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.


Nigel said...

Any thoughts that Kenny might go for a more radical solution i.e. Aurelio, Carragher or someone else in a defensive midfield role?

nate said...

Other than Aurelio, who has experience at the position, putting Carra/Agger/Johnson in midfield would basically be the same thing as having three defenders. Any one would drop deeper than Spearing or Lucas would, where they're comfortable, playing as they know how to play, doing what's familiar. And it's not as if Aurelio's played much even when he's been fit.

So, if Spearing isn't available, which seems to be this afternoon's hot (but wholly unconfirmed) rumor, three at the back seems much more likely.