern than optimism or excitement emerging from proceedings.
At least tomorrow we know the pre-match focus will be squarely where it should, with the families, friends, and loved ones of the 96 that died at Hillsborough 23 years ago leading a ceremony before kickoff. Kenny Dalglish is expected to make his first appearance at Anfield since being dismissed earlier in the summer, and it's all set up to be a fitting tribute to the work done over the past two decades and the Hillsborough Independent Panel in the more recent past.
When we shift to the football, though, there's not likely to be any further pleasantries, even if we're all silently hoping that everyone just survives tomorrow with suffering any sort of physical or emotional damage. Cringing isn't a position that lends itself to taking in an experience, and in the league meeting at Old Trafford last season, that was the only safe way to watch. I'd guess everyone on both sides is looking forward to a little different experience this time around, and rightly so.
Painful as it might be, Liverpool could benefit from channeling United a bit more, particularly as they look to claw their way back up the table with performances that have mostly been hit-or-miss. United's been United--not looking overly impressive, probably should have dropped more points than they have, and yet they've got nine from their first four and squeaked out an ugly win in their Champions League group stage opener. It's what they do, it's part of why we despise them, and it's not looking likely to change.
They've managed to continue this habit despite not adding, yet again, to the depth in central midfield, instead opting for added firepower in attack through Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa in the summer window. Both have impressed, with the former grabbing most of the headlines with four goals in two league starts. Wayne Rooney is still recovering from a nasty gash on his right leg, and they'll also be without Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Ashely Young. No time for feeling bad, though, as Persie's a lock, and Kagawa will threaten from an advanced midfield role, and Antonio Valencia will demand a high-level performance from whoever's at left-back for Liverpool. You know the rest of the cast, which will include Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick in midfield, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, or Jonny Evans in central defense, Rafael and Patrice Evra at fullback (although summer addition Alexander Buttner did well at Wigan last week), and David De Gea or Anders Lindegaard in goal.
Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Sterling Borini Suarez
With most of the senior squad left on Merseyside midweek, there shouldn't be any sort of fitness concerns beyond what we already knew--Lucas is working his way back, Joe Cole will probably never play for Liverpool again, and Jose Enrique was, apparently, back to full fitness. Beyond that there didn't seem to be any major problems, with a small knock keeping Jon Flanagan out of the squad to face Young Boys.
Enrique being off the pace despite regaining his health means that Martin Kelly and Glen Johnson should again start on either side of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger. It'll be a big challenge for Johnson, likely facing the aforementioned Valencia, and while Kelly looked better his last time out, he won't have exactly have it easy. Agger will once again lead from the back, with hopes that Martin Skrtel continues to find his footing in a system that demands more from him in terms of actually playing football.
I talked about the midfield at length earlier, fully aware that I'd be guessing that Steven Gerrard will start even though I don't think it gives Liverpool their best chance at winning right now. He and Allen are starters for sure, and from there it's got to be Jonjo Shelvey. He made a huge impact in Switzerland in a short period of time, and with both Jordan Henderson and Nuri Şahin playing the entire match, there's really not much deciding to do. That's a very good setup, and hopefully we see Gerrard progress from a difficult early season stretch.
Likewise, the front three pick themselves, even though two of them were involved, albeit in limited action, on Thursday. Luis Suarez, Fabio Borini, and Raheem Sterling are undoubtedly the best three at the current moment, with Stewart Downing still Stewart Downing, Oussama Assaidi not yet ready on a consistent basis, and the rest too young, too ineffective, or some combination of the two. Interesting to see if Rodgers opts to go with Suarez wide again, especially after Liverpool looked far more effective with the Uruguayan central against Sunderland. I'll guess he gives Borini another chance at the start, but with a view to shifting if it's not producing any chances.
Form doesn't matter and throw out the rule books and all that, and it's always so true that it makes me want to claw my own eyes out. Liverpool's performances leading up to Manchester United fixtures haven't been impressive of late, and yet they're unbeaten at Anfield in five years. If they can manage expectation and emotion while channeling the parts of their first four matches that have left us wanting more, there's no question that three points isn't out of reach. Also, they probably shouldn't take in the match in the manner I will, half-drunk, half-asleep, and watching through the slit between my index and middle finger.
Early kickoff for the marquee match of the weekend, with kickoff at 1:30PM BST/8:30AM EST. Fox Soccer Channel will air the match live in the US, and Sky Sports 1 will have it as part of their Super Sunday programming. The matchday thread will run overnight, and team sheets will be up once they're released around an hour before kickoff. We'll have updates as needed throughout today, and feel free to catch up with us on Twitter as well as in the comments sections of this and the matchday post.
Hope you're all enjoying a nice start to the weekend, and that we can all enjoy a nice finish to it tomorrow.