31 January 2012

Liverpool 3-0 Wolves

Carroll 52'
Bellamy 61'
Kuyt 78'

The result implies dominance, and Liverpool were fairly dominant throughout, but 3-0 did not look likely at half-time.

Sure, had Liverpool taken one of their multiple first half chances, most notably from Kuyt in the third minute, or had Anthony Taylor given Adam an absolutely dead certain penalty in the 35th, the side might have strolled to victory sooner. But after 45 minutes, Liverpool were ruing a lack of control in midfield, poor finishing, and worse refereeing. Not for the first time.

The second half destroyed that notion of further futility quite quickly, as all three strikers made the score sheet. Quickly changing ends after a Wolves corner, with Bellamy nearly set free by a long-range Enrique pass, Liverpool quickly scored from the resulting throw-in. A quick throw from Bellamy, an inch-perfect cross from Adam, and Carroll beating his marker, volleying a low shot past Hennessey. All before the defense had settled thanks to Enrique shifting defense to attack in a moment's notice. Not for the last time.

Nine minutes later, Liverpool's in-form striker sealed the result, finally thanks to the first opposition goalkeeper error of the season. From his own half, Spearing spread to ball to Bellamy on the left flank, given more than enough space to cut in from the left, curling a shot which Hennessey, by all rights, should have parried behind. Maybe what goes around truly does eventually come back around. Kuyt hit the capstone with 12 minutes to play, again started by Enrique and set up by Adam. The left back embarrassed Frimpong just outside Liverpool's box, beating the midfielder with both strength and pace, before blistering a cross-field 60-yard pass to a wide-open Kuyt on the right. The Dutchman passed to Adam and moved into space, and Adam returned the favor after three defenders converged on the ball, with everyone surprised Adam didn't attempt to go it alone when in possession in the penalty box. Kuyt's low finish from a narrow angle was cool, collected, and excellently placed.

Scoring was the most notable second-half improvement, perpetually the most needed improvement, but Liverpool's improvement began with better control in midfield. With Spearing busily chasing all over the pitch in the first 45 minutes, Wolves found it easy to carve through Liverpool at times. I'm adamant that Adam does some good things which are overshadowed by more obvious bad things, but covering for his midfield partner and staying in position are clearly not his strong points. However, in the second half, Spearing seemed more comfortable staying at home, playing more like Lucas usually plays: sitting deeper, covering defenders by sprinting from one flank to the other rather than eagerly charging forward and pressing high up the pitch, which can leave gaps at the back.

To be fair to the home side, they weren't the worst opposition Liverpool's faced this season. Unlike Aston Villa's 90 minutes of insipid torpor, Wolverhampton at least threatened a few times, especially during Liverpool's shaky first half. Edwards' flick forced a decent save from Reina in the 12th, Fletcher headed onto the roof of the net from a quick corner in the 28th, Kightly curled a shot wide in the 40th, and Ebanks-Blake nearly blasted in a hapax legomenon consolation from absolutely nowhere in the 86th.

Nonetheless, Liverpool will have few matches easier than this. It's welcomed relief to comprehensively beat a side that Liverpool expects to beat, one of the rare times that's happened this season, especially over the last few months. 3-0 for the second-straight match on this ground. "Can we play here every week?"

Bellamy was again Liverpool's star man, a constant threat, with twice as many shots on target as the next closest player and now Liverpool's top scorer in the league with his sixth goal in his last six league starts. But at least he had competition from other attackers this time. Carroll continues to improve, looking like a switch might have flicked: constantly closing down defenders, finding more attackers with flick-ons, and notching Liverpool's opener after getting behind covering midfielder Jonsson. Henderson was surprisingly energetic after his exertions in the last two matches, while Kuyt finally got his 50th league goal, scoring for the second-consecutive match. Both deeper midfielders were better after the break, Spearing for the reasons mentioned earlier and Adam for two more assists to extend his team-leading amount.

Winning becomes a habit. Too often, we've seen Liverpool disappoint in these matches and come out worse after the interval after failing to take advantage of a bright start. Not today. No matter the opposition's deficiencies, more of that please. It'll be needed with the run of fixtures Liverpool have ahead.

30 January 2012

Liverpool at Wolves 01.31.12

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 09.24.11
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.22.11
0-1 Wolves (h) 12.29.10
0-0 (a) 01.26.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 United (h); 2-2 City (h); 1-3 Bolton (a)
Wolves: 2-3 Villa (h); 0-1 Brum (h); 1-1 Spurs (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 5; Adam, Carroll, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson 1
Wolves: Fletcher 9; Hunt, Ward 3; Doyle, Edwards, O'Hara 2; Ebanks-Blake, Jarvis, Kightly, Zubar 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

You may remember Mr. Taylor from last season's lone Carling Cup match. Or 2-0 Stoke at Anfield. But probably more from the Carling Cup match.

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Spearing Adam
Kuyt Shelvey Downing

Same old story. With a tired team after two tough matches in the previous six days, who's available?

Thankfully, it seems Spearing will be back in action, which is even better news considering rumors that Gerrard was taken off against United after a hamstring twinge. Even if Gerrard's hamstrings are fine, whether the substitution was precautionary or tactical, I'd be surprised if he played tomorrow. He's started six consecutive games since returning from an extended absence, and keeping the captain fit has to be one of Dalglish's preeminent concerns.

It seems the perfect match to also bring Shelvey back into the fold, playing ahead of the hopefully-returning Spearing and Adam, who was left on the bench against United. If Liverpool play two up top, partnering Carroll with Kuyt or Bellamy, Shelvey could also start on either flank. Again, if Carroll's available after Saturday's exertions.

The front four (or three) is just as speculative. Liverpool have predominantly played one up top during Suarez's suspension (this is the last match of his ban), with the exceptions being Carroll and Bellamy up front at Bolton and a Kuyt and Bellamy pairing in the first half against Oldham. Neither were especially effective, to put it nicely; Carroll and Bellamy didn't do badly against Bolton, combining for Liverpool's lone goal, but everyone else sure did. The Welshman didn't start against United, but might again be more useful as a speedy, game-changing option off the bench. Energizer Bunny Kuyt, also used as a substitute against the Mancs, never needs a rest, finally in fine form following City and United, while Downing seems more likely than Maxi to stay in the side. Liverpool could also deploy something akin to a three-man strike force, with Bellamy and Kuyt on either side of Carroll.

Enrique has been one of Liverpool's better summer signings, but his form's dropped during the winter months. At fault for United's lone strike, with a similar error against Bolton nearly leading to a goal and unimpressively jogging back without covering on Bolton's second, if any defender needs a rest, it's the left-back. To be fair, he's started more matches than any other outfield player, one of only two outfield players (along with Adam) to start every league fixture. Agger's another who could use a break, but I'd imagine Dalglish will stick with his preferred central pairing if at all possible.

Wolves replaced Bolton in the bottom three after the Trotters' triumph over Liverpool last week. Winless since December 4 – with five losses and five draws over that spell – this is the exact type of fixture that Liverpool should take three points from but the exact type of fixture which rightfully strikes fear into fans' hearts this season. Admittedly, two of Wolves' five draws since December came in good performances at Arsenal and Tottenham, but Wolves have been suffering more often than not for the last two months, demonstrated by the rumors about replacing Mick McCarthy.

With Frimpong and O'Hara injured, and Karl Henry suspended, Wolves' cupboard is nearly bare in central midfield. McCarthy could try to shoehorn Hunt, Ward, or Jonsson in the middle with Edwards and Milijas, but a 4-4-2 with both Fletcher and Doyle or Ebanks-Blake up top looks more likely. Fletcher is far and away the biggest threat, with three times as many goals as his closest competitor. The Scot struck Wolves' early second half consolation in the reverse fixture at Anfield.

It goes without saying that Liverpool need to use last week's cup wins as the basis for improvement over the rest of the league campaign. Disappointing more often than not over the first 22 fixtures, Liverpool are still, somehow, just six points behind fourth and the holy grail that is Champions League qualification. Despite multiple setbacks, that's not an impossible task over the course of 16 matches. We're getting very close, though.

With the magical Suarez returning next time out against Tottenham, Liverpool have one more chance to prove there's goals in the side, especially against supposedly-inferior opposition, without its Uruguayan talisman. The cup runs have been both inspiring and warmly-welcomed, but the club have fewer and fewer chances to improve both its place and performances in the league.

28 January 2012

Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United

Agger 21'
Park 40'
Kuyt 88'

For the second match in a row: *shakes head* Football, man. Football.

A first half set play goal, followed by increased United pressure and the inevitable equalizer following a defensive mistake. In a 4-1-4-1 formation with Carragher holding in midfield, Liverpool were unable to settle on the ball, in a typically frenetic no-holds-barred cup game.

Then, Dalglish's substitutions changed the game. Bringing on Adam and Kuyt for Carragher and Maxi just after the hour mark allowed Liverpool a greater foothold, with Bellamy for Gerrard 10 minutes later giving Liverpool greater impetus going forward without conceding ground in the center of the park. Meanwhile, Ferguson's response, removing United's third midfielder – the tiring Paul Scholes – for a forward, matching Liverpool's 4-4-2 formation, ensured United were outnumbered in the middle, with Chicharito's theoretical release valve smothered by the impressive Skrtel. Kuyt's late winner, his first second goal of the season, came at the best possible time, a hammer blow with little Fergie time left for a comeback. It's the first late winner (in the final ten minutes) since Johnson's at Stamford Bridge in November, and only Liverpool's third of the season.

The home side had the first chances, with De Gea saving Maxi's fierce shot in the 4th and Gerrard unable to control Henderson's cross in space in the box five minutes later. Meanwhile, Valencia cannoned an effort off the bar after bursting down Liverpool's left in the 17th, cutting in after beating Maxi for pace. But Liverpool struck first, and on a corner no less. Carroll, parked in front of De Gea, cleared out the goalkeeper and three defenders, leaving plenty of space for Agger to connect with Gerrard's cross. His first goal of the season as well, I might add.

But Liverpool were unable to take advantage of the early lead. Dropping deep and unable to settle on the ball, United grew in ambition. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool paid the price for a singular mistake, as Rafael – easily United's best player in the first half – out-muscled Enrique far too easily, sped towards the byline, and cut back for an open Park parked on the penalty spot.

Liverpool needed some stellar defending soon after the restart, as Agger scrambled Giggs' cross out of the six-yard box and Skrtel did well to cover after Reina was exposed, chasing out of his area trying to close down Welbeck, who beat Liverpool's back line to a ball over the top.

Then came the game-changing substitutions. Kuyt provided far more of a threat than the again-disappointing Maxi, even prior to his winner, while Adam added far more to Liverpool's midfield going forward without the feared decline in overall defending. Bellamy replacing the gassed Gerrard was more of a surprise, but removing a midfielder for a striker, shifting to 4-4-2, didn't expose Liverpool in the slightest.

Still, a winner didn't look on the cards. Kuyt had a couple of half-chances – a shot from the top of the box blocked, a downward header from Downing's cross tamely wide – while Welbeck spectacularly spurned a couple of very speculative opportunities. Then, Kuyt popped up with a classic Route 1 goal with two minutes left. Reina punted the goal kick down-field following a wild Welbeck shot, Carroll easily beat Evans to the header, cushioning it perfectly for Kuyt to run onto with Evra caught ball-watching. Bursting into the box, De Gea was unable to save the Dutchman's powerful low shot, and the Kop absolutely erupted. Liverpool should have increased the final margin a minute later, again via Carroll and Kuyt, but the striker's back post point-black header hit the crossbar and the substitute could only toe-poke the rebound wide. Otherwise, the two, along with Henderson, trapped the ball at the corner flag for almost all of the three added minutes, with United wholly out of ideas.

Today was an excellent day for Liverpool's usual scapegoats. Carroll was probably man of the match, heavily involved in both goals. Kuyt scored the winner, with a second game-changing performance after a a few months of disappointment, another big game performance which hopefully marked another second-half-of-the-season resurgence. Adam's entrance vastly improved the side, Downing did well whether on the left or right. Outside of Enrique's mistake, Liverpool's defense rarely, if ever, looked like conceding; Skrtel, again impeccable, deserves special mention, as does Martin Kelly. But, like against City, it was a team-wide win, the proper response to last weekend's utter failure.

It wouldn't be Liverpool v United lately without a focus on off-field concerns. Evra was booed on every touch, which seemed to decrease as the match went on, coupled with reports of repeated Hillsborough chants from the away end (obviously, I wasn't there). More concerning were was a Liverpool fan photographed ostensibly making monkey gestures and a report of three United fans allegedly arrested for spitting on the Hillsborough memorial after the match (later denied by Merseyside Police; whoever started that rumor needs multiple smacks). All are regrettable and worthy of condemnation, the former two unfortunately expected and the latter two especially vile. There are bad people who support every club. Sadly, which probably says too much about what I expect from humanity, I expected worse. Pity there's another on the horizon so soon, with Liverpool traveling to Old Trafford in two weeks with Suarez back from suspension. Please, everyone, be better.

Despite the lamentable need to condemn idiots, all idiots, I really hope the actual football makes more headlines. It deserves to. Liverpool have truly responded to poor performances against Bolton and Stoke, deservingly beating City over two legs followed by yet another Anfield FA Cup win over United. Neither alleviates the long-standing concerns about beating sides Liverpool are supposed to beat, especially at home, but both results are incredibly welcome, far better than the alternative, and a sturdy platform for second-half improvement. Roll on, roll on.

27 January 2012

Liverpool v Manchester United 01.28.12

7:45am ET, live in the US on FSC.

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 10.15.11
3-1 Liverpool (h) 03.06.11
0-1 United (a; FA Cup) 01.09.11
2-3 United (a) 09.19.10

Previous round:
Liverpool: 5-1 Oldham (h)
United: 3-2 City (a)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 City (h); 1-3 Bolton (a); 0-0 Stoke (h)
United: 2-1 Arsenal (a); 3-0 Bolton (h); 3-2 City (a)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Bellamy, Suarez 8; Gerrard 5; Carroll, Maxi 4; Adam, Skrtel 2; Downing, Henderson, Johnson, Kelly, Kuyt, Shelvey 1
United: Rooney 18; Welbeck 9; Berbatov, Nani 8; Chicharito 6; Valencia 4; Giggs, Owen, Young 3; Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher, Jones, Park, Smalling 2; Macheda, Scholes 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson Mark Halsey

Atkinson was supposed to be in charge, but pulled out Thursday with a virus. Halsey, who hasn't refereed Liverpool in more than a year, is his replacement.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Adam
Kuyt Henderson Downing

A normal, subdued cup tie, then. Back to routine business after Wednesday's big match. What? Oh, right. Crap. So, do we just talk about the football, humming with fingers in ears pretending nothing but the match exists, hoping that the on-field play is all that'll be worth discussing? Yes. Yes we do.

Who starts for Liverpool is obviously, as always, contingent on who's fit after Wednesday's exertion.

It goes without saying that Bellamy has been Liverpool's best player recently, the main and sometimes only goal threat during Suarez's suspension. But he played 87 grueling minutes on Wednesday, which came after 90 minutes at Bolton. His knees have held up far better than expected (*knocks feverishly on wood*) but three games in a week, especially this week, seems a very long bridge too far.

Admittedly, there are worries about almost every player involved after City, after 90 minutes of high-pressure, heavy pressing, at times end-to-end football. And it's not as if Liverpool are spoilt for options. But that XI was basically Liverpool's best possible XI, and Dalglish will change it as little as possible.

The continuing absence of Spearing and Lucas pretty much demands three in central midfield based on recent evidence, and those three almost certainly have to be Gerrard, Adam, and Henderson. Dalglish spoke about possibly having Spearing back, which would be a massive boon, but I'm doubtful given that he couldn't make the bench two days ago.

Neither Kuyt nor Downing has set the world afire from the flanks, although both did well on Wednesday, but Maxi's been little better lately, we've already discussed Bellamy, and Shelvey's seen few chances. While it's grounded in less concrete concerns, I also fear for Agger, who's only recently gotten over a knock picked up in the first leg against City, caught flat-footed for City's near-winner second goal. And Carroll remains that disappointing expensive elephant in the blah blah blah you get the picture we've been here before.

United have multiple fitness problems of their own. Jones and Nani were injured against Arsenal, joining Young, Cleverly, Owen, Fletcher, and Vidic on the casualty list. Rooney, Ferdinand, and Anderson are also doubtful, but will play – especially the first two – if at all possible. Pity that United are one of the teams most capable of overcoming so many injuries.

The Mancs continue to be a creaky but deflatingly-effective crushing machine, three points behind City and on a three-game win streak having beaten both City and Arsenal following a two game slide against Newcastle and Blackburn bracketing the New Year. Even with the aforementioned players absent, Welbeck, Chicharito, and Berbatov can score goals from nothing, while Valencia's in resurgent form on the flanks. United's potential weakness come in the team's spine. Evans and Smalling have been unimpressive as a back-up pairing, the usual midfield of Carrick and Giggs can be out-numbered and overrun, and neither De Gea nor Lindegaard have been able to make the first-choice goalkeeper position their own.

United were surprisingly defensive in the previous meeting, lucky to come away with a draw when Chicharito got free on a set play, scoring with what was United's second (and only threatening) shot on target. It's doubtful that Ferguson will make the same mistakes, which will require Liverpool's midfield – which contained both Gerrard and Adam – to be as good, if not better, than in October's draw. Also, Liverpool need to take their chances blah blah blah you get the picture we've been here before.

Liverpool are missing key players, United are missing key players. It's a one-off cup tie, on Liverpool's ground. It'll be a typical English masterpiece: blood, thunder, sweat, tears, and kicking anything that moves. Anything can happen. Which, I assume, is something we're all afraid of. The other fear relates to that off-field nonsense we're not acknowledging in the hopes it won't rear its ugly head. La la la I can't hear you.

25 January 2012

Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City

Liverpool win 3-2 on aggregate

De Jong 31'
Gerrard 40' (pen)
Dzeko 67'
Bellamy 74'

*Shakes head* Football, man. Football.

So much for Liverpool holding what they had. This was no lock-down defensive effort. Liverpool played defense by attacking, and would have settled the tie far sooner if not for Joe Hart's continuing brilliance.

Liverpool played as they played for the first twenty minutes in the previous leg, taking the game to City, and could have been ahead within four minutes. Lescott's failed clearance fell to the feet of Enrique, somehow denied point-blank by Hart. Bellamy was an indescribable handful up front, and forced another excellent save with a strong turn and shot in the 21st. The all-action striker was supported by Downing, Henderson and Kuyt, with Adam and Gerrard deeper, Adam joining the attack more often than the captain.

