Liverpool travel to Manchester and Old Trafford to face United for the second time in two weeks in a match that, depending on your resting heart rate, is either mildly exciting or something that's possibly life threatening. There's as much to cover off the pitch as there is on, but for everyone's sanity we'll try to just do the football. So for the hosts it's a chance to stay close or surpass their neighbors at the top of the table, and for Liverpool it's another opportunity to potentially make up ground on their rivals for the fourth spot. Also, HAND SHAKES. Crap.
As Noel pointed out yesterday, there's been plenty of chances to watch these two teams go at it over the past few seasons, and while Liverpool's had the better record, it's not really enough to provide much comfort heading into one of the more volatile matches on the English football calendar.
That's pretty much the case whenever, but the build-up to this one is particularly intense, and given the events of the past few months, there's concern that tomorrow will be memorable for anything but the actual match. By all accounts both clubs are interested in getting on with it---the FA Cup fixture at Anfield was mostly civil aside from the unfortunately predictable random acts of idiocy from both sets of supporters---which leaves room for at least a little optimism that we can spend most of the match nervously focusing on the action rather than nervously focusing on what sociocultural disaster awaits.
And as usual, there's plenty of reason to be nervous when facing United, as they've managed to butt their way near the top of the table despite at times appearing to be as weak as they've been in years. The draw with Chelsea was as good an example as any, with Alex Ferguson's side looking completely out of it after two quick goals for the home side to open the second half. But a combination of Webbian intervention and renewed belief saw United draw level, and it wouldn't have been much of a surprise had they gone on to win it. It's the same old story, and one that'd be inspiring if it wasn't so revolting.
They've been boosted by the return and subsequent impressive form of Antonio Valencia, which added to an attack that's been centered around the partnership of Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck up top. Paul Scholes' unretirement brought composure to a midfield that's been one of the club's weaker links, and they could add Tom Cleverley, who's been out since October after injuring his ankle against Everton. They'll likely be without Nani, Phil Jones, and Chris Smalling, though, and will further miss Nemanja Vidic, Darren Fletcher, and Michael Owen. Because he's important. David De Gea remains one of the biggest question marks in the side, with form rather than fitness an ongoing concern.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Spearing Gerrard
Bellamy Carroll Suarez
---Other than Lucas' continued absence, there's not any other confirmed injuries. We never really heard much about Jose Enrique's hamstring problem, though, so there's no telling where he stands.
---Martin Kelly was good on the right on Monday against Spurs, and Glen Johnson turned in an excellent performance on the left, but if Enrique's fit I'm guessing that Kelly slides back to the bench and normal service resumes across the back line. There didn't seem to be much of a drop-off earlier in the week, though, so if Enrique's still not fit, it's a comfortable setup with Kelly and Johnson on either side of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger.
---From the midfield forward is uncertain, with an unexpected shift turned in by Charlie Adam at Anfield and a lack of action for Jordan Henderson. I still think that Jay Spearing, Steven Gerrard, and Henderson give Liverpool their best chance at success right now, and I'm hopeful that those three names show up in the eleven. If Adam does start it wouldn't be surprising to see a similar setup as earlier in the week, but I think Henderson returns, and neither Spearing nor Gerrard should make way for Adam.
---The picture in attack is similarly murky, as the return of Luis Suarez and the improved form of Andy Carroll seems to demand that they both be included. There's a a way to do it that doesn't involve two in the midfield, and I think that's vital to Liverpool's success. If they both start, Suarez can push wider with Carroll up top, which leaves Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt, Stewart Downing, and Maxi to fill the remaining spot. Bellamy's been the key man for much of the season and should be ready to go, which leaves out the names above, but there's little certainty about what things will look like ahead of the fairly standard defensive setup.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
Embracing the sense of occasion hasn't been Liverpool's problem this season, so there's not much worry about whether or not they'll be prepared headed into tomorrow. And over the past few seasons they've played United remarkably close at Old Trafford, even after going down 0-2 in the dark days of the Roy Hodgson era. So playing to not make mistakes isn't the sexiest philosophy, but at times it's going to be required, just as it has been in each of the past few visits. There's space for Liverpool to press and try to take the match to their hosts, just not at the expense of their chances to get something out of what's sure to be a fully-charged atmosphere. If they can strike that balance and continue to defend steadily while breaking and pressuring when opportune, they've got an excellent chance to come away with the result
As you'd expect, this one's got the marquee treatment, with Sky Sports 1 airing the match live in England and ESPN2/ESPN3.com televising it for US viewers. That makes streams easier to snag, and we'll list those in the usual fashion in the matchday thread that'll run later on tonight. I'll have the teamsheets posted once I'm coherent, which will be around 4:45AM for me and 11:45AM GMT/6:45AM EST, with kickoff set for an hour later.
See you back here first thing tomorrow for what's hopefully a great way to start the weekend.