LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 15: Chris Smalling of Manchester United competes with Stewart Downing of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on October 15, 2011 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
What is the reward for Manchester United after their impressive FA Cup Round 3 defeat of 'noisy neighbour' Manchester City? Answer: the English FA's nightmare scenario of Sir Alex Ferguson's side traveling to Anfield for a bitter clash with rival Liverpool FC -- and this occurs just 3 months after the infamous incident of Luis Suarez racially abusing Patrice Evra at the same ground. Although this clash is one that is always eagerly anticipated, it is a match whose commitment and passion often leads to dull football -- and in this particular case, because of the increased animosity caused recently by the Suarez/Evra feud, the viciousness and nastiness of the rivalry will almost certainly be heightened.
During the league match in October, Steven Gerrard put his side ahead in the 68th minute when his free-kick from 25 yards found a hole in United's wall and beat goalkeeper David de Gea. In the 81st minute -- just five minutes after coming on as a substitute -- Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) equalised for United and the match ended as a 1-1 stalemate. It was just over a year ago when Kenny Dalglish returned to Liverpool as manager during a FA Cup Round 3 tie at Old Trafford -- it was one that saw the Red Devils emerge victorious by a 1-0 scoreline.
Form Guide: United currently sit 2nd in the Premier League table as they trail leaders City by three points. After suffering from successive league defeats at around the new year, Fergie's lads have recovered nicely with three successive victories in all competitions -- this includes an away defeat of City at the Etihad during the previous FA Cup round and also an away defeat of Arsenal in league play last weekend at the Emirates.
Team News: It appears that as many as 12 players may potentially be unavailable for the match at Anfield. Darren Fletcher and captain Nemanja Vidic are out for the remainder of the season due to illness and injury, respectively. In addition, the likes of Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley, Michael Owen, Anderson, Phil Jones, and Nani appear to out as well. Furthermore, both Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick sustained knocks last weekend versus Arsenal and their availability is in question too. Rio Ferdinand missed last week's match as well due to his chronic back issue and his status for this match is uncertain.
Form Guide: Liverpool come into the match sitting 7th in the league table. Dalglish's side has failed to secure a league victory during the new year as their last one came on December 30 versus Newcastle United. However, Liverpool earned a berth to the Carling Cup final with a 3-2 aggregate victory over City -- the latter half of the two-legged affair took place during the past midweek. A 5-1 defeat of League One side Oldham Athletic at Anfield in Round 3 allowed Liverpool to qualify for this upcoming match.
Team News: Injuries aren't nearly as big of concern to Dalglish and his squad as it is for Fergie and his squad. However, influential holding-midfielder Lucas Leiva is out for the season due to an ACL injury while the availability of his deputy -- Jay Spearing -- is in question due to a hamstring injury. Suarez is also unavailable for this match as the Uruguayan is currently serving an 8-match ban for the previously mentioned racial abusing of Evra.
United: Anders Lindegaard has overtaken de Gea as the club's No. 1 and it is reasonable to anticipate the Dane in between the posts at Anfield -- although Lindegaard may perhaps be rested ahead of United's upcoming midweek tie versus physical Stoke City. In defense, the options are a bit limited due to injury: Evra is certain to start at left-back while wearing the captain's armband while Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling are the anticipated center-back pairing. If Ferdinand is fit for selection, his possible inclusion could slide Smalling over to right-back. Rafael is also a candidate to start at right-back as well. In central-midfield, Carrick is almost to start if deemed fit while Ryan Giggs is a likely candidate to start alongside him. Paul Scholes is also possible to start while Park Ji-sung could be deployed in the center of the park if Fergie decides to use three central-midfielders -- the United boss typically pairs a 'runner' with a 'passer' and Park's running could compliment the passing of Carrick, Giggs, and Scholes. Out wide, the in-form Antonio Valencia is likely to start on the right flank in attack while Park is most likely on the left if Nani cannot play -- Danny Welbeck is also possible to start on the left flank. Up front, any of Chicharito, Welbeck, and Dimitar Berbatov could form a duo while the latter two would be stronger possibilities to start as a lone striker if Fergie deploys a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid sort of shape.
Liverpool: Dalglish's selections for goalkeeper and his back four is fairly predictable: Pepe Reina is the clear No. 1 while Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger are the likely center-back duo -- although Jamie Carragher is possible as well. At left-back, Jose Enrique is having a stellar season and he is likely while Glen Johnson likely gets the nod at right-back over Martin Kelly. In central-midfield, captain Steven Gerrard is likely to start alongside Charlie Adam and if Dalglish tries to add more bite there, either Spearing or Jordan Henderson could supplement the duo to form a midfield trio. On the flanks in attack, any of Stewart Downing, Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez, Craig Bellamy, or Henderson are possibilities. Up front, either Kuyt or Andy Carroll could lead the attacking line as a lone striker while Bellamy is a candidate to start as well. However, due to fitness concerns, the latter may be rested and only available as a substitute after participating in Liverpool's past midweek and weekend matches.
