Liverpool get back in the swing of things to see out a busy January, heading to the Reebok in hopes of getting three points for only the second time in six matches. As has mostly been the case in league over the past month and a half, they won't face an entirely overwhelming opposition, with Bolton only a point above Wigan in 19th. Both sides enter in their own mini-league in the table---Liverpool are five points off the pace in a four-team race for the fourth spot, and Bolton part of a five-team cluster with only three points that separate Wolves in 16th from Wigan in 20th.
The sour taste from Saturday's draw couldn't be erased quickly enough, and that it came on the front end of the club's longest break in over a month seemed especially cruel. For all the talk about what went wrong and what needs fixing, there was no immediate outlet to see if anything actually would be remedied. So we look to tomorrow with a bit of anxious hesitation, hopeful that there is actually some sort of shift that takes place after another frustrating result but never completely ignorant of the fear that the only thing that will have changed by tomorrow is the date on the calendar. And then the booze and the realization that facts don't really have a place in our reality kick in, and all of a sudden holy shit Liverpool are only five points off of fourth and THEY'RE TOTALLY GOING TO DO IT STARTING NOW!@!#
Any talk of a must-win on the Liverpool end at this point is a little histrionic, but on the Bolton side of things there's a distinct need to start to climb their way out of the relegation zone. Home form's been a major reason for their position in the table, with only four points from their ten matches at the Reebok. They picked apart Stoke in a 5-0 win at the start of November, but that came after losing their first five, and since then they've only gained a point in a 1-1 draw with Wolves.
But in light of the way the season's gone thus far, recent results haven't been entirely terrible, with a a win away to Everton immediately following the home draw with Wolves and a draw salvaged at Macclesfield before beating them 2-0 in the FA Cup third round replay. The 0-3 result at United separated the Macclesfield fixtures, but even then they managed to frustrate the home side for large spells before two goals in the final fifteen minutes put the match out of reach.
Owen Coyle's fate has obviously undergone a sea change since the arrival that brought so much optimism, and tomorrow he'll have to contend with the loss of Gary Cahill to Chelsea and the laundry list of injuries that have plagued his side for most of the season. Jussi Jaaskelainen might make his return after missing the last four matches with a thigh strain, but Adam Bogdan's played well in his absence and might have a chance at retaining his place. The deal for Tim Ream is pending a work permit, meaning that Coyle will likely call on the back line he picked against United, with David Wheater coming in for Cahill alongside Zat Knight, Samuel Ricketts, and Gretar Steinsson. His midfield is typically filled by Fabrice Muamba, Nigel Reo-Coker, Martin Petrov, and one of Chris Eagles or Mark Davies, and former Liverpool striker David Ngog has started consistently in attack with either Ivan Klasnic, Eagles, or Davies providing support.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Shelvey Gerrard Bellamy
---Kenny Dalglish commented on his injury concerns yesterday, with Daniel Agger expected to be back in contention and Jay Spearing on the cusp of making a return. That makes Lucas and Luis Suarez the only confirmed absences, with the former getting back to Merseyside shortly to resume his recovery and the latter still serving an eight-match ban.
---That Agger's injury was never really announced until we knew he was recovering is slightly concerning, particularly with his history of disappearing for months at a time. So to suggest a start right away might be a little risky, but his partnership with Martin Skrtel has been a consistent high point in a season that's been so full of inconsistencies. Let's hope he's fit, then, and that Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique can continue their run of effective performances on either side of the back line.
---The potential for Spearing to miss makes me more than a little nervous, and like with Agger we're left to hope that he'll be fit come kickoff. I don't really need to explain any aversion to Charlie Adam getting another start at this point, so I'm going with a fit Spearing and Jordan Henderson sitting deeper than Steven Gerrard centrally, as the opposite provided few benefits against Stoke. There don't seem to be a huge number of options wider, with Stewart Downing continuing to get starts and Maxi trolling Downing by having the same impact just without being in the squad. So maybe give Shelvey a run out on the opposite flank from Craig Bellamy just to see what happens---let he and Gerrard overlap a bit, provide support for Andy Carroll up front with a little urgency, and maybe show some attacking impetus.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
I know I said it's not really a must-win, and it's not given the tough tasks on the weekend for the rest of the sides Liverpool are hoping to challenge for the final Champions League spot---Chelsea head to Norwich, Newcastle are at Craven Cottage, and Arsenal host Manchester United. But with the sky falling after the Stoke draw, I'd say this is close enough to a must-win for Liverpool, at least sentimentally. Inconsistency's been their greatest enemy this season, and with an even more challenging February on tap after January closes, it's pivotal that Liverpool straighten things out and find a way to start grinding out some wins.
Finally back to a match that's televised for most parties tomorrow, with ESPN airing the match for UK viewers and Fox Soccer Channel televising it live in the US. Streams will be easily accessible, then, and links for those will run in the matchday thread that'll be posted late tonight. Team sheets will follow around an hour before kickoff, and hopefully the thread will have good reason to carry a bit more of a positive vibe than last time around. If that's mostly due to substance abuse, so be it.
Hope you all have a good one, and we'll see you back here tomorrow.