Liverpool head to Old Trafford for Sunday's marquee matchup in search of their first win against a side in the top half of the Premier League table.
The problem with big matches for Liverpool over the past few seasons is that they inspire more nausea than they do excitement, with tomorrow's fixture at Old Trafford setting the standard for matches that you'd love to watch in theory but can't actually watch for fear of spontaneously combusting. There's fun and then there's this, and it's decidedly not fun.
But it's an important match for Liverpool on the front end of another critical stretch--Norwich at Anfield and Oldham away in the FA Cup follow over the next two weeks, and then away dates to Arsenal and Manchester City to wrap up January and kick off February, respectively. Bargaining for an acceptable points return has already begun, with somewhere in the neighborhood of four deemed in the "okay" range. None of the other three have the sentiment around them, though, and regardless of the disparity in points and success of late, this one's the biggest.
Where there isn't any disparity is in the fact that the narrative's stayed the same for the two clubs in recent years--Liverpool look average to decent and can't string together any consistent run of results, and United are average to disappointing and can't stop winning. That's especially true at Old Trafford, where they've won nine of ten in league and last dropped points at the end of September, when Spurs handed them their lone home loss of the season. Unbeaten since mid-November and riding the form of Robin van Persie, they've been able to extend their lead at the top to seven points and look primed to earn their twentieth league title in May.
Alex Ferguson will be without Wayne Rooney tomorrow, as the striker's not supposed to be available until the FA Cup replay with West Ham on Wednesday, but Nani and Anderson are expected to return. van Persie is the obvious one to look out for, on unbelievable form while leading the Premier League in goals and erasing any doubts about the "risk" Ferguson took in bringing him aboard. Both Nemanja Vidic and Shinji Kagawa have worked their way back into the side as well, and we'll likely see an eleven littered with familiar faces--David de Gea in goal, Rafael, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans (if Vidic isn't ready), and Patrice Evra across the back, two from Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, and Tom Cleverley in the midfield, Antonio Valencia, Ryan Giggs, Ashley Young, or Nani wide, and van Persie leading the attack with support from Kagawa or Danny Welbeck.
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Sturridge Suarez Sterling
It's likely too soon for Fabio Borini, who reportedly returned to training this past week and might make the squad, and Jose Enrique has at least a few weeks before he's back in the conversation. Martin Kelly remains out as well, but he's currently the only long-term injury on the books, with no new fitness concerns to report after last weekend's win at Mansfield.
There's three options at the back--stick with the same four we saw against Sunderland (which I'm guessing Rodgers does), shift Glen Johnson to the right and bring Stewart Downing to left-back, or change entirely to go with three at the back and two of Johnson, Downing, and Wisdom in wing-back roles. I suppose all three are possible, but while Wisdom's struggled in a couple other important appearances, I think he starts anyway with hopes that he's matured further since Everton and Chelsea. Having a more fit Lucas wouldn't hurt, either.
We know the Brazilian will start with Steven Gerrard in some capacity, so once again the biggest question is who rounds things off. It should be Jordan Henderson, no questions asked. He's more than earned an extended run with his performances over the past few months, and his pressing further up the pitch when played with Lucas and Gerrard improved both. Joe Allen's always a possibility but should lose out to Henderson, and Jonjo Shelvey's not really in the conversation for a starting berth in league at this point.
The only uncertainty up front seems to be whether or not Daniel Sturridge joins Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez; I can see the merits in keeping him on the bench for the first hour or so, but with the other option being Stewart Downing, I don't know if it's in Liverpool's best interest. I think that's actually the most probable, but after how poor Downing was against Mansfield, I can't bring myself to pick him. Whoever starts on the right needs to provide significant support for Wisdom if the young fullback is in the eleven.
Earlier kickoff tomorrow, with the start time set for 1:30PM GMT/8:30AM EST. Sky Sports 1 will air the match in the UK as part of their Super Sunday coverage, and Fox Soccer Channel and their gaggle of idiots will have it live in the US. Team sheets will run when they're released an hour before kickoff, and we'll have the overnight and matchday threads up in the hours leading up to the match. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but in the event this one brings a cluster of traffic and commiserating in the matchday thread, we might split things up for first half and second half discussion.
Hope you'll join us at some point, and that we all just manage to survive.