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.

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