Liverpool make their third Wembley visit, this time to face Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. The clubs are more than familiar with one another, having played twice already and set for a fourth and final date at Anfield three days after they determine who'll be taking home the FA Cup Trophy. Neither side were overly impressive midweek in their respective losses, but recent history tells us that tomorrow's got the making of a fascinating---and potentially volatile---cup final.
The quicker the loss at Anfield on Tuesday's erased from memory the better, and hopefully the recaps of Liverpool's previous FA Cup triumphs that Noel initiated (and I'll finish throughout the day, barring any more internet catastrophes) have done enough to cleanse your palate. With successes few and far between this season, it's nice to look forward to something with positivity, and it's even nicer that Liverpool's results in domestic cup competition can actually provide a fairly strong evidence base for optimism.
Of course, that optimism is tempered by talk that tomorrow poses the only real chance at redemption for Liverpool after such a dismal league campaign, and the sheen of the League Cup win dimmed significantly in the time that's passed. I think most of us know that there is no redeeming this year's league form, and while it'd be nice if a cup double forgave Liverpool's faults, there's still massive changes that need to be made in the months that will follow tomorrow's match.
In many ways Chelsea's season has seen some similar ups and downs as Liverpool's, with the only slight difference being they've managed to stay within striking distance of the top four and are set to face Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in two weeks' time. But they've had their seemingly annual drama, with Andre Villas Boas' sacking, John Terry's general John Terrying, and talk of the need for continued overhaul just nine months after Villas Boas was supposed to usher in said overhaul.
Their resurgent form after Roberto Di Matteo was appointed as interim manager cannot be ignored, though, as they've lost only twice in all competitions with Di Matteo at the helm, and managed to grind out a 3-2 aggregate win over Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final. They've hit the opposition for five in each of their last two FA Cup matches---they opened an early lead and cemented the win late over Leicester City in the quarterfinals, and after heading into the break level at 1-1 with Spurs in the semi-final, scored four second-half goals, the first of which may or may have actually been, you know, a goal.
It'll be interesting to see how Di Matteo lines his squad up tomorrow, with most of the attention focused on whether or not Fernando Torres features up front. Given that he started against Newcastle, it'd be slightly surprising if he did, especially with Didier Drogba the more proven option in big matches. At the back it's fairly predictable, with Gary Cahill ruled out and David Luiz a late and unlikely decision. Branislav Ivanovic could push centrally to partner with Terry, and Jose Boswinga or Paolo Ferreira on the right with Ashley Cole on the left. It's a fair shout that Frank Lampard will start over Raul Meireles in midfield, with either Jon Obi Mikel or Michael Essien holding and Ramires driving forward. If Drogba's a certainty, it leaves Torres in the lurch, with Juan Mata, Daniel Sturridge, Solomon Kalou, and Florent Malouda left to round out the eleven.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Kuyt Gerrard Bellamy
---Everyone other than Lucas and Charlie Adam are apparently fit and available for selection, with few that played on Tuesday putting themselves in jeopardy by opting to jog around for awhile rather than actually trying.
---There's been plenty of speculation about what the recent rotation at the back means for tomorrow. Saturday we got Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger in central defense, and Tuesday we saw Sebastian Coates on the right and Martin Skrtel on the left. It's all nonsense, as we know that the best pairing is Skrtel right and Agger left. That's the only option. Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, who curiously came on in the second half of Tuesday's loss, should be on the right and left, respectively.
---Jay Spearing has had a torrid time of late, and while he's the only holding-type midfielder available, there's no way he should start tomorrow. Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson are serviceable as a pairing and adaptable with Steven Gerrard included, and they could start deeper with Gerrard further forward, similar to how they lined up against Norwich. Looking wide, there's no way Stewart Downing should start. It's just not possible. It's got to be two of Craig Bellamy, Maxi, Dirk Kuyt, or, if Kenny Dalglish opts to go with two up front, Gerrard. Just no, Stewart. No.
---If Dalglish does go with two in attack it'll likely be Carroll and Luis Suarez, which wouldn't be the worst decision in the world. Carroll was futile in his efforts midweek, but that was less about him and more about the fact that the other nine outfield players were passive and indifferent. A higher tempo approach might be chosen, though, and if that's the case we likely won't see Carroll until the second half.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
Getting the win, any way possible.
Plenty of viewing options available tomorrow, with kickoff set for 5:15PM BST/12:15PM EST and ITV1 televising the match in the UK along with ESPN (thanks Alex) and Fox Soccer Channel carrying coverage in the US. A wide network of broadcast options makes streams readily available, and we'll have links for those of you without television service in the matchday thread late tonight/early tomorrow. We'll also update the team sheets when they're released an hour or so before kickoff, and you can catch up with us and everyone else either in the comments thread of the matchday post or on Twitter.
Have a nice end to the week, and let's hope for something to celebrate tomorrow.