* What shape will Liverpool play in?: It's not often that United run into a side that is more unpredictable than themselves in regards to team selection and formation. Under Dalglish, Liverpool is that side. While this unpredictably can be tactically advantageous at times, it can also hinder a side as well when players struggle adjusting to multiple roles. Perhaps the first question to ask of Liverpool is whether Gerrard and Adam can effectively operate as a midfield duo? -- specifically, do they provide enough defensive bite so that they are not overrun? Much of Bolton's shock defeat of Liverpool during the past weekend was due to Gerrard/Adam being overrun by the Trotters in the center of the park. It seems probable that the home side will deploy a 3rd central-midfielder in this match -- either Spearing if fit in a holding role or Henderson in an attacking role with both Gerrard and Adam playing deeper. This would also provide them a better opportunity to control the match.
If a 3rd central-midfielder results in a lone striker, then the next question is whether Carroll or Kuyt will start? -- the former's struggles have been well documented but Kuyt's 0 league goals may have gone unnoticed by some non-Liverpool supporters. If Carroll plays in this role, then Downing likely starts as well so that the home side has a natural winger sending in crosses for the aerial threat of the center-forward. While both Smalling and Evans have proven to competent in aerial duels this season, Dalglish might still see that duo as possibly vulnerable in the air versus Carroll. When the big Englishman does start though, Liverpool tend to get into the habit of hoofing the ball long for their target-man and as a result, they often become predictable in attack. If Kuyt starts as the lone striker, look for the likes of Maxi, Henderson, Gerrard, and Bellamy to make runs from midfield as the Dutchman holds the ball up. If a two-striker system is used, then that likely means Bellamy playing off of either Carroll or Kuyt.
* What shape will United play in?: For United, there are likely two choices: 4-4-2 (or a 4-4-1-1 variant) or a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid. The latter was often used prior to the 2010-11 season for 'big matches' -- particularly away ties in Europe or away to Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal in domestic matches. The 4-4-1-1 often works well because it preserves some of the basic attacking fundamentals of United under Fergie: using the creativity from outstanding wingers and also from a player centrally that creates from the space between the lines. In addition, having a player with the work-rate of Rooney helps his side compete in the center of the park against team's that deploy three central players. However, against Liverpool -- a side that may use three central players as previously discussed -- United will likely be without Rooney and won't have a player consistently able to get behind Liverpool's deepest-lying midfielder in a midfield trio. Thus, will Fergie go with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 at Anfield?
During the October league encounter, the United boss did deploy his side in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape. While the shape proved to be defensively sound, United were poor in attack and lacked rhythm. This is a shape whose effectiveness has been inconsistent for United since they lost the interchangeability and versatility of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez -- this was a big key to the lethal counterattack United exhibited in 'big games' during that time. While Park and Welbeck could provide similar versatility in this shape, the likes of Chicharito, Berbatov, and Valencia are players who are only comfortable in one position in attack. Plus, there's the lack of central-midfield options for United at the moment due to injury -- and perhaps due to quality as well.
If United play in a 4-4-2, will they get overrun and allow Liverpool to control the match? If United play with three in the middle, will they lack fluidity in attack again and then will the result be another stalemate such as October's match?
* Evra could be the key man: For obvious reasons, Evra will be in the spotlight the instant he steps onto the pitch at Anfield. Beyond this though, the Frenchman could be a key player tactically. Whoever Liverpool's attacking player is on their right side, he is likely to be positioned narrowly or looking to cut inside. Evra has had a difficult season -- his positioning has been quite suspect -- but his form has improved recently after Suarez received his ban. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that is coincidence or if there is a correlation.
Evra will likely have plenty of space to get forward into when United win the ball because of his counterpart's positioning. In addition, United's wide left player -- whether that be Park, Welbeck, or a miraculously recovered Nani -- is likely to play relatively narrow. Thus, Evra getting forward for overlapping runs will be key for width on the left side and it may prove to be an incisive route for United in attack. However, he must be careful with his positioning and be careful not to get caught ahead of the of the ball when United lose possession. If Evra's form has fluctuated due to the distraction of the Suarez situation, then it could do so again when he faces the near certain vitriol he will encounter from the Liverpool supporters.
KO: 12:45pm GMT, 7:45am EST | Anfield
Live TV: ITV (U.K.), Fox Soccer (USA)
Referee: Mark Halsey
SBN Liverpool: Anfield Asylum
Odds: Liverpool 6/4, Draw 9/4, Manchester United 17/10
TBB prediction: Liverpool 1-1 Manchester United