City had more and more possession, but had been wholly blunted until the 31st, unable to enter the final third and unable to register a shot anywhere near the target. Until de Jong, of all players, found space 25 yards out when Adam stupidly chased Silva and the ball even though both were covered by Gerrard, leaving space for City's holding midfielder to cannon a shot he'll never be able to replicate. One shot on target, one goal.

But Liverpool weren't behind for long. Unlike against Bolton, or in other dreadful disappointments, heads didn't drop. Nine minutes later, Adam partly made amends by starting a move which won the penalty, brilliantly shifting into space past Barry, with his cross deflected out to Agger, the same player who won the penalty in the last meeting. City fans and contrarian "neutrals" will decry the decision, as Agger's shot struck Richards' leg before hitting his arm, but Richards probably shouldn't have had both hands above his head to block a goal-bound effort. Gerrard's penalty was a carbon copy of the last, and Hart had even less of a chance to stop this one.

Back ahead, Liverpool didn't look to change tactics after the interval. And although City made a half-time substitution, bringing on Agüero for the hapless Savic (having strangely played three center-backs in the first half), Liverpool remained the more-attacking side. Hart repeated earlier excellence with wonderful saves to deny Skrtel and Downing within ten minutes of the whistle. But then City struck again. Quickly countering with Glen Johnson caught upfield, Kolarov eluded Gerrard, with his cross met by Dzeko inches from goal as Agger didn't track his run. Two shots on target, two goals. Meanwhile, Liverpool had taken somewhere around 15 at this point.

But what looked to be a hammer blow, yet another nail in a coffin full of them, was only a seven-minute setback. Bellamy, who looked out on his feet, ready to be substituted any minute, restored Liverpool's aggregate lead after lovely interplay with Kuyt and Johnson: Kuyt cut in from the right and found Bellamy in the box, and Bellamy played a wonderful one-two with the advancing Johnson before slotting past his former teammate. It's always nice when a narrative comes to fruition.

Unsurprisingly, Liverpool were under pressure for the final 15 minutes, and City actually registered shots on target which didn't go in. Substitute Adam Johnson shot tamely at Reina following unbelievable recovery speed from Enrique, while the otherwise uninvolved Agüero bicycled straight at the keeper in injury time. Agger also had to be on hand to block Dzeko's scrambled close-range effort in the 87th, right before Dalglish replaced Bellamy with another defender in Martin Kelly.

For once, attack serves as the best form of defense for Liverpool, which is a welcome but rare occurrence this season. Bellamy was indescribably important, a release valve with his pace, a non-stop irascible handful who put City under constant pressure. His reward is facing another former club in the final. Gerrard was Liverpool's other standout, playing as the deepest midfielder. It's no coincidence both Silva and Agüero were almost nonexistent with the captain in that position. And, with Liverpool using a five-man midfield, his partnership with Adam was vastly improved, despite the Scot's role in City's opener. Henderson was also excellent as the most advanced midfielder, while Kuyt had what was easily his best match of this otherwise forgettable season.

I hate to be Captain Buzzkill, but this obviously doesn't excuse poor performance after poor performance against all those sides we expected Liverpool to beat. If anything, it makes those performances more infuriating. Once again, Liverpool hit heights against top-quality opposition, at their best against the best. Tactics, personnel, and individual performances all ranged from mostly faultless to supremely impressive.

And now, with the first trip to the new Wembley on the horizon – Liverpool's first trip to any Wembley for 16 seasons – hopefully this performance will serve as the confidence boost and catalyst we've been waiting months for.

24 January 2012

Liverpool v Manchester City 01.25.12

Liverpool lead 1-0 on aggregate.

2:45pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 01.11.12
0-3 City (a) 01.03.12
1-1 (h) 11.27.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.11.11

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Chelsea (a); 2-1 Stoke (a); 2-1 Brighton (a); 3-1 Exeter (a)
City: 1-0 Arsenal (a); 5-2 Wolves (a); 2-0 Brum (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-3 Bolton (a); 0-0 Stoke (h); 1-0 City (a)
City: 3-2 Tottenham (h); 1-0 Wigan (a); 0-1 Liverpool (h)

Goalscorers (Carling Cup):
Liverpool: Suarez 3; Maxi 2; Bellamy, Carroll, Gerrard, Kelly, Kuyt 1
City: Dzeko 2; Agüero, Balotelli, Johnson, Hargreaves, Nasri 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Spearing
Downing Henderson Bellamy

What exactly did Dalglish mean by "If that's the level they [the players] expect this football club to play at, they won't be here long"? More importantly, who exactly was he referring to?

Sure, we all have guesses. Educated guesses, no less. And everyone has their favored scapegoat, almost certainly bought last summer. My guesses are immediately evident from the two usual starters missing in the line-up predicted above. The fact remains that they're still guesses. Nonetheless, there will assuredly be changes from Saturday's line-up. Heads have rolled and are probably still rolling.

Despite being at Anfield, Liverpool will probably protect their lead and look to counter. Dalglish may well deploy the three at the back as against Stoke and in the last stages of the last leg, but keeping faith with the preferred back four seems safer, even after conceding three at Bolton. Inviting City pressure is loosening the thread which holds the sword of Damocles over the club, but a compact, cagey game should suit Liverpool far more than the opposition. At Anfield, Liverpool should be more expansive than at the Etihad two weeks ago, but this will not be a 4-0 romp of Real Madrid; the template will still be based more on this season's wins at Chelsea and City. At the least, that Liverpool are protecting a lead and are facing difficult opposition means we shouldn't see the much-maligned, easily criticized 4-4-2 formation.

If Kuyt does play up top – as often happens in "big games," no matter his current struggles – or even if it's Carroll again, Liverpool have to have to have to get runners from midfield forward when attacking, whether Bellamy, Downing, Maxi, Henderson, Kuyt, or whomever play behind the striker(s). That was the biggest problem in the second half of the last leg, the biggest problem against Stoke, and one of many problems last Saturday.

Central midfield remains the other overriding concern. It's ever so strange to write, but if he's fit, the midfield is Spearing plus two. And Spearing's fitness is crucial. The loss at Bolton dreadfully exposed Gerrard and Adam's limitations as a midfield pairing. Liverpool need a defensive midfielder, even more so than Liverpool need added firepower. Some teams are able to excel without one – most notably the Mancs, who often use a Giggs-Carrick partnership. Liverpool have not been able to do similar at any time this season. Liverpool need a water-carrier, someone to do the dirty work to free up the likes of Gerrard, Adam, and Henderson. Right now, Spearing looks the only player on the roster with that ability.

Having Henderson in the hole, even though he was another of Saturday's disappointments, provides a willing runner who'll also help solidify the spine, and moves him into a position where he's far more comfortable. Shelvey is another possibility who can deliver similar, but that he's only started at Villa in mid-December and against Oldham three weeks ago is a clue that he probably won't start here either.

Balotelli will probably join Kompany on the FA's blacklist, as City have until tomorrow to decide whether to appeal the Italian's four-game suspension for "stamping" on Scott Parker. City should probably count their blessings that Lescott isn't suspended as well for smashing his forearm into Kaboul's face; the already-thin defense would miss Lescott far more than City's attack will miss Balotelli. With both Toures still at the African Cup of Nations, the back-line is likely to be the same as in the last leg: Richards-Savic-Lescott-Clichy. No matter the missing players, predicting City's midfield and attack is a bit harder.

The league leaders have played 13 domestic away fixtures in the league and cups. They've scored at least two goals in seven, winning four of those matches by at least two goals, the margin which would ensure victory tomorrow. However, those seven games with at least two goals were the first seven away fixtures of the season. Starting with November's 1-1 draw at Anfield, City have two wins, two draws, and two losses on the road, scoring no more than once in each. Winning 1-5 at Spurs and 1-6 at United seems like a long time ago, especially after a 0-0 draw at West Brom and a 0-1 injury time loss at Sunderland. Nonetheless, Liverpool are certainly well aware of City's potential for those egregious score lines. You know the murderer's row attack: Agüero, Silva, Nasri, Milner, Dzeko, Johnson, etc. etc. Any one of those players can single-handedly destroy Liverpool's Wembley hopes if given the opportunity. So don't give them the opportunity.

That Liverpool have usually been at their best against the best and that Dalglish will undoubtedly demand a response to the abortion at Bolton should provide fans some needed optimism. If nothing else, a mid-week Anfield night with a cup final at stake should be inspiration enough for whoever lines up on the pitch.

22 January 2012

Winter Blues

"Now is the winter of our discontent."


Liverpool have averaged 1.00 points per game or fewer in eight months over the last four-and-a-half seasons – eight of 46 months during this time frame. Three were in January, including this season, with one in December. Half of Liverpool's horrible months since the 2007-08 season have come during winter, under Benitez, Hodgson, and Dalglish.

Admittedly, January isn't quite over with just yet. If Liverpool win at Wolves on the 31st, it will bump this season's January average all the way up to 1.00 points per game. Which will still be worse than just four other months since the start of 2007-08. A draw would lead to an average of 0.50 points per game; a loss an average of 0.25. If Liverpool don't win in nine days, it'll be the worst month during this span, possibly tied with the end of 2009-10 when Liverpool lost to Chelsea and drew at Hull with nothing to play for. No matter next week's result, this month's average will be really, really not good. The highest the four-and-a-half season January average can climb is 1.33 points per game, still worse than the next-closest month by more than a third of a point.

