Norwich City vs Liverpool Preview
Wednesday night provided most of us with plenty of encouragement for the rest of the season. A couple of potential new heroes emerged in the shape of Alex Tettey and Jacob Butterfield, and Mark Bunn looks a perfectly able deputy for John Ruddy should we ever need him to step in. Elliot Bennett looked like he hadn't missed a beat, and we've picked up a second clean sheet already, maintaining our recent progress in this area of the park after only picking up three of them last term.
While Tettey's cracking effort was all that was required to send City through to the last 16, there will still be some concerns that we're still struggling to be more clinical in front of goal (though sat behind the Barclay goal, I can assure you it wasn't for the lack of trying). Harry Kane's injury won't exactly help matters in this regard, and poor Grant Holt can't seem to buy a goal for love nor money at present.
But generally the signs were very positive. The two cup games have provided Chris Hughton with a welcome opportunity to give more players a chance to shine, and in the case of Tettey, Butterfield and Bunn, their full debuts, and further increase competition for starting berths in league fixtures. And you never know, if hell freezes over we might actually be in with a shout of a visit to Wembley.
But while the Cup served as a nice distraction, there's bigger fish to fry at the weekend.
Gripes with officiating against his team aside, Brendan Rodgers will be buoyed by how his team have acquitted themselves over the past week. On an emotional day at Anfield in which they could consider themselves very unlucky not to have taken at least a point from Manchester United, the Reds fielded several youngsters in their cup victory against West Brom on Wednesday, including Jerome Sinclair, who at the tender age of just 16 years and 6 days became their all-time youngest player. They've also started relatively strong in the Europa League, which if nothing else will give the new blood a chance to stake their claim for places in the Premier League games, whilst allowing the likes of established veterans like Jamie Carragher the chance to keep proving their own worth.
Rodgers will see the game with City as a cracking chance for his side to finally register their first win in the league, especially seeing as the hