I think we will absolutely batter Oldham and have no concerns about the result whatsoever. That's not based on arrogance or a dismissal of Oldham as a League 1 team though; it's more an expression of how confident I feel about us at home these days under Brendan Rodgers. Also, I'm not one to think we should (or could) just play the U21s against lower league clubs in the cups. That one has bitten us too many times before.
However, I do have concerns about the team we put out because injuries and burn out are becoming a real problem in the squad right now. For me, Henderson, Sterling and Coutinho definitely need a little rest and I think Luis' ridiculous fitness levels, despite his freakish work rate and the continual kicking he takes every single time he steps out on the pitch, are something we should not take for granted. That said, no Suarez or Sturridge leaves us very, very thin up front and so I'm in something of a quandary that leaves me thinking Suarez will have to start.
Next to him I'd play Iago Aspas. I know he looks way out of his depth and his physique seems entirely unsuited to English football. However, he's barely had a sniff of the first team and if he can't have 90 minutes at home to Oldham, when can he? I'd also throw Victor Moses in on the flank. His pace and directness could be invaluable against a side that rarely faces either quality in the league.
Working backwards through the team, I'd bring back the captain to partner Lucas in the centre of midfield and be prepared to bring him off once a comfortable lead is established. Just ahead of them I'd play Alberto. I'm not at all sure about him for the money we paid, but if he doesn't play in circumstances such as these, when will he ever?
My back four has a very makeshift look to it, but there should not a be problem against this level of opposition for Agger and Toure, centre half and right back respectively. The much maligned Cissokho has shown recently that he's not quite the liability people had him down as, so I'd play him at left back. The one question mark lies with the Portuguese mystery man Illori. Again, I can't see how we can not play him having paid all that cash for such a supposed hot property. He therefore plays next to Agger in the middle of the defence so we can have a look at him before his (what seems) inevitable developmental loan deal out of the club.
Finally, in goal, no way does Mignolet need a rest; he could and should play 65 games a season, never mind the 46 maximum he'll have this season.
To me, that side should overwhelm Oldham in short order, at which point I'd hook Suarez and Gerrard for Rossiter and Smith.
This is a difficult one to judge, really, as we have to balance our desire to progress in the cup with what’s best in the long-run for an already severely depleted first team squad. On the back of three gruelling games in a week over the festive period, there are certain players who would usually be rested but have had to play through various little knocks and injuries because we’ve simply had no other options to bring in as we have so many players out injured. So we need to be pragmatic and not take any unnecessary risks.
All of that said, we’re talking about a team that are currently 19th in League One, and only out of the relegation zone on goal difference. Forget about the magic of the cup, or that they beat us at their place last season, or even that it could be father v son; any side we put out should be more than capable of beating Oldham comfortably, especially as we’re at home, where we’ve been so strong in 2013. If not, we need to take a long, hard look at some of the players that make up our squad. There should be no excuses.
I see no need to rest Mignolet, as he had nothing to do against Hull and, let’s be honest, our goalkeeper should not be fatigued at this stage of the season as it’s not as if we’ve been in Europe. At the back I’d give Cissoko a chance to build on his good performance against Hull, and play one of Flanagan or Kelly right-back, if either are fit. Toure should get a game at centre-back, and, although I’d like to see Ilori play, I could see the logic in playing Agger as he’s been in and out of the side all season. Either should be fine.
Things get a little trickier further forward, though. Allen’s out injured and Henderson seems to be carrying a knock, and it’s affecting his mobility, which is one of his biggest assets, so we’re a little short of options. So I’d go with Lucas and Gerrard in midfield, with Alberto further forward as the most advanced of the three. Stevie needs the game time on his return from injury, and Lucas can play an hour, hopefully with young Rossiter coming on for his debut if everything is going well.
