Liverpool host Reading tomorrow, looking for just their third league win in 2012 at Anfield and their second of the new season. The guests are winless and sit in the 18th spot, but have produced two draws in their last two and are more than capable of giving their hosts a test.
Despite some of the questions about form and fitness, the end of the international break is something to be celebrated--there's certainly no joy to be had in the concerns that Liverpool are left with after an abnormally unfortunate two weeks, but there's at least football that we care about to be played, and the requisite optimism about things changing for real this time.
There's no reason to believe that they won't except for the fact that they haven't, and if recent international breaks are any indication, we might need to extend our patience a bit beyond tomorrow. Reading are certainly a side that Liverpool should expect to beat, especially at Anfield, but their form after international breaks gone by combined with their dismal league record at Anfield in 2012 makes for a decent bit of discomfort ahead of a day that we'll otherwise be looking forward to.
We can also add in the most recent meeting between these two sides back in 2010, in which a scrappy Reading side fought back in the final minutes to knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup with a 2-1 win. Neither goalscorer from that day is still with the club--Shane Long, who got the winner, now falls over regularly and takes poor penalties for West Brom, and Gylfi Sigurdsson, who got the equalizer from the spot in second-half injury time, is at Spurs after a flirtation that nearly saw him follow Brendan Rodgers from Swansea--but manager Brian McDermott is, as he had taken over in a caretaker role less than a month earlier after Rodgers had left the club.
McDermott has guided the club back to the Premier League after a near-miss in the 2010-2011 season, mostly on the strength of a positive style that saw them secure promotion in mid-April. That hasn't panned out particularly well quite yet in the top flight, with only three points from their first six matches. They've managed draws with Swansea and Newcastle in their last two; they went 2-0 at the Liberty Stadium before giving up two in seven minutes, and against Newcastle they had twice taken the lead only to concede Demba Ba equalizers on both occasions.
They'll be close to full strength tomorrow, with only striker Noel Hunt a doubt with a heel injury and goalkeeper Adam Federici out. Pavel Pogrebnyak will lead the attack and Jobi McAnuff will support from the left flank; those two, along with defender Kaspars Gorkss are the only players in the side to start each of the club's first six matches. Against Swansea they had Hunt to support Pogrebnyak and both got goals, and if Hunt's absent they could call on Jason Roberts, who came on for Hunt in Wales.
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Suso Suarez Sterling
The aforementioned questions to emerge from the international break are significant--Pepe Reina might not be fit to start, Andre Wisdom had to come home early from U21 duty, Glen Johnson and Steven Gerrard both played a full 90 on Wednesday in Poland, and, most notably, Fabio Borini's ruled out for at least three months after suffering a broken foot. He joins Martin Kelly and Lucas on the longer-term injury list, exacerbating the club's concerns in attack.
I don't know that Wisdom's injury concerns are significant enough to keep him out tomorrow, as the early exit was more precautionary than anything else. He had been involved in a nasty challenge against Stoke and played through pain for the rest of the match, and it just never healed to the level that would have allowed him to take part in the two-legged playoff with Serbia. Hopefully he's ready to go tomorrow, which would push Johnson to the left on the other side of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, the latter of whom had his own fitness concerns to deal with over the break.
I'd to see Jordan Henderson feature tomorrow after successful spell as captain of the U21s over the past two weeks, but I'm guessing that Gerrard plays despite his shift in Poland, joining Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin, both of whom started for their countries midweek as well. Jonjo Shelvey would appear to be ahead of Henderson as well, and if there's room to be made for him it'll probably be at the expense of Sahin. Allen and Gerrard are two of five outfield players under Brendan Rodgers to start every league match, and unless Gerrard or Shelvey pushes up to join the attack, Sahin seems the odd man out.
That could very well happen, but if it does it leaves more uncertainty as to who flanks Luis Suarez. Raheem Sterling's struggled in his past two matches and looks to be behind Suso on form, but the recently-resigned Spaniard hasn't featured much on the left and would have to head there if Shelvey or Gerrard plays on the right. An unchanged midfield and attack seems the most likely, though, which would mean a Suso-Suarez-Sterling forward line, with hopes that there's more success for them than the last time out.
Whether it's winning ugly or winning pretty, Liverpool are in a spot where they're going to have to start getting results. The opposition certainly determines how likely achieving the result will be--Norwich allowed far too much space for an active, aggressive style to exploit, and Stoke suffocated with a overly physical, verging on assaulting style. Reading will be open, for sure, but it's at Anfield, and they might be a bit more conservative despite Liverpool's lack of home success. Despite how difficult it's been, it's still frustratingly simple--Liverpool need to get goals from someone.
Tomorrow's match is going to be a challenge to watch, as there's no listings stateside or in the UK. Kickoff is set for 3:00PM BST/10:00AM EST, and we'll have the matchday thread up late tonight/early tomorrow. Please chime in with any ways to watch in your location in the comments thread below or on the overnight open thread, and I'll try to include whatever's legal in the Ways to Watch section tomorrow. Team sheets will be included an hour before the start time, and we'll be up and running here and on Twitter.
Hope you all have a nice end to the week, and we'll get the weekend going together, hopefully in style.