January cost Liverpool its long-desired league title in 2008-09. It nearly cost Liverpool Champions League qualification in 2007-08 if not for a remarkable run to finish that campaign, not unlike the subsequent season. December plus the first match in January were the final blow to Hodgson's ill-fated rotten regime. And while Liverpool's results clearly improved after Dalglish took the reins, last January would have been Dalglish's worst month of the campaign if not for two tepid losses to close the season once Champions League qualification was finally a lost cause. The best January in recent history came in 2009-10, that abhorrent campaign which saw Benitez get the sack, which should tell you how strange that season truly was.

That Liverpool are historically awful during this month is little consolation for the team's recent troubles. But we've seen this script before, even if this season's script is frustratingly far more goal-shy and frustratingly far more frustrating given heightened expectations.

Selfishly, this is all the evidence Liverpool fans need for a winter break. And from now on, we'll just tell Liverpool players than every month is March.

Month-by-month statistics in the comments section.

21 January 2012

Liverpool 1-3 Bolton

M Davies 4'
Reo-Coker 29'
Bellamy 36'
Steinsson 50'

So is this what FSG feared when appointing Dalglish? A manager that should be, hopefully, exempt from criticism, but there has been so much to criticize in tactics, personnel, and transfer dealings lately. Let alone the performances from those on the pitch. Hodgson was absolutely excoriated for games like this. Being the best player and one of the most-successful managers in Liverpool history can't save Dalglish from similar, if deservedly less vehement.

I can't keep making excuses, and probably have to finally admit I've been proven wrong. The jury I've tried to keep hung keeps delivering its verdict louder and louder. Liverpool's summer signing scapegoats still aren't clicking, and still don't look like doing so. More bad games than good means the bad games aren't aberrations. Still just six points behind fourth, but again failing to take advantage of competitors' results means that the Champions League looks less and less likely for yet another season.

It's another terrible performance against a relegation-threatened side, as in losses to Blackpool and West Ham last season and in draws against Blackburn and Wigan (and arguably others) this season. It's the first loss to Bolton in 11 tries, a comprehensive defeat to the side with the worst home record in all four divisions. With this win, Bolton move out of the bottom three for the first time this season.

It was the type of performance that can push even a sycophant like me over the edge. The tone was set when Bolton carved open Liverpool's 4-4-2 within four minutes. The home side got at a disjointed, second-best Liverpool immediately, and Davies easily burst behind Liverpool's midfield from Ngog's flick-on when no one tracked his run, sliding his shot past Reina before Skrtel could recover.

Liverpool had little response for the early concession and continued to look completely insipid. Bolton could have had a second soon after, but Eagles could only cross across the face of goal after beating Enrique all ends up. The only reason Bellamy and Carroll were marginally exempt from criticism was because the other nine Liverpool players couldn't create anything. Unlike in recent setbacks, chances weren't coming at all.

Bolton added an improbable second in the 29th, again carving open Liverpool like that clichéd Thanksgiving turkey. Eagles, Reo-Coker, and Ngog excellently combined on a throw-in, with Liverpool embarrassingly static; Eagles' chip found Reo-Coker charging into the box unmarked, controlling with his chest then firing past Reina.

Finally finding a semblance of attack when two down, Bellamy and Carroll pulled one back in the 36th, as Bellamy charged onto Carroll's header after Adam headed Bogdan's goal kick out of defense, beating Knight for pace before slotting home. An equalizer even looked possible before the interval, as Bogdan saved shots from the goal-scorer and Gerrard.

It didn't take long for Bolton to destroy that optimistic notion after the restart. Again, Liverpool started sloppily and again, Liverpool paid for it, this time on a set play. Wheater, out-jumping Skrtel, headed Petrov's corner up and Steinsson classily volleyed it in. The clearly unconfident side had little heart to try to fight back from a two-goal deficit again, and the final forty minutes were a depressing formality. Kuyt and Downing replaced Maxi and Adam, who were probably Liverpool's worst players today, but neither made the side any more cohesive. Liverpool's subsequent half-chances followed the stereotypical script. Agger cannoned a shot off the crossbar. Carroll hilariously whiffed when open for Maxi's cutback. Bellamy selfishly shot at Bogdan when Liverpool broke in the 78th, a deflection making it easy for the keeper. I can't even think of any consolation chances in the last 10 minutes, with Liverpool solely focused on leaving the Reebok as soon as possible.

Where Liverpool go from here is the crucial question. Somehow, Dalglish has to restore self-belief when absolutely none is evident. Earlier this season, Liverpool played well but couldn't take advantage for any number of unfortunate reasons. Now, Liverpool are struggling in every section of the pitch and are getting exactly what they deserve. It's no coincidence Liverpool are far, far worse without Lucas and Suarez, but no one expected them to suffer this mightily. That Liverpool went 4-4-2 with Gerrard and Adam in midfield and Henderson and Maxi out "wide," no matter previous results, is mostly unexplainable and nearly unforgivable.

Panicked January spending probably isn't the answer. Another new manager almost certainly isn't the answer. But something, lots of things, need to change. And very, very quickly.

20 January 2012

Liverpool at Bolton 01.21.12

12:30pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
3-1 Liverpool (h) 08.27.11
2-1 Liverpool (h) 01.01.11
1-0 Liverpool (a) 10.31.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.30.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Stoke (h); 1-0 City (a); 5-1 Oldham (h)
Bolton: 2-0 Macclesfield (h); 0-3 United (a); 2-2 Macclesfield (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Bellamy 4; Adam, Carroll, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson 1
Bolton: Klasnic 7; Eagles 3; K Davies, Ngog, Reo-Coker 2; Boyata, M Davies, Muamba, Petrov, Ricketts 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Gerrard
Downing Shelvey Maxi

The same questions and concerns continue to be the focus. Where are the goals coming from and who'll comprise Liverpool's stuttering attack?

Chances are that the three at the back system so lauded after Stoke will be shelved. Liverpool's options are partnering Kuyt or Bellamy with Carroll, or reverting to the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system (whatever you want to call it; five midfielders, one striker) we've seen most often during Suarez's suspension, especially since Spearing's likely to miss out again.

Agger's should be available, while Dalglish didn't mention Maxi when discussing injuries in the pre-match press conference. Spearing remains questionable, Lucas is obviously absent. In theory, Liverpool have to choose three from four to make up central midfield, and two from four to fill the flanks. Gerrard, Henderson, Adam or Shelvey; Downing, Bellamy, Kuyt or Maxi.

Adam remains the primary midfield scapegoat, disappointing over the last month after marked improvement prior to Lucas' injury, while Shelvey seems one of the few dynamic runners who can help shake Liverpool's attacking malaise. Bellamy will be more valuable next week when Liverpool face City on Wednesday and United next Saturday. I'd imagine he'll be kept on the bench in a "break glass if needed" box, with an eye on the upcoming cup ties. Both Kuyt and Downing have also underperformed almost all season, but with both struggling, it's a catch-22 damned whatever you do situation. Somebody's got to play.

In 19th, a point (and nine goals) from safety, this will be Bolton's first league match since selling Gary Cahill. The defender was left out of Wanderers' last league match, a 0-3 loss at United, which gives us an idea of how Coyle will line up until a replacement (likely to be American Tim Ream) is signed. With on-loan Dedrick Boyata out of favor, Bolton's back line was Steinsson-Wheater-Knight-Ricketts, with Reo-Coker and Muamba in midfield, Eagles and Petrov on the flanks, and Mark Davies behind Ngog as a lone striker (a combination which has started the last two league fixtures). Klasnic or Kevin Davies' elbows may replace the former Liverpool striker, while Jaaskelainen should be fit again. Despite the myth's about Owen Coyle's aesthetics, Bolton are still Bolton: burly defenders, combative terrier midfielders, crossing-specialist wingers, and awkward, aerially-effective strikers.

Liverpool have won ten consecutive matches against Bolton, coinciding with the end of Allardyce's tenure. The reverse fixture saw one of Liverpool's most comprehensive performances of the season: first goals for Henderson and Adam, wholly unthreatened until Klasnic's cheap late consolation, and one of just two league matches this season where Liverpool's scored three. Meanwhile, Bolton have conceded three or more in eight of their 21 league fixtures and have kept just two clean sheets.

Maybe this will be the week the dam breaks. If only so we all can stop writing (and hoping) that maybe this will be the week the dam breaks.

14 January 2012

Liverpool 0-0 Stoke

Tried to replicate the formation from the 2-0 win against Stoke last season, starting with three center-backs for the first time this season. Didn't work. Tried sending Carroll on for final thirty minutes. Didn't work. Bellamy couldn't change matters either. Another disappointing, frustrating draw at Anfield. Quelle surprise.

Liverpool were actually "better" – a term used incredibly loosely – in September's 0-1 loss at the Britannia. That match saw Liverpool attempt 24 shots with seven on target, only denied at least a draw by Begovic's brilliance. Today, Liverpool had just one shot on target, nine off, and five blocked – 15 in total, eight of which came from outside the area. The one on target – Henderson's tame left-footed effort from distance – couldn't have threatened Sorensen less.

