By Greg Stobart
It will be the blue side of Manchester that will be occupying Liverpool’s thoughts this week.
The upcoming FA Cup fourth round clash against Manchester United will be put out of the players’ minds as they prepare for the first leg of their League Cup semi-final with City on Wednesday.
They do so with memories of last week’s 3-0 defeat at the Etihad Stadium fresh in their minds. That scoreline is not a fair reflection of an even game in which Liverpool controlled possession for much of the match but were hit by goals from Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and James Milner.
Reds manager Kenny Dalglish will want his side to learn from that defeat – and the 1-1 home draw with City in November – as the Merseyside club look to win their first trophy since their FA Cup triumph in 2006.
Here, Goal.com takes a look at five things Liverpool have to change from last week’s defeat if they are to win at the Etihad on Wednesday night and take an advantage into the second leg.
|BELLAMY AND GERRARD TO THE RESCUE
Neither Steven Gerrard nor Craig Bellamy started in the defeat to City last week, both coming on as 57th-minute substitutes. That should change on Wednesday.
The decision to re-sign Bellamy in the summer raised a few eyebrows but the Welshman has been one of Liverpool’s outstanding players so far this season. The club’s need to manage his knee problems meant he didn’t start at the Etihad Stadium and Liverpool missed his direct running in the first hour.
As a former City player, Bellamy will be fired up and he is the type of character who can make an impact on such occasions, forcing opponents onto the back foot with his pace and incision in the final third.
The Reds have also been boosted by the return of Gerrard after a nightmare 2011 riddled by injuries. The Liverpool captain is likely to start against City after playing the full 90 minutes in Friday’s 5-1 win over Oldham. The attacking midfielder’s drive and eye for a killer pass has been badly missed as Liverpool have often laboured this season.
Gerrard’s delivery and shooting ability will be key to Dalglish’s masterplan to break down City – and Liverpool would be well advised to focus on counterattacking play.
It is solid defending and breakaways at speed that have led to the Reds’ best performances this season, away at Arsenal and twice at Chelsea.
It plays to Liverpool’s strengths – and it’s the same tactic with which they were hit by City last week. Strangely, Liverpool controlled possession for much of the game, especially in the second half, but were sucker-punched by the Premier League leaders.
Liverpool’s problem this season has been their frustrating inability to break down teams that sit deep. Gerrard’s return will help with that, but so will City’s desire to control the game and create chances.
City have shown they are vulnerable to the counterattack this season – not least in their Champions League matches against Napoli – and the likes of Gerrard and Bellamy are well suited to exploiting the space.
David Silva’s performances have dropped a notch from the stunning level he reached in the first six weeks of the season – but the Spanish genius is still the key to City’s attacking play.
He plays in no fixed position, drifting into gaps where he can pick the ball up and turn before opening teams up with his inventive passing. Liverpool must get close to Silva and, as much as possible, prevent him feeding the likes of Aguero and Mario Balotelli with scoring opportunities.
It’s a tough ask that will likely come down to his compatriot Jose Enrique and, more importantly, Jay Spearing at the base of the Reds’ midfield. In the absence of Lucas, Spearing is Liverpool’s only recognised holding player and he will have to show an intuitive reading of the game to deny Silva space to operate.
He did that job to some effect last week but the role becomes more important this time around against a City squad weakened by injuries and the absence of players at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Whatever the merits of the red card, Vincent Kompany’s decision to lunge in two-footed on Nani in the Manchester derby was ill-advised. Less than two minutes after United had taken the lead, City were rattled and the captain lost his head.
Equally, in last week’s game, City had Gareth Barry dismissed in the second half for two bookings. The problem at the Etihad Stadium was that Liverpool almost immediately conceded a penalty that effectively sealed the result.
City will want to rely on their passing game and technical ability, so Liverpool need to get up-and-at-’em from the kick-off, denying them time and space while making strong but fair challenges.
|GET THE MOST OUT OF EXPENSIVE FLOPS
It has not been the best of times for Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll this season. Signed for a combined cost of £55 million, both players have badly struggled to make an impact at Anfield.
Their malaise was summed up in last week’s defeat. Downing was completely lacking in confidence as he missed a superb chance to put Liverpool ahead before disappearing from the game, while Carroll was statuesque throughout the match and bullied in the air by Kompany.
Friday’s win over Oldham, however, offered a glimmer of light just when observers were ready to write the pair off as expensive flops. Carroll scored a superb half-volley from 20 yards before Downing netted his first goal for the club in the last minute.
It may be that one of them is on the bench on Wednesday night, but both will have a role to play in the tie. Liverpool will be hoping that they can play with renewed confidence and finally start to pay back their transfer fees.
There have been signs that Carroll, in particular, could form a good partnership with Gerrard as he looks to fill the void left by Luis Suarez’s absence through suspension.