27 February 2016

Liverpool v Manchester City 02.28.16

11:30am ET, live in the US on BeIN Sports

Last four head-to-head:
4-1 Liverpool (a) 11.21.15
2-1 Liverpool (h) 03.01.15
1-3 City (a) 08.25.14
3-2 Liverpool (h) 04.13.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Augsburg (h); 0-0 Augsburg (a); 6-0 Villa (a)
City: 3-1 Dynamo Kiev (a); 1-5 Chelsea (a); 1-2 Tottenham (h)

Previous Rounds:
Liverpool: 0-1 Stoke aet [6-5 pens], 1-0 Stoke (a); 6-1 Southampton (a); 1-0 Bournemouth (h); 1-1 Carlisle aet [3-2 pens] (h)
City: 3-1 Everton (h), 1-2 Everton (a); 4-1 Hull (h); 5-1 Palace (h); 4-1 Sunderland (h)

Goalscorers (League Cup):
Liverpool: Origi 3; Ibe, Sturridge 2; Clyne, Ings 1
City: de Bruyne 5; Agüero, Bony, Iheanacho 2; Fernandinho, Garcia, Navas, Sterling, Toure 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Toure Sakho Moreno
Henderson Can
Milner Firmino Coutinho

We're pretty sure what Liverpool's XI is going to be: the same as the last few matches, with Kolo Toure (or Lovren or Skrtel, if fit) coming into defense in place of Lucas.

We're pretty sure what Liverpool need to do to succeed: actually convert its chances, as they did when facing City in November. Over the last few weeks, Liverpool have defended, pressed, possessed, and created chances. But except for the rout at all-but-already-relegated Aston Villa, Liverpool simply haven't scored.

Of course, scoring goals is easier said than done. Or Liverpool would have solved this problem ages ago.

Maybe the fit-again Lallana replaces Milner, maybe Lucas comes into midfield in the hopes of adding more defensive protection against City's firepower. But I doubt it. We've seen what Liverpool wants to do now that almost everyone's fit again. We've almost, but not quite, seen what Liverpool's capable of. Because we haven't seen Liverpool take advantage of the recent improvements in attack.

When Liverpool actually score goals, Liverpool are actually pretty good. But when they don't, look out – often either a frustrating Sisyphean struggle or a Yakety Sax hot mess.

Amazingly, Liverpool are up against a side that's almost as inconsistent as themselves.

Manchester City lost three straight before their comprehensive 3-1 win at Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday. It was the first time City have lost three consecutive matches since October-November 2010. There's a bit of fluke involved – ;a contentious penalty decision v Tottenham, a very different and very inexperienced XI in the FA Cup loss at Chelsea – but it also demonstrates Manchester City's capability to disappoint.

Sure, they've had injury issues this season. They've struggled to gel at times. In places, it's an aging and unbalanced squad. But you look at their roster, and you wonder how they're fourth, six points off the league leaders. You wonder how they're not running away with the league. You wonder how that attack hasn't already scored a billion goals.

I know their defense is wacky when Kompany's not involved, and he's missed a lot of time; it's probably not coincidence that Liverpool's 4-1 win at City came with Kompany absent. Agüero and de Bruyne, two crucial players in attack, have missed a lot of time as well. It's still confusing. They're still confusing. But Kompany's back for this, and Agüero's available for this, and City are coming off an impressive 3-1 away win in the Champions League to put them on course to make the quarterfinals for the first time ever. Because of course.

Throughout the season, Pellegrini's experimented with a 4-3-3 that looks more like a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2, with a central midfielder ostensibly on the flanks. Usually, it's been Fabian Delph. Usually, it's less than impressive. But at Kiev, Fernandinho filled that role, and filled it fairly well, adding protection when Toure or Fernando got forward but also linking up with other attackers.

We may see similar tomorrow. That XI, the same as at Kiev, would be Hart; Sagna, Kompany, Otamendi, Clichy; Toure, Fernando; Silva, Sterling, Fernandinho; Agüero. Or we may see a more orthodox 4-3-3 in an attempt to prevent Liverpool from overrunning central spaces. Or Navas returning to the side in place of Fernando or Fernandinho or even Sterling. City could make changes at both full-back positions, with Zabaleta and Kolarov coming into the side. Caballero's started every domestic cup match in the last two seasons, but I find it hard to believe Joe Hart won't start tomorrow.

City, despite their injury issues – Navas, Bony, and Mangala were back in training after the trip to Kiev, but Delph, de Bruyne, and Nasri remain absent – have options. It's what they do, or don't do, with those options. Just like Liverpool.

So, it's nearly impossible to predict what'll happen tomorrow, not that I've got any great record at predictions anyway. Maybe Liverpool actually score early and often, and we get that wonderful November trip to the Etihad again. Maybe Liverpool control proceedings but sputter in the final third, and we get a replica of 0-1 v Manchester United. Maybe City hit peak City and run riot, something they've done less than usual this season but still somehow always seem capable of doing. Maybe everybody disappoints and it's another damp squib at Wembley. Anything can happen, and to the victor goes the glory.

Just like a cup final should be.

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