I’M alright with this tie having gone to a replay. The Plymouth people notwithstanding, I suspect I’m in a small demographic. Most fellow Reds I’m talking to are seeing this fixture as something of a hindrance. They’re very wrong about this.
The reasons I’m pleased about Wednesday night:
Number one: I always like having Liverpool games to look forward to. The Reds don’t play often enough. I’d like football to be more like US baseball where they play about a 1,000 games in a season. That would really work for me. Eat, sleep, work, watch football. Watch Liverpool FC, to be specific. What else are we meant to be doing, for fuck sake?
Number two: The fact that the tie is now at Plymouth gives it an edge. We’ll play a weakened team, obviously, so there’s a reasonable prospect of us being eliminated from the competition. I don’t want us to be eliminated from the competition (*see number one). Have you seen our fixture list for February? We have just three matches currently scheduled. Three games in 28 days. That’s horribly little Liverpool FC based football to partake in, to anticipate, to savour. All of this ratchets up the pre-match tension, and frays the nerves further during the game itself. All the ingredients needed to make the event feel like a proper Liverpool FC event. In short – anticipate a contest, a proper old fashioned blood and glory FA Cup third round tie.
Number three: I want us to win the FA Cup. I want Liverpool to be winning trophies. I want days out at Wembley for semi-finals and finals. Sure the cup isn’t really ‘THE CUP’ any more, but it’s still the third most prestigious thing we can hope to win this season. To be eliminated from it at this stage would be more than careless. If we aren’t to win the league title this season it would be great to talk about 2017 as ‘the cup winning year’.
Number four: Our squad needs these games. Joel Matip, Phil Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge need games to hone if they’re to participate fully in first team games. This is very much a game in which to hone. Joe Gomez is on the edge of falling into this category. Albie Moreno too. We want these men to be ring-ready if and when called upon from the bench or to supplement current first 11 players. This Plymouth game arrives at something of a perfect moment in this respect.
Number five: The Liverpool FC youth need these games. Quietly, slowly, surely, the club are building an academy which it hopes will come to be viewed as an elite institution. Michael Beale, in a couple of interviews with TAW, has stressed how crucial the ‘breakthrough’ opportunities that these tournaments present for young players are. The entire academy coaching staff came to view the plethora of debuts handed to under-21s last season (mainly in the FA Cup) as gratification for the effort and expertise they had been putting in. Jürgen Klopp’s bold faith in the club’s youth system sent a demonstrable message to young players, the football world over – Liverpool FC is the place to develop and become a star.
Number six: The club could really do with a win. Quietly, this marvellous Liverpool team has stopped winning football matches. No victories since Manchester City on New Year’s eve in fact. Liverpool FC have drawn three and lost one of the last four outings. This represents our biggest slump this season and it could do with coming to a close. Winning is a great habit, but equally not winning can become a custom too.
Number seven: It will help us win the league. Cups provide respite from the tension of trying to win leagues. Of course, having nothing but the title to focus one facilitates more rest days between games, but it also creates voids in the fixture calendar and shines an often stark light on the reality that the league is all that you have left to play for. The effect can be to knock a team out of its rhythm and to heap on psychological pressure. Obviously, too much football is a problem for a hard working, hard pressing machine such as the modern day Reds, but too little football can also be an issue.
The vagaries of the injury cycle and the need to re-acclimate players returning to fitness, or just simply needing games (*see number four), means that the Liverpool team Klopp puts out at Plymouth’s Home Park could be quite an intriguing blend of youth and experience. Sturridge will be gritting his teeth at being unleashed in Plymouth’s relatively tepid arena rather than in a cauldron such as Old Trafford, but he’s a natural born goal sniffer, and once he gets over himself, will relish the opportunity to be on a scoresheet again. He seems a certain starter, and will be the right man to lead rookies Ben Woodburn and Sheyi Ojo by example. The manager has confirmed that Welsh winger Harry Wilson – free scoring in the under-23s this season – will be in the squad. There’s a possibility he even gets a start ahead of Ojo. He’s certainly earned it.
In centre mid, Lucas Leiva looks likely to miss a chance for a rare start with an injury. My call is that Emre Can will be given yet another start with a view to resting him at the weekend (when others would probably have been prefered to him, anyway). He may well be the senior partner in a trio completed by Kev Stewart and Ovie Ejaria.
Fear of FIFA regulations aside, Klopp would start with Matip to aid his post-injury rehabilitation. The world governing body’s sloth in making a decision a per pro Matip’s opting out of playing for Cameroon in the AFCON will give the Liverpool manager (and player) a restless night’s sleep. More certain of a central defensive role is Joe Gomez. Joe will be targeting becoming a regular first team starter before the season’s out and Plymouth may come to represent his springboard to greater things.
With Nathaniel Clyne rested with a rib injury, the preciously talented Trent Alexander-Arnold will be asked to repeat games, and will be paired at full-back with the patient Moreno.
Sturridge and Woodburn up front. Ejaria pulling the strings. Gomez mopping up all threats in behind them. Plenty to look forward to. Godspeed the miles from home Reds.
Predicted 11: Karius; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Matip, Moreno; Stewart, Can, Ejaria; Ojo, Woodburn, Sturridge.
Kick-off: 7.45pm (live on BT Sport 2)
Referee: Graham Scott
Odds: Plymouth 10-1, Draw 5-1, Liverpool 7-20