02 February 2013

Liverpool at Manchester City 02.03.13

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 08.26.12
2-2 (h; Carling Cup) 01.25.12
1-0 Liverpool (a; Carling Cup) 01.11.12
0-3 City (a) 01.03.12

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Arsenal (a); 2-3 Oldham (a); 5-0 Norwich (h)
City: 0-0 QPR (a); 1-0 Stoke (a); 2-0 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 17; Gerrard 5; Agger, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling, Sturridge 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin 1
City: Dzeko 10; Agüero 8; Tevez 7; Yaya Toure 4; Milner, Silva 3; Javi Garcia, Zabaleta 2; Balotelli, Barry, Kolarov, Lescott, Nasri 1

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Guess at a line-up:
Reina
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Sterling Henderson Borini
Suarez

How many changes are required, will be enforced after Wednesday's draw at Arsenal?

Enrique should be fully fit. Carragher almost certainly can't play two matches in four days. Can Sturridge? Can Lucas? Should Downing?

My logic for leaving Sturridge on the bench is three-fold. 1) He's still coming to terms with playing every match, on the pitch for just 70 minutes against Arsenal. And looked below par for most of them. 2) Liverpool could be better served bringing him off the bench in the second half, using him to stretch/change the game as they did in the second half at United. Although, hopefully, Liverpool won't require a similarly drastic overhaul. 3) Although Suarez did better than I expected, I'd really prefer he didn't have to spend so much time defending in Liverpool's half.

Liverpool nearly (and should have) won the last meeting by taking the match to Manchester City. Yes, that was at Anfield, and it'll be a different proposition at the City of Manchester Stadium, where City have won nine, drawn two, and lost just once all season, conceding just nine goals in the process; the last came on December 9th – nearly two months ago – in that lone home loss, to Manchester United. It's not as if Liverpool played poorly against Arsenal, except for that three-minute spell, but if Liverpool are similarly defensive and conservative, Manchester City have the weapons to punish them. And City aren't likely to make the defensive mistakes that Arsenal made either.

Other possible changes: Allen may come in for Lucas or Henderson. Either Sterling or Borini could, probably should, come in for Downing, whether or not the other replaces Sturridge. I strongly doubt Liverpool will revert to the Henderson on the flank/Suarez as #10 attacking formation used against Norwich.

However, three at the back may be an option here, with Carragher, Skrtel, and Agger (or possibly Wisdom if Carragher's not fit enough for another start) in and around Dzeko, Johnson and Enrique as wing-backs, Gerrard, Lucas, and either Henderson or Allen in midfield, and with Liverpool reliant on Sturridge and Suarez up top. City's formation is frequently less expansive than Arsenal's, which may lead Rodgers to try to clog the center of the pitch with three center-backs and three central midfielders, hoping to spring the counter attack through Suarez and Sturridge.

Still in second, seven points behind United (until United beat Fulham later today), City haven't lost since Boxing Day, with the 0-0 draw at QPR on Tuesday the only match that City have failed to win in the last seven.

Both Toures are still at the African Cup of Nations, while Kompany, Maicon, and Richards are injured. Nastasic, City's other first-choice center-back, also has a knee problem but should be fit enough to start.

If Mancini sticks with his usual 4-2-3-1ish formation, the main choice will be Tevez or Agüero playing behind Dzeko, the most likely XI: Hart; Zabaleta, Lescott, Nastasic, Clichy; Javi Garcia, Barry; Nasri, Tevez, Silva; Dzeko.

City's line of three plays narrowly, jamming the space between the lines, using overlapping fullbacks as the source of width (often Zabaleta more than Clichy). The physical Dzeko will probably have a field day with aerial duels against Agger and either Skrtel or Carragher, with Nasri, Silva, and Tevez/Agüero looking for knockdowns and layoffs. That line of three does not like to track back, though, which means that Liverpool will need to use its width and transition quickly from defense to attack when reclaiming possession.

Mancini still fields three at the back on occasion – as City did in the 2-2 at Anfield – although it's become rarer and rarer as the season's progressed, and it's less likely with both Kompany and Kolo Toure absent, which would require either Javi Garcia or Clichy to play as one of the three central defenders. However, Garcia did play center-back against QPR with Nastastic injured, and if he's still out, it might give Mancini more of a reason to deploy the formation, with Zabaleta, Lescott, and Clichy behind Milner and Kolarov as wing-backs.

Having already travelled to face every other side ahead of them, this is the toughest match left in Liverpool's league campaign, at least on paper. The next three are against West Brom and Swansea, and a trip to Wigan, with both legs against Zenit St. Petersburg sandwiched in between. With just 14 matches left in the Premiership, if Liverpool are going to push on in the table, they need to start tomorrow, building on the strides made against Arsenal but remedying the errors which cost them two crucial points.

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