Most importantly, Liverpool were able to get runners from midfield past Kuyt last season. Scoring from a scrambled set-play immediately after half-time opened Stoke up for the second, scored by a speedy striker on the counter. Yes, you know who. For some reason, Henderson, Adam, Gerrard, and Downing rarely got beyond Kuyt today – a striker in name only who often drops deep and who's in horrific form in front of goal this season – let alone behind Stoke's seven (at a minimum) defenders, even though we know all four are capable of doing so.

What was tactically brilliant a year ago was wholly wrong today. Fine margins and so on. The three center-backs completely nullified Stoke, while Johnson and Enrique got forward at will. Stoke had exactly one threatening chance: Etherington shooting straight at Reina from the top of the box on the break in the 24th. If the point of the formation was to nullify Stoke, then hurrah, it was hugely successful. Unfortunately, most aren't content with simple nullification of a side which hasn't scored at Anfield since the early 90s, and that Liverpool kept all three defenders on for 90 minutes will surely provoke a few questions.

Liverpool just couldn't do anything right in attack, no matter its overwhelming superiority in possession, camped in Stoke's half throughout. Again. Liverpool's midfield was ineffective in supporting said worthless attack. And without Agger's ability on the ball, not in the squad after picking up a knock, having three center-backs was far less effective in building the so-called attack.

As in the reverse fixture and against Sunderland, Norwich, Swansea, Wigan, and Blackburn, Liverpool finally dialed up the pressure in the final 15 minutes, aided by Carroll and Bellamy replacing Downing and Henderson. Kuyt headed Liverpool's best chance wide in the 77th, diving to reach Enrique's deflected cross. The same player hit the side netting at the far post six minutes later, while Skrtel unfortunately headed Bellamy's corner down and over the bar in the 86th. Carroll could have had a couple of penalties when barged over by defenders, Kuyt could have had one, but referees rarely give them, especially Howard Webb and especially against Stoke, whose defending relies on that tactic. But that was the extent of it. That Liverpool created so little, even after "dialing up the pressure" is unforgivable. That Liverpool have now drawn seven of 11 home league matches is even more unforgivable. Everyone's culpable. The front five and two attacking substitutions all disappointed, although the usual scapegoats will probably get the most criticism. I have little defense for any of them.

Yes, yes, Stoke are excellent at being Stoke, especially against Liverpool. The fixture pile-up over the last month clearly didn't help either, forcing Liverpool's hands tactically, ensuring Bellamy (and probably Carroll) weren't fit enough to start and with Gerrard far more muted than against either Oldham or City. But this wasn't good enough, and hasn't been good enough for quite awhile. I'm excited to look up the last time Liverpool's home form was so terrible over the first half of a season.

We've been saying the same since August 14. Liverpool need to find a way score more goals, especially at Anfield and especially against sides Liverpool expect to beat. Playing Kuyt up top and three center-backs did not achieve that breakthrough. Bolton away in a week's time before the next chance to rectify that deficiency comes against City for a trip to Wembley.

13 January 2012

Liverpool v Stoke 01.14.12

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 10.26.11
0-1 Stoke (a) 09.10.11
2-0 Liverpool (h) 02.02.11
0-2 Stoke (a) 11.13.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 City (a); 5-1 Oldham (h); 0-3 City (a)
Stoke: 3-1 Gillingham (a); 2-1 Blackburn (a); 2-2 Wigan (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Bellamy 4; Adam, Carroll, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson 1
Stoke: Crouch 6; Walters 5; Delap, Ethrington 2; Huth, Jerome, Jones, Shawcross, Shotton, Whelan 1

Referee: Howard Webb

Strangely enough, this will be the first time Liverpool have had Webb this season. On the one-year anniversary of Babel-Webb Twittergate, no less.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Adam
Downing Shelvey Maxi

Once again, midfield is Liverpool's biggest concern. With Spearing likely to miss out thanks to a hamstring injury, will Liverpool also risk Gerrard so soon after playing 90 minutes twice in the last week?

Of course, both Henderson and Adam are probably fatigued after City as well, which makes Shelvey's participation even more likely. Dalglish has dropped few hints, as is Dalglish's wont, so it's a guessing game as to who's in the best condition to play on Saturday.

Maybe, just maybe, we'll see three center-backs, as in the late stages of Wednesday's match and in this fixture last season. Agger played at left back in October's Carling Cup meeting to give Liverpool more height when defending Stoke's set plays; three at the back – whether it's Kelly-Skrtel-Agger or Skrtel-Carragher-Agger – would achieve the same purpose in addition to supplementing Liverpool's defense with both Spearing and Lucas injured. Aurelio, who I believe is still fit but that could change in the next minute, played midfield against this lot last season, but that seems the remotest of remote possibilities given Fabio's infrequent participation this season.

Playing three at the back could also ease Liverpool's worries on the flanks, with Johnson and Enrique more advanced. Bellamy evokes the same concerns as Gerrard after featuring against Oldham and City. At the same time, both Kuyt and Downing have struggled recently. If not three at the back, it seems as if the flanks will be Maxi and one other, even if Maxi rarely starts without Suarez. And if Bellamy's fit, he seemingly has to be preferred. Incidentally, Suarez has scored Liverpool's last three goals against Stoke: both in the Carling Cup and the second at Anfield 11 months ago. Step forward, Andy Carroll. Please.

Stoke could be missing three defenders, as Woodgate, Wilson, and Shotton are carrying knocks. But Stoke's attack will be all too familiar. Walters scored Stoke's penalty winner in the reverse fixture in September and Peter Crouch knows Anfield (and Liverpool's defenders) exceptionally well. Agger and Carragher did well against the Gangly Handful at the Britannia, but Stoke will be even more reliant on Crouch's hold-up ability with Liverpool likely to see even more of the ball. And then there are the usual Pennant and Etherington crosses and Delap long throws. Perpetually fun times.

Liverpool's Anfield record against sides content to defend remains abhorrent; the 3-1 win at Newcastle after Gerrard came on did little to reassure other than in reasserting Gerrard's talismanic qualities. If the captain's rested, protected, Liverpool will be under pressure to carve through an undoubtedly determined Stoke with the knowledge of past failures looming large in the minds.

12 January 2012

What's The Formation, Kenneth? (Again)

I've seen some hand-wringing and questions as to how Liverpool were lined up yesterday, especially in the second half.

I tried to explain the set-up and the reasons for it in yesterday's match review, but pictures always make things easier. Not a 1000 words easier, but easier nonetheless.

Liverpool's first substitution obviously wasn't planned, and Spearing's exit restrained the away side more than they would have liked in the first 45 minutes when on top. But there was a clear strategy with the next two substitutions. The second half followed a simple narrative. Mancini made a change, Dalglish would respond. Mancini made another change, Dalglish parried a different way.

Adam Johnson was key to both sides' tactics, City's most dangerous play-maker with Silva absent, even after Nasri came on. Glen Johnson began on the left in response, an inverted full-back used to mute an inverted winger, evoking fond memories of Arbeloa on Messi four years earlier. When the Manchester City winger stopped playing down that flank early in the second half, shifting into the hole with Milner on the right and Nasri on the left, Enrique came on. Glen Johnson went central, as a left-sided center-back, partly to still keep an eye on Adam Johnson and partly to continue doubling up on Micah Richards' dangerous overlaps. When Dzeko and Kolarov entered, Johnson went to right back, tasking with keeping Nasri and Kolarov from getting crosses in for the target-man, while Carragher came on as defensive midfielder. Or, to go all in on the nomenclature game, as a libero: Carra Baresi, just as he's always fancied himself. Really, he came on to add another body in defense, because Liverpool certainly weren't looking to add anything to attack. Just to seal any possible cracks in the armor.

The most debate will probably be about the "second sub" formation: was Johnson a third center-back or a defensive midfielder? This sort of detail borders on semantics, splitting the finest of hairs, but I'll argue he was a center-back. Johnson stepped forward the few times Liverpool were in possession, but as soon as City entered the final third, Johnson was on the same line as Skrtel and Agger, defending like a center-back, making tackles in the penalty area, most notably on Agüero in the 68th. If Liverpool had more possession and Johnson was able to spend more time stepping forward, there's more an argument for calling him a midfielder. But Liverpool were almost always on the back foot. Yes, partly by design. And partly because Manchester City is still Manchester City.

Was it risky? Sure. Any time you invite pressure, you invite risks. Liverpool's defensive 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge last season was risky too, but Liverpool's five-man defense held on for the win after getting the goal. Any time you play a team as strong as Manchester City, especially on their ground, you have to take risks, no matter the key players they (and Liverpool) had absent.

Was it overly defensive? Nope. Because Liverpool won. There was no guarantee of a second Liverpool goal had the away side kept up the pressure seen the first 15 minutes. But there certainly would have been a greater danger of conceding an equalizer. City's two goals against United on Sunday, despite being down to ten, clearly loomed large in Dalglish and Clarke's minds, a reminder of what the league leaders are capable of when you give them space to operate, even at a man disadvantage. Preventing that from happening, keeping Liverpool's narrow edge for the second leg, was the only goal. And understandably so.

11 January 2012

Liverpool 1-0 Manchester City

Gerrard 13' (pen)

The same template we saw when Liverpool traveled to Stamford Bridge, and more than a hint of Benitez-era Champions League matches. Get the goal, kill the game. So, will one goal be enough in two weeks time?

