A trip to Wembley and Liverpool's first cup final in nearly five years are on the line tomorrow, with Manchester City heading to Anfield for the second leg of the League Cup semi-final. Liverpool have a 1-0 advantage from the first leg after a Steven Gerrard penalty capped a dominant opening spell for Kenny Dalglish's squad, but there's little illusion that they'll be able to coast into the final, with City more than capable of turning the tie over.
Thankfully there's not a whole lot of time left to rehash the weekend's failings, with any prolonged misery interrupted by a match that carries with it stakes, at least from a practical standpoint, that are higher than anything the club's been involved in since the Europa League tie with Atletico Madrid just under two years ago. So sure, it's the League Cup, but it's also a match with some gravity to it at a time the club find themselves in desperate need of something to be positive about.
That it comes against the current league leaders adds to the challenge, particularly when considering that, after a frustrating finish to the match two weeks ago, they'll be more than ready to press Liverpool relentlessly. They've rebounded nicely from the defeat in the first leg, getting past a plucky Wigan side 1-0 before beating Spurs 3-2 on a Mario Balotelli penalty in the final minutes of injury time on Sunday.
As Noel mentioned earlier, however, they're likely to be without the match-winner tomorrow, as the FA decided to pursue charges against him for Cobra Kai'ing Scott Parker's face. Quotes from assistant David Platt indicate the club won't dispute the retroactive red, which means the ban starts immediately. But as was the case in the first leg, there's no lack of quality in the rest of the available personnel, even if they're still missing the Toure brothers to the Africa Cup of Nations and Vincent Kompany in the last of his four-match ban. That leaves their defense as the main question mark, as Stefan Savic had a torrid time in the first leg and looks in line for another appearance tomorrow.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Downing Gerrard Bellamy
---There's no telling how any fatigue from Saturday plays into this one, but after watching the collective effort against Bolton, I doubt too many are feeling exhausted. The official website reports "no fresh injury worries" for Kenny Dalglish, which means that Lucas and Luis Suarez are the only guaranteed absences.
---I'm a little leery about another match for Daniel Agger after he only just got back to fitness prior to the Bolton match, but Liverpool need their strongest side tomorrow, and that means he and Martin Skrtel in central defense. There's a chance the fullback positions might look differently, as last time out we saw Martin Kelly come into the side and Glen Johnson shift to the left (and then right, and then central, and then right-central), with Jose Enrique left to come on for the final half-hour. I wouldn't be shocked to see the same tomorrow, but for now I'll pick the standard with Johnson right and Enrique left.
---As usual, thinking about the possibilities in midfield makes me want to vomit. If there's a repeat of the weekend's performance, Liverpool could realistically concede five goals and be out of the tie by the end of the first half. The fitness of Jay Spearing is unquestionably important, and if he's fit he has to start. That leaves Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson to round out what's hopefully a three-man midfield, with one further forward and the other partnering Spearing deeper.
---There's also uncertainty about who rounds out the attacking contingent, with Craig Bellamy putting in Liverpool's best shift for a full ninety against Bolton, Andy Carroll willing but continually impotent in attack, and Maxi featuring to little effect on the left. I'd guess Stewart Downing comes back into the side along with Dirk Kuyt, who, regardless of his struggles this season, I'd like to see in a match with such heavy implications. And despite the lack of significant recovery time, Bellamy's got to be involved.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
Liverpool cannot afford to repeat their second half performance at the Etihad, when they sank entirely into their own half and played solely to protect their narrow lead. It worked then, but I'm not optimistic that they'll be able to replicate the effort or the scoreline. You have to expect that Liverpool will do their fair share of defending, and City's certainly going to look to pressure early and often. Withstanding that surge, and the waves that will follow, is critical, and if Liverpool start to concede possession and give up any semblance of attack, it's going to be ugly. City's got to do the chasing, but Liverpool have to find a way to push back.
The League Cup is finally treated as though it's got a slight bit of importance to it, with Fox Soccer Channel airing it live in the US and Sky Sports 1 showing it in the UK. As usual, that makes watching via internet much easier, with a decent amount of streams likely to be produced from those or other stations broadcasting the match. Links for streams will be up first thing tomorrow morning, with team sheets updated once they're released.
Have a good rest of your Tuesday, and see you back here tomorrow.