As for the front three, as much as I’d love Suarez to play, he was clearly not close to 100% against Hull and with Rodgers saying he had an injury that would’ve kept most players out, we have to give him the day off; we simply cannot afford to lose him. The only available alternative is Aspas, and we’re just going to have to hope that he eats his spinach and turns from Scrappy Doo to Popeye. Coutinho and Sterling could do with a bit of a rest, but with Ibe’s injury one of them is likely to start, with Moses on the other side.
That team is should beat Oldham with ease, and if we can’t win this one without our prized number seven, then we don’t deserve to progress in the cup. Hopefully we can get through it with no more injuries and give a couple of the kids a chance from the bench.
The FA Cup third round is always one of the marquee weekends of the football calendar but it also follows hot on the heels of the busy Christmas programme. If the draw falls lucky for you then you might get a lower league team at home, and with that an opportunity to rest some players, and that’s the scenario that Liverpool find themselves in tomorrow. Oldham at Anfield should be a relatively simple task to complete, yet the game carries with it an element of risk.
Oldham rock up at Anfield having dumped Liverpool out of the cup last year, but with a pretty horrendous league record so far this season. They’re currently 19th in League One and haven’t won a league game since 26th November, when they beat Shrewsbury 2-1. In addition to that, Matt Smith has regenerated as a Leeds United player so his lanky shadow can no longer be cast over Martin Skrtel and the rest of the defence. Liverpool have been feeding on the scraps of the Premier League for most of 2014 so Oldham holds no fear, but there needs to be a healthy respect for them. They did knock us out last year, albeit at the unfriendly confines of Outer Manchester, so no one should be taking them lightly. That’s the line I’d expect from the players and manager in public, but in private I’d expect them to want to be like Dr. Samuel Beckett and put that historical wrong right; they should know that they can smash Oldham and they should absolutely want to.
When picking the team, there should be no real difficulty. This game is at home, in front of a sell out crowd and everyone in the squad is better than Oldham’s players. In theory there should be no team that we can’t put out that would have trouble with Oldham. The wrinkle in that is that the squad is kind of beaten up at the moment with the last five league fixtures really taking their toll. The players ruled out are a concern but so is the health of players like Suarez and Henderson, both of whom have been kicked all over the place in recent weeks. Instinct says that you give those players a rest but the issue is do you really trust the squad players to come in and do the job? Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about the squad players who I pronounced were all superior to Oldham’s players.
It’s nothing to do with the romance of the cup or giving your opponents too much respect, it’s simple pragmatism. Taken in isolation, we ‘know’ that Alberto, Illori and Aspas are superior players but the issue is that we haven’t seen them do it for Liverpool, and until we do, we doubt their ability and desire. There’s also the culture difference of playing in more prosaic leagues compared to the rough and tumble that Oldham were invariably try to grind the game down to. Would you want Aspas as the lone striker in a grind it out game against lower league cloggers? He’d been thrown about like a dummy stunt double in a ‘70s cop show.
Suarez might be beat up but he’ll want to play and he should get at least the first half. In midfield, putting the returning Gerrard in should be a formality, possibly at the expense of Henderson to let him rest up. Even if the idea of a midfield of Alberto, Gerrard and Lucas sounds as slow as getting stuck in first gear in Outrun, there’s enough steel in there with Gerrard to get through it. At the back I wouldn’t be changing the goalkeeper, there’s no need and it was an expensive mistake last year. Agger should play alongside Toure, whilst there’s no reason for Cissokho not to play. Letting Kelly return at right back is also a must, his recovery has been slow since his injury, and this is a low risk game to put him in for the full ninety. Up front I’d keep the same three that started against Hull, let Suarez do what he can for the first half and if we lead at the break, take him off.
The problems that we encountered in the Notts County game shouldn’t be repeated here. Do a professional job, put the goals on the board and then shut the game down. There’s a reason this fixture hasn’t been picked for TV, there should be nothing close to an upset happening at Anfield tomorrow. The biggest upset would be for Luis Suarez not to score.