If not for Joe Hart, Liverpool would have taken the lead even earlier. Between the 5th and 11th minutes, Hart replicated the heroics we saw in this season's Anfield meeting, first saving Carroll's right-footed effort after the striker excellent turned and beat Savic, then saving Gerrard's shot from the top of the box, and then saving Downing's deflected blast from the subsequent corner.

But there was no saving Gerrard's penalty. Savic felled Agger on the corner following Downing's deflected shot, a high boot with Agger trying to control and run through the defense. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool's return from the penalty spot has been vastly improved with Gerrard's return, and the captain hammered in his second in as many games; Hart went the right way but Gerrard's shot was too hard and too perfectly-placed low into the corner.

A goal to the good, Liverpool looked far happier to soak up City pressure, and Spearing's 23rd-minute injury exacerbated the defensive, vertical tendencies. Adam's entrance forced Gerrard to sit deeper for added protection, in a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 than what Liverpool started with, but Liverpool were already shifting from all-out attack to all-out defense. From five good chances in the first 15 minutes to just one afterwards – Carroll heading Kelly's deep cross just wide of the far post in the 35th. But City didn't test Reina until the 43rd, parrying Nasri's shot from distance; the Frenchman had replaced the ineffective and volatile Balotelli just four minutes earlier, the first instance of the tactical tete-a-tete which dominated the second half. In the 45th, Richards beat Johnson for the first time, but Milner skied the cut-back from the spot.

There's no way around describing Liverpool's second half performance as parking the bus. There was no semblance of attack from the away side, and Carroll was wholly completely utterly isolated. But, unlike during the last regime, it was bus parking with a purpose which earned a result.

One manager made a change, then the other responded. Adam Johnson stopped playing on the right, so Glen Johnson stopped playing on Liverpool's left. Enrique replaced Downing on the hour as Liverpool shifted to something like a 5-4-1, with Glen Johnson as a roaming left-sided center-back, doubling up on Richards' overlaps and keeping an eye on Adam Johnson floating between the lines. Mancini then replaced Johnson with Dzeko followed by Kolarov for De Jong, adding width and an out-and-out target man. Liverpool's riposte was a more defensive, more natural five at the back, with Johnson moving back to his normal right back berth, followed by Carragher replacing Bellamy, playing as a holding midfielder and dispelling any misplaced notion that Liverpool might go in search of a second.

However you slice, dice, excuse, and explain the tactical minutiae, Liverpool parked the bus. Carroll was often the only Liverpool player in Manchester City's half, and he spent nearly all of the final minutes defending. Reina had multiple saves to make, but City were mostly limited to set plays and shots from distances due to Liverpool's nonstop work. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective. We'll sacrifice aesthetics for results every now and then. Especially without Suarez, without Lucas, with an early Spearing injury, against the league leaders, on a ground where Liverpool lost heavily just eight days earlier.

Liverpool dominated possession in last week's league meeting but went down three-nil thanks to mistakes being punished, poor set play defense, and being carved open on the break when pushing for an unlikely comeback. Today, City had 56% possession while Liverpool had zero second half shots, but Liverpool leave winners. Incidentally, Liverpool also made far fewer mistakes – just one, Kelly's sloppy back pass, but Reina was there to prevent Agüero taking advantage.

Pick a defender and he'll have a case for man of the match; my choices are Reina for his saves and Johnson for his versatility. Henderson and Gerrard did well in midfield, although Spearing was the pick of the bunch prior to his injury. City also dearly missed both Yaya Toure and David Silva. Barry and De Jong were functional but added little in attack, while Milner mostly played wide. Nasri couldn't create with no space as Silva's done time and time again. Carroll's role was totally thankless, but he pressed until his legs fell off and was crucial in defending set plays, especially late on. There'd be no complaints about his performance had he taken one of his two first-half chances, but such is the striker's life.

Today's away goal is meaningless as we know it from Europe; away goals only count in this competition after second-leg extra-time, and if there's extra time, City will have at least one away goal of their own. Liverpool will have to be more than just diligent and defensive at Anfield in two weeks time. Nonetheless, this result gives Liverpool the perfect foundation to do so in front of a baying and expectant Kop, with the first trip to Wembley for 16 years at stake.

10 January 2012

Liverpool at Manchester City 01.11.12

2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
0-3 City (a) 01.03.12
1-1 (h) 11.27.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.11.11
0-3 City (a) 08.23.10

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-0 Chelsea (a); 2-1 Stoke (a); 2-1 Brighton (a); 3-1 Exeter (a)
City: 1-0 Arsenal (a); 5-2 Wolves (a); 2-0 Brum (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-1 Oldham (h); 0-3 City (a); 3-1 Newcastle (h)
City: 2-3 United (h); 3-0 Liverpool (h); 0-1 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (Carling Cup):
Liverpool: Suarez 3; Maxi 2; Bellamy, Carroll, Kelly, Kuyt 1
City: Dzeko 2; Agüero, Balotelli, Johnson, Hargreaves, Nasri 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Spearing Adam
Bellamy Gerrard Downing

Yes, it's the Carling Cup. It's also the semi-finals. Liverpool will almost assuredly play the strongest lineup possible. This 'Mickey Mouse' cup will take precedence over Saturday's home match against Stoke, and then there's a week until the next fixture. Liverpool haven't a had a week between matches since mid-December.

Most of the starting spots seem guaranteed. Reina plays every match ever. Liverpool's best back four should return after being rested on Friday. To the delight of all, Adam is also likely to return after missing the FA Cup match. Gerrard will start if at all possible. Carroll seemingly has to play up top.

Which leaves two or three questions. Who'll be the third in midfield: Spearing, Shelvey, or Henderson? Will Bellamy's knees allow him to start consecutive matches? And will we see Downing after this weekend's alleged events?

If both Gerrard and Adam play, Spearing seems the most natural third; an out-and-out defensive midfielder in contrast to Shelvey usually attacking between the lines or Henderson's roaming hustle and bustle. However, Gerrard has played deeper than we're used to more often than not, and could well be a replacement for Liverpool's polarizing Scot, joined by Spearing and Shelvey or Henderson.

As for Bellamy or Maxi, Bellamy rightfully won the club's player of the month award this week and was clear man of the match last time out. Maxi's almost always at his best when Suarez plays, with the two combining almost involuntarily, and starts far less frequently when Carroll starts. Downing's alleged shenanigans may force Liverpool's hand, playing both Bellamy and Maxi or one with Kuyt on the right, but my first guess is Liverpool's two best crossers – Bellamy and Downing – feeding Carroll. If Bellamy's knees allow it.

No matter injuries, suspensions, or the African Cup of Nations. No matter three losses from the last four, including a third-round exit at the hands of their noisier, nosier neighbors. Manchester City will still be Manchester City, the team which beat Liverpool 0-3 on this ground a week ago.

Kompany's suspension, with his red card against United upheld today, should make Liverpool's life easier, especially with Kolo Toure also absent. Savic is inexperienced and Lescott is accident-prone, but both are still very good defenders. They're just not Vincent Kompany. Or Kolo Toure, for that matter. A back four of Richards-Savic-Lescott-Clichy (or, less likely, Zabaleta-Richards-Lescott-Clichy) is still better than the first-choice defense for the majority of the Premiership.

Gareth Barry will return from a one-match ban, but in addition to the missing Toures, Balotelli, Dzeko, and Silva are injury doubts; the first two missed City's FA Cup tie against United. It's hilarious to see Mancini cry about squad depth after spending approximately £60 trillion over the last couple of seasons, but City had to include youngsters Abdul Razak and Denis Suarez to fill out the bench against United.

Despite missing key players and despite being unfairly down to ten after 12 minutes, City were excellent against United, fighting throughout and unlucky not to overhaul a three-goal deficit with United reeling for the entire second half. Ideally, those exertions – just three days prior to this match – will have depleted City's already-depleted reserve, but the adage about a wounded animal being the most dangerous feels applicable.

That the first leg is away – with the climax at Anfield in two weeks – and comes so soon after City faced United, will benefit Liverpool. Nonetheless, Liverpool are still underdogs, with City odds-on favorites to lift the Cup next month. Which is probably exactly how Liverpool prefers it.

06 January 2012

Liverpool 5-1 Oldham

Simpson 28'
Bellamy 30'
Gerrard 45' (pen)
Shelvey 68'
Carroll 89'
Downing 90+4'

It should be illegal to complain when Liverpool score five, including firsts for Shelvey and Downing and a cameo from Carroll off the bench, no matter the opposition or merits of overall performance.

But after 44:59, Liverpool did not look capable of scoring five, let alone winning anywhere near comprehensively, having conceded first after starting the match as the worse side. Whether due to multiple changes to Tuesday's XI, fatigue, or the different shape, Liverpool couldn't get or keep possession, with a deep back-line and far too many misplaced passes when going forward.

Oldham should have taken the lead long before Simpson's wonder strike in the 28th. 137-year-old Shefki Kuqi out-muscled Coates before gliding past Carragher only to blast into the side-netting in the 10th; Adeyimi headed a corner just over four minutes later, far too similar to the second goal conceded at City; and Taylor shot wide in 24th after cutting in and around Aurelio. Simpson's back-to-goal turn and bazooka in the 28th was a formality, no matter its singular brilliance.

