It’s a good job that there is a game this week for Liverpool, as they try and put last weekend’s debacle at home to Southampton behind them.
Liverpool travel to face Manchester United in the League Cup Third Round on Wednesday, a game which heralds the return of Luis Suarez after his 10-game suspension. No one could have picked a more hostile atmosphere for Suarez to mark his return, but he’ll be raring to go, and Liverpool will welcome him back with open arms. That’s not something I thought I would have said in the summer when he was pushing to leave Liverpool. Either way, it will be interesting to see how he does. He plays at 110% every game, and has been working hard in training and has had some games behind closed doors, but this will be his first competitive match since April.
Anyhow, it’s a massive game, and Brendan Rodgers has a conundrum to solve in ‘How seriously do Liverpool take the competition?’ His attitude was on show in the Second Round when he named a fairly strong Starting XI at home to League One Notts County: Daniel Sturridge, Simon Mignolet and Steven Gerrard were some of the names that featured. Even so, that followed a familiar tale for this season: non-performances in the second half, as Liverpool threw away a 2-0 lead, and only won 4-2 after Notts County had pulled it back to 2-2 before the 90th minute.
What will we see from Rodgers on Wednesday night? One thing for sure, I hope never to see the tactics he deployed against Southampton. He lined the team up with four centre backs across the defence in an experiment that was destined to fail, and was the subject of criticism from large sections of the supporters & the press, especially as Southampton scored the decisive goal from a corner kick.
The criticism will intensify if Rodgers decides to name a much-changed XI and they lose on Wednesday, bearing in mind the magnitude of the rivalry between Manchester United and Liverpool. However, I think (and hope) Rodgers will pick a strong side to take on Manchester United in the League Cup.
I was glad Rodgers picked a strong side to take on Notts County in the Second Round, even if Liverpool made heavy weather of that game. It showed that he was taking the competition seriously, which is very important, as even though the League Cup (Capital One Cup) is not the most glamourous trophy in the world, it is still silverware. It is still a winner’s medal and a trip to Wembley, and a guaranteed place in Europe – even if Liverpool’s main target is the top four and qualification for the Champions League.
Picking a strong team throughout the competition would also show that he’s learning from his mistakes. Liverpool had absolutely no joy in the cup competitions last season. Liverpool’s defence of the League Cup ended in the Fourth Round after being outplayed at home to the Swansea City side that went onto win the League Cup that year; Rodgers named a weakened side and his side lost 3-1 against the side he joined the Reds from. Liverpool’s fortunes in the FA Cup were equally as bad, being embarrassed in the Fourth Round with a 3-2 loss at League One Oldham Athletic, where Rodgers picked a weakened team once again.
It was bad last season in the Cups, but there was little to no squad depth last season; Liverpool played a lot of the first half of the season with just ONE senior striker, after Fabio Borini was injured and Liverpool let Andy Carroll go to West Ham on loan without a replacement coming in. The lack of squad depth really hindered Liverpool last season, particularly with extra fixtures in the Europa League to contend with. But Liverpool are not in European competition this season – and the squad depth, even without one of Liverpool’s key men, Philippe Coutinho, looks better, so there are no excuses for Liverpool not to give the cup competitions a real go.
Of course, the flip-side to that is that Rodgers’ predecessor, Kenny Dalglish, picked a strong team throughout Liverpool’s triumphant League Cup campaign in 2011/12. King Kenny picked a strong team in Liverpool’s run to the final, irrespective of whether they were playing Exeter City in the Second Round or Chelsea in the quarter finals. Liverpool won the League Cup that year, but sadly, Kenny was sacked for reasons known only to those who made that decision.
Another potential headache Rodgers is likely to face is the fact that because Liverpool’s squad is much bigger, there will be players who he can give game time to, who wouldn’t otherwise be starting. It may also serve as a decent game for right back Martin Kelly to return in; he’s been injured with a knee problem since last September and is returning to full match fitness: Rodgers is waiting for the opportune moment to bring the 23-year old back, and this might be it. Managers often use the League Cup to make alterations to give some game-time to players who wouldn’t play week in week out; if they do well, why wouldn’t the manager consider these players for the league games? However, I don’t want to see too many alterations to the team.
It’s also a big game for Manchester United. Just like Liverpool, Manchester United will be reeling from their result on Sunday – the only thing that could have cheered up Liverpool supporters as Manchester United took a 4-1 hammering against their city rivals Manchester City. I don’t know what strategy their manager David Moyes will take to this game; I’d expect him to make a few changes but they’ll still have a strong team irrespective of whoever he puts out.
Liverpool have already met Manchester United this season, in the league. Liverpool won 1-0 at Anfield on 1 September in one of the best results and performances in Brendan Rodgers’ reign so far. That performance drew praise for the resoluteness and the work rate the team display. Of course, this time, the circumstances will be entirely different. For a start, the game will be at Old Trafford. Liverpool’s recent record there is not great. You have to go back to March 2009 for Liverpool’s last victory there, in a 4-1 thrashing of their fierce rivals in the Premier League.
If Liverpool can go to Old Trafford and beat Manchester United in the League Cup, then it will be great for a number of reasons. One reason is that it will go some way to putting Saturday’s shambles behind them. Another is that it will raise the belief that Liverpool could win silverware this season.