Liverpool head into their weekend game against Manchester United knowing that it will be the first of two encounters with their big rivals over the coming weeks, with the two having also been drawn to face off in the third round of the Capital One Cup.
Following the Reds' 4-2 extra-time victory at home over Notts County in the second round on Tuesday evening, Liverpool were drawn to play away at Old Trafford in the next round, with the Premier League fixture on Sunday set to take place at Anfield.
Competitions aside, there will be one big difference between the two games: the absence, and return to action, of Luis Suarez.
The Uruguayan forward is still currently serving a suspension carried over from last season, but he will miss his 10th and final match of that ban with the league game against Southampton on September 21. With the League Cup's third-round games due to take place on the 24th and 25th of the same month, Suarez's return to competitive action was always likely to be in that game, regardless of opposition, as Liverpool bid to get him back to full-match fitness as soon as possible.
Beating United is never an easy task, but it certainly is one that the Reds are habitually up to doing, and Brendan Rodgers' men will be optimistic of their chances in each game.
Premier League: Still No Suarez
Against United on Sunday at Anfield, Liverpool will likely be looking at a case of "more of the same."
Rodgers is unlikely to make sweeping changes from his first two starting XIs of the league season, barring the injury to Kolo Toure enforcing a defensive switch.
Presumably, Martin Skrtel will come in for his first start of the season, unless the Reds sign somebody new before then, meaning he and Daniel Agger will resume their partnership. It largely means that the Reds will be relying on their stellar, creative attacking talents to overcome United, with Lucas Leiva not quite on top form and Skrtel having played just 208 minutes of Premier League football since the last time Liverpool fought Manchester United—way back on January 13.
United will put the Reds under pressure at times, no doubt, so Liverpool's attacking profligacy or accuracy could determine how many points they get out of the game.
The combinations between Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge will once again be a key point of focus for the Reds, with really only the young wide forwards Jordon Ibe and Raheem Sterling noted for their preference of dribbling directly at defenders.
Coutinho and Sturridge can certainly beat opponents in one-on-one situations, but it is the first port of call for neither of them, preferring to use their technique and first touch, plus acceleration and movement, to beat defenders.
Ibe and Sterling will almost always look to control the ball and then immediately commit defenders in an attempt to create space for themselves—but neither is certain to start, with places on the bench being the likeliest outcome.
Sterling coming in for Iago Aspas is the one possible change that the manager could opt to make, after an impressive 120 minutes for the youngster in the League Cup win over Notts Co.
Movement, quick exchanges of passing and a relentless approach to closing down the opposition high up the field are where Liverpool will have success against Manchester United on Sunday, with a likely oft-repeated showdown between Sturridge's shooting and David De Gea's reflexes providing an interesting backdrop.
Even with an injury picked up to Joe Allen in midweek and Oussama Assaidi being loaned to Stoke, the Reds have plenty of options to change things up off the bench. Aside from the Sterling-Aspas outcome, Ibe, Fabio Borini and Luis Alberto are further options for Rodgers to call upon as needed.
One further important option for Liverpool will be the powerful break from deep from Jordan Henderson, who is capable of joining the attack late to add an extra body in the penalty area without neglecting his important defensive duties in midfield.
His goal against Notts County encapsulated his massive attacking improvement over the past eight months or so. Between debuting for the Reds in August 2011 and December 2012, he netted three goals.
In the eight months since the start of 2013, he has scored six goals in 25 games.
Capital One Cup: The Return of Suarez
This early before the game, a look at the sides playing in the third round calls for a certain amount of speculation.
Namely, that Liverpool do indeed keep Suarez at the club past the closure of the transfer window, and the assumption that both teams opt to field relatively strong lineups for a domestic cup match against a rival.
Liverpool will also hope to have added at least one new name to their own squad by that time, while United are still searching for reinforcements ahead of transfer deadline day too.
The other big call Rodgers will have to make is to see whether Suarez is ready to start immediately, perhaps playing 60-70 minutes, or whether he will need to be eased in for a half or 30 minutes off the bench. There should be no real issue with his fitness, as he's not returning from injury, and it will simply be match sharpness he is lacking.
What Rodgers might opt to do, however, is mix in some backup senior players into the starting XI, even though United are the opposition, because of the competition.
I'd start Suarez vs Utd in LC, he’ll be chomping at the bit and give his all. Rest Sturridge and play mixed side as we did vs Notts County.— Callum Fox (@cjfox21) August 29, 2013
It could be that the Suarez-Sturridge-Coutinho combination doesn't quite get kicked off in this match, but Suarez's mere presence back on the team sheet would be an immediate boost to the players and fans and would add another element to the rivalry of the game.
Should Suarez be deployed as the central forward, his all-round attacking ability—including running at defenders, working the channels, dropping deep and shooting from any angle—will likely be the Reds' main method of attacking United's back line.
If he's selected in a wider role, perhaps with Borini centre-forward, he will be expected to help create chances on goal for the team and still offer a presence of his own in the danger areas.
This could perhaps be the smartest approach, with Suarez's in-match ability levels unquestioned but his level of performance in competitive league games untested since late April.
Victory at Old Trafford, while far from unheard of, will always be a more difficult target to attain. The presence of a new manager at the club could work either way, and David Moyes' preference or commitment to the Capital One Cup this year is yet to be seen, as the third round will be United's first involvement this term.
If it has to be a win in one game or the other, a huge majority of Liverpool fans would of course pick the Premier League match without a second's hesitation, and rightly so.
However, the Reds can arguably put together a stronger second string this time around than they could last season—and the return of Luis Suarez for that exact match puts a whole different slant on the encounter, quite possibly one that tips the balance improbably in Liverpool's favour.
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