But, as the correct cliché goes, goals change games. Two minutes later, Liverpool were level, albeit fortunately. Bellamy released Shelvey on the right; firing after cutting in, the midfielder's shot deflected off Bellamy's chest, wrong-footing Cisek. Liverpool were ascendant for the final 15 minutes of the half, and Maxi, Shelvey, and Bellamy had chances to snatch the lead. Maxi and Shelvey's opportunities three minutes after the equalizer were the best, with the Argentinean's free shot from the spot saved and Shelvey comically slipping just as the rebound presented itself. But Liverpool's second came just before the interval, a quick counter-attack leading to Maxi barged over by Adeyimi when attempting to reach Gerrard's cross. With the captain stepping to the spot, Liverpool broke this season's penalty voodoo, his strike unstoppably hammered in off upper corner of the frame.

A one-goal lead is never safe, and Oldham had off-target chances through goal-scorer Simpson and substitute Parker, but Liverpool were far better in the second half, mainly due to a formation change during the break. Rather than the initial 4-4-2, Bellamy dropped off to the right, with Kuyt up front alone and Shelvey roaming between the lines. The Welshman was a constant danger, presenting cross after cross to Maxi and Kuyt, all spurned. Then, the sadly expected opposition keeper heroics in front of the Kop, as Cisek somehow kept out Kelly's header on a 58th-minute corner.

But in the 68th, someone was finally on hand to convert a Bellamy set-up. In fact, two were. Kuyt released Bellamy down the right, and both Gerrard and Shelvey ran onto his cut-back cross, Shelvey reaching the ball first and slotting past Cisek.

Two goals to the good, Liverpool were on cruise control, and Flanagan and Downing replaced Aurelio and Bellamy with 15-20 minutes left. Carroll's entrance in the 87th appeared to give the birthday boy little time, but ended up opening the floodgates. The striker scored with his second touch, a left-footed rocket from the top of the box reminiscent of his first goal for the club. He should have gotten a second in the 94th when Downing put a cross on a dinner plate only for Carroll to head over. But in karmic retribution, Downing got his first Liverpool goal seconds later, a sweetly volleyed rebound after Cisek saved Flanagan's effort.

Hopefully, this is what Liverpool needed. A bit of adversity, then a goal deluge, including strikes from key players who have notably gone without. What could have been another 2-2 against Northampton turned into another 5-2 against Havant & Waterlooville. Bellamy was absolutely brilliant, even when Liverpool weren't at its best in the first half, then was crucial to Liverpool's better play in the second half. Gerrard surprisingly played 90 minutes, capable of both the rampaging and the sublime, as per usual. Shelvey did more than enough to earn more appearances, impressive in a free role as against Villa.

Yes, passing was wayward and casual at times, Kuyt and Maxi both struggled to finish chances, and Liverpool's second-string defense looked exceptionally rickety, especially in the first half. Having Carragher and Aurelio on either side clearly didn't help Coates, and the back four played notably deeper than in the 11 consecutive matches with Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique.

But Liverpool scored five, and Liverpool are on to the fourth round. No complaining, and no Homers, allowed. Carling Cup semifinal at City on Wednesday.

05 January 2012

Liverpool v Oldham 01.06.12

3pm ET, not live on TV in the US anywhere in the world. The whole world, apparently. So there probably won't be streams and there probably won't be an OYB match review either. Yes, this sucks. I'm sorry. Looks like there will be streams after all. Complaining on the internet works again. Check the usual locales.

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 01.15.94
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.16.93
2-3 Oldham (a) 05.05.93
1-0 Liverpool (h) 04.10.93

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 City (a); 3-1 Newcastle (a); 0-0 Wigan (a)
Oldham: 1-1 Chesterfield (a); 3-2 Notts County (h); 0-1 Hartlepool (h)

Goalscorers (all competitions):
Liverpool: Suarez 8; Bellamy 5; Maxi 4; Carroll 3; Adam, Gerrard, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson, Kelly, Kuyt 1
Oldham: Kuqi 13; Reid 5; Simpson, Wesolowski 4; Adeyemi, Smith 3; Furman, Morais, Scapuzzi, Taylor 2; Clarke, Diamond, Lee, Mellor 1

Referee: Neil Swarbrick

Don't think he's ever done a Liverpool match. Only began infrequently refereeing Premier League games in 2010-11 (twice last season, six times this season).

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Coates Aurelio
Spearing Henderson
Kuyt Shelvey Maxi

Dalglish deployed surprisingly strong line-ups in the early rounds of the Carling Cup, but those rounds came away from Anfield, when games weren't being played every three or four days, and when Liverpool weren't dealing with injuries and suspensions to key players.

The back four will undoubtedly change for the first time since facing Chelsea in the Carling Cup, with Kelly, Carragher, and Coates almost assured of starting spots. Left-back continues to be an issue; it's one of those rare periods where Fabio Aurelio's actually fit, so he'll probably start, but Liverpool could also use Kelly and Flanagan at the full-back spots, as often happened in the run-in last season.

One of Gerrard, Adam, and Henderson should join Shelvey and Spearing in midfield, unless Liverpool play two up top. Which seems a less likely possibility. Dalglish will want at least one experienced midfielder in there, no matter the opposition (and yes, Henderson counts as an experienced midfielder, at least for this discussion). Gerrard still might not be fit enough to start, and Liverpool have a far-more-important Carling Cup semifinal on Wednesday. Adam's been dire for the last three matches. So I'm guessing Henderson. Hesitantly. As with all the other guesses here.

Predictions for the flanks are just as speculative. Maxi seemingly has to start, left out of the last two. Kuyt, surprisingly poor this season, needs game time, while an ineffective Downing could probably use a break. There could be a reserve-team curveball, with the likes of Sterling or Suso making a debut, but Dalglish will probably stick with the fatigued devil he knows. Kuyt could also start up top, either on his own or with Carroll, but I think yet another match for the misfiring giant is most likely. Bellamy will probably start on the bench with an eye on Wednesday because of his rickety, one-game-a-week knees.

Oldham are currently 14th in League One. After losing three of the first five matches of the season, the Latics have hovered around mid-table for the last few months, bouncing between 12th and 16th since September. They've won just one league match since mid-November, beating Notts County on New Year's Eve, but also successfully held league leaders Charlton on Charlton's ground four matches ago. Since that home win against Chesterfield on November 19, Oldham have won one, drawn three and lost two against League One opponents.

In the "Players You May Have Heard Of" Department, Shefki Kuqi, who's been playing since World War I, is Oldham's top scorer by some distance and will start up front. Ex-Liverpool reserve keeper Dean Bouzanis is the back-up for the Latics, and will probably be planted on the bench. Ex-Chelsea academy player Felipe Morais, who's spent the majority of his career in Scotland, will feature on the wings. Two Italian youngsters on loan from City, including Mancini's kid, probably won't play. That's all I got. I won't embarrass us both by pretending to know more.

Liverpool have history with disappointing performances in domestic cups, notably against Reading, Barnsley, and Burnley in recent years. Not to mention last season's nadir against Northampton, which has far too many frightening parallels with this match: at Anfield, with a second-string lineup expected, against almost-unknown (at least incredibly unfamiliar) lower-league opposition, not televised, and with players' focus understandably most likely elsewhere. The main difference is that Dalglish is in charge of this side. As the last year's proven, that's a fairly large difference.

04 January 2012

Liverpool Crossing 2011-12

So, how's that crossing toward Carroll thing going?

Through the first 17 league games, Liverpool averaged just under 19 crosses per match. In the three since, Liverpool are averaging exactly 35 crosses per match, with 43 against Blackburn, 26 against Newcastle, and 36 against City. Aside from an aberration at Blackburn, when Liverpool completed 16 crosses, the side hasn't delivered more than eight successful crosses in a single match. And all those crosses have led to just two league goals this season.

The change in tactics isn't totally down to Andy Carroll's inclusion. Prior to Blackburn, Liverpool's crossing habits barely differed whether the big striker played or not. Carroll featured in slightly less than half of Liverpool's first 17 games – 750 minutes, starting in eight. Liverpool attempted 165 crosses with Carroll on the pitch in those 17 games, completing 34, a success rate of 20.6% and an average of 4.54 minutes per cross. Liverpool played 780 minutes without Carroll during that span, attempting 154 crosses and completing 29 – 18.8% successful and an average of 5.06 minutes per cross. A negligible difference, at best.

However, with Carroll completing 90 minutes in each of the last three matches, twice without Luis Suarez, Liverpool have attempted 105 crosses, completing 26 – 24.7% successful and an average of 2.57 minutes per cross. A slightly better success rate, but with almost twice as many crosses attempted. The tactic led to exactly one goal – the equalizer against Blackburn, when Maxi (!) headed in Skrtel's (!!!) volleyed cross after a broken-down corner.

That was one of just two Liverpool goals from crosses, according to Guardian's chalkboards.The other was Suarez's header against QPR, assisted by Adam, after a corner was initially cleared. Corners (Bolton, Villa) and free kicks (Sunderland) do not count. Why Enrique's chipped cutback to Carroll against Everton isn't included is beyond my comprehension, but that'd make it three instead of two. Which is hardly better considering Liverpool have attempted 424 crosses this season.

