The League Cup is largely viewed as an annoying distraction by the big clubs; the ginger stepchild of the silverware family, if you will. It is a viewpoint that fans seem to share, too. The FA Cup still holds a certain level of significance in the footballing calendar, but, without the financial motivation to succeed, domestic cups take a backseat to league games and are used to give fringe players and youngsters a chance to showcase their talent. Still, sometimes a high profile tie will garner an increased level of interest, and they don’t come much bigger than Manchester United v Liverpool at Old Trafford.
The two sides met a few weeks ago, with Brendan Rodgers handing David Moyes his first competitive defeat as United boss thanks to a Daniel Sturridge goal in a narrow 1-0 win at Anfield - and Rodgers would love to be the first manager to beat Moyes in his own back yard. Not that there’s much evidence that either team is capable of getting one over their rivals: when was the last time both teams went in to the fixture looking so average? Luckily it’s a cup game, and if there’s one thing the grand book of clichés has taught us it’s that when it comes to cup ties the form book is thrown out of the window, right, guys?
Another favourite cliché of mine is bouncebackability, a phrase coined by the paragon of wisdom that is Iain Dowie (who, surprisingly, is currently unemployed). Liverpool’s insipid performance in their 1-0 home loss to Southampton burst their bubble after a good start to the season, whilst United’s equally prosaic showing in the 4-1 defeat to Man City in the Manchester derby has done nothing to dispel the doubts that Moyes was the wrong choice as Ferguson’s successor. Both teams will certainly be looking to bounce back from disappointing results last weekend; however, come 11pm tonight, one team will have bounced back as successfully as Alan Partidge’s autobiography.
Liverpool have no European football this season so Rodgers has no excuse for not taking the cups seriously. His line-up against Notts County suggests that he intends to do so, and he may have been handed a double boost before the game: not only is his vexatious number seven, Luis Suarez, finally available for selection after serving his ten-match suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic, but reports suggest that Robin Van Persie will not play tonight, too. Perhaps that’s just Moyes trying to throw a curveball, but both forwards are central to their respective teams’ chances to win the game and either player missing the game would be a huge bonus to the opposition.
Suarez’s return couldn’t have come at a better time, with Phil Coutinho out injured for a month and Iago Aspas looking completely ineffective so far, a half-fit Daniel Sturridge is in dire need of some help. But Suarez cannot and should not usurp Sturridge as the centrepiece of the Liverpool attack. Yes, he’s by far and away the best player at the club, but his absence since April was entirely his own doing, and Sturridge has stepped up to the plate in his absence and deserves to play centrally. Since then, Liverpool have won seven, drawn two and lost once, proving that they can get results without him being the focal point of the team; it is up to Suarez to once again prove that he’s the best option there.
Playing a slightly more withdrawn role, or even playing out wide, should not be a problem for Suarez, though, who has proven he’s dangerous in wherever role he’s deployed. One thing he most do, however, is not try too hard to impress; he is guilty of giving the ball away needlessly. His sense of urgency when on the ball is both a blessing and a curse; it was what leads to him producing moments of individual brilliance that few other players can – but he must pick and choose his moments wisely. If he loses possession in or around the opposition penalty area it is not as damaging to the team, but if he does so in the centre circle or his own half he can be the team’s worst enemy, particularly considering how sluggish the midfield has looked, especially in the second half of games.
Speaking of which, Joe Allen, if fit, should be given a chance to stake a claim for more regular action. His mobility and ability to retain possession, whilst seemingly uninspiring attributes, are what the midfield two of Gerrard and Lucas were sorely lacking against Southampton. Henderson also deserves a chance to play centrally after impressing so far this season from the right. It will be interesting to see who Rodgers decides to go with, as his system has always been reliant on a midfield three dominating the midfield battle, and that is something which the team has failed to do so far this season, seeing an average of just under 50% of possession, which is startling.
Rodgers got it horribly wrong against Southampton. With a full-back core depleted through injuries, he decided to play all four of his senior centre-backs in a back four and it did not work at all. Whilst it must be nice for him to have such a selection conundrum, he can’t try and shoehorn them all in and risk upsetting the balance of the side. Going with three at the back has been suggested in certain quarters and this would be an ideal time to try it. A three man defence, in theory, works better away from home where you’re likely to see less of the ball, and despite United’s inauspicious start to the season, Old Trafford is still the most difficult place to go and get a result from.
A back three of Toure, Skrtel and Sakho (Agger was stupidly rushed back and should be allowed to fully recover from injury before he’s considered for selection again) with Henderson and Enrique or Moses playing as wing-backs would be interesting to see. If Sturridge and Suarez are both fit then hopefully they can pick up where they left off last season. If Sturridge needs to rest and heal up then he should, as if he were to miss an extended period of time it would be a massive blow. Hopefully The Reds can get the win tonight and battle through their next two league games before the international break, by which time they should have most of their injured players back fit and see what they can do at full strength.