With Suarez out for the next seven matches, Liverpool will invariably continue blasting crosses toward target-men, primarily Carroll. The mocked and maligned striker's finishing has to has to has to improve, but Downing, Kuyt, Johnson, Enrique, Adam, Henderson, etc, etc also need to provide better balls. Gerrard's cameo against Newcastle at least gives some encouragement that Liverpool's delivery can and will improve.

Hopefully, practice makes perfect. Liverpool don't have much margin for error anymore.

03 January 2012

Liverpool 0-3 Manchester City

Agüero 10'
Yaya Toure 33'
Milner 75' (pen)

Mistakes punished by cruel, efficient competency combined with continued Liverpool impotence in front of goal. An added bonus of a referee error, a game-ending penalty given for Yaya Toure's dive, mere moments after fleeting good fortune when Barry saw red for two soft yellows. It's just the second time Liverpool conceded two or more goals in 20 league matches, away to two of the three best sides in the league, but today still felt all too familiar.

In a parallel universe, Downing scored in the 8th minute for his fifth of the season, while Kompany wasn't able to block to Kuyt's 43rd-minute point-blank poke. Liverpool were in first in this parallel universe league going into this fixture, having drawn just once at Anfield. Needless to say, Liverpool haven't made many defense mistakes in this parallel universe league. Science needs to discover parallel universes.

But in this universe, when Downing was one-on-one with Hart, released down the left by a wonderful Henderson through-ball, he looked eerily like Henderson did in a similar position against Stoke. Hart did well to block with his back foot, but the unfortunate winger uncertainly tried to place it around a charging keeper.

Two minutes later, Agüero thumped City ahead after mistakes from Kuyt and Reina. The former over-intricately dawdled in possession deep in Liverpool's half, letting Milner steal in and release City's top scorer. The latter, admittedly unsighted, somehow saw Agüero's dipping shot squirm under his diving frame.

Following some initial uncertainty, with Agüero shooting too close to Reina and Dzeko's blast deflecting off Johnson just wide of the post, Liverpool's best spell came prior to City's crucial second. Able to keep possession on City's ground, but with all the goal-threat of a legless XI, Liverpool's best chances came on Adam and Henderson shots from distances and a couple of "close but not quite" Downing crosses toward Carroll.

Then, history repeated on two City corners, as Liverpool failed to learn from the goal conceded in November's meeting. First, Reina redeemed his earlier error by parrying Kompany's bullet header with a brilliant reaction save. He couldn't reach the second as Yaya Toure was in front of Glen Johnson the entire time, hammering in at the near post. As implied in the earlier paean to parallel universes, Liverpool nearly pulled one back before half-time, but Kompany reacted excellently to deny Kuyt after Carroll's knockdown of Enrique's cross.

Liverpool couldn't even replicate that marginal goal-threat in the second half, with City content to stifle thanks to the two-goal advantage. Gerrard and Bellamy replacing the ineffective (to put it nicely) Adam and Kuyt couldn't change the dynamic, and any hope of scoring two in fifteen minutes against ten men was immediately erased after Toure burst past Skrtel and Agger and fell under the slightest of (if any) contract from the Slovakian, counter-attacking after Liverpool wasted the free kick which earned Barry's dismissal.

Liverpool had multiple half-chances for a consolation in the final few minutes, almost all through the three substitutes (Maxi also came on, for Spearing after City's third), but the best was another counter-attack from City, Adam Johnson cannoning a shot off the woodwork in the 80th having already spun away to celebrate.

Back-to-back three-goal losses at Eastlands will invite far too many unwelcome, unwarranted, and idiotic Hodgson-Dalglish comparisons. At least it'll make it easier to weed out half-wits. It's impossible to argue Liverpool merited a draw, but the game could and probably would have been different had a confident attacker taken the first chance of the match. There's still no comparison to last season's horrors; Liverpool's weren't terrible today, and had the majority of possession throughout, both when level and behind. Liverpool just remain really bad in front of goal.

Spearing was a competent and diligent holding midfielder and Henderson was probably Liverpool's best player. Neither Skrtel nor Agger deserve to be part of a defense that let in three, and that it was Skrtel who conceded that penalty is especially callous. But the aforementioned Adam and Kuyt were passengers, Reina had a frighteningly-increasingly-familiar howler, Downing didn't do enough when back on the left, and both Johnson and Enrique disappointed going forward. Carroll was as blunt as ever, without a bare minimum of unlucky close-calls as against Blackburn, Newcastle, and when City came to Anfield. Some credit has to go to to the hosts; Kompany was especially impressive, pocketing Carroll as severely as Skrtel pocketed Dzeko, redemption for being out-muscled when they met at Anfield last season. City counter-attacked at pace and took their chances, no matter how harsh any goal might seem. Liverpool did not.

You may have noticed I haven't mentioned Suarez until now, under the assumption you're aware that Liverpool aren't appealing his ban. Yes, he may have helped. Liverpool's attack assuredly needed help. That he isn't available and won't be until early February, returning against either Spurs or United contingent on progression in the FA Cup, makes the discussion meaningless. I want to believe Liverpool can turn the corner without additions, Suarez or no Suarez, given how these players have played in the past, whether that past is with Liverpool or another. But Kuyt, Carroll, and Downing – while not the only culprits – continue to make that look a belief based on faith rather than fact.

Oldham on Friday before a return trip to the City of Manchester Stadium in the Carling Cup semis.

02 January 2012

Liverpool at Manchester City 01.03.12

3pm ET, live in the US on espn2.

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 10.27.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.11.10
0-3 City (a) 08.23.09
0-0 (a) 02.21.10

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Newcastle (a); 0-0 Wigan (a); 2-0 Villa (a)
City: 0-1 Sunderland (a); 0-0 West Brom (a); 3-0 Stoke (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Bellamy 4; Adam, Carroll, Gerrard, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Henderson, Johnson 1
City: Agüero 13; Dzeko 10; Balotelli 8; Johnson, Silva 5; Kompany, Milner, Nasri, Y Toure 2; Barry, Kolarov, Richards, Savic 1

Referee: Mike Jones

Yes, again. Had him as recently as Boxing Day. As well as 0-4 Spurs, beach ball, etc.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Downing Gerrard Henderson Maxi

After two substitute appearances, Gerrard should be fit enough to start. How he'll feature in a Liverpool side that's taken shape in his absence has been one of the most-frequently asked questions this season.

I expect Liverpool will stick with the malleable 4-1-4-1/4-5-1 used against the league leaders at the end of November. When coming on against Newcastle, Gerrard's entrance for Adam saw Liverpool switch to that formation, pushing forward with Henderson as Spearing sat in front of the back four. That I'm guessing Adam is the odd man out is partly based on the fact Gerrard replaced him in the last two matches and partly based on hope. I've been one of his biggest defenders, but the Scot has not played well in the last two matches. Spearing's holding and Henderson's hustle and bustle seem more important, even if Adam hasn't missed a league match yet.

Suarez is back from suspension, and will be for 14 days until a) his appeal is turned down b) Liverpool decline to appeal or c) his eight-match ban is overturned. Until then, I'll hope these three tweets will suffice for comment on the FA's written evidence. And I expect Suarez will play every game (except maybe Oldham) until a, b, or c happen.

Bellamy was outstanding against Newcastle, but odds are that he'll be kept in reserve after Friday's exertions. That it's been four days – in comparison to City's two days off – means participation against another old club is slightly more likely, but odds are that Maxi comes in instead – like Bellamy, one of Liverpool's few consistent scorers and performers. It's especially unfair as Craig missed last month's tie against City as well, but those are the cons of signing a 32-year-old with dodgy knees. Regardless, he's been more than worth the gamble.

Away against difficult opposition, Kuyt could well start on the right, having earned his "big game player" label. Downing's been better on that flank recently, but Kuyt's work-ethic and precedent might win out, even though he's been far below his standards this season. Finally, once again, Liverpool's back four should remain the same for the 11th-straight game until fitness requires otherwise, no matter the heavy schedule or two unfortunate own goals conceded in the last two matches. The combination has been that good.

City scored 53 goals in its first 17 league games, an average of more than three per match. Liverpool were the only opposition to hold them to just one until December 18. They've been kept scoreless in the last two, held by Hodgson at West Brom before going down to an injury time goal at Sunderland. I'm not sure whether to be terrified of City's response when back on home soil or if these last two results are gravity bringing an arriviste back to earth.

City played 4-2-3-1 when these sides met at Anfield, with Nasri, Silva, and Milner behind Agüero and Barry-Toure holding. That's seemingly been Mancini's preferred formation, but the 4-4-2 used against Arsenal and Chelsea is also a possibility. Agüero, Silva, Milner, and Balotelli were left out on Sunday; Balotelli had an ankle problem but the others were with an eye clearly on tomorrow's match. Other than Balotelli, City have no injury concerns.

After tomorrow, Liverpool will have traveled to Arsenal, Spurs, Stoke, Everton, Chelsea, and City – six of the seven hardest away fixtures, missing just United to complete the set. Despite multiple setbacks, most notably a massive inability to score leading to multiple frustrating draws, Liverpool are just three points off fourth as both Arsenal and Chelsea also contrive to toss away points.

The second half of the season starts with the league leaders, no longer runaways after two holiday setbacks. Aside from one bad day at Tottenham, Liverpool's best football in the first half of the campaign came when facing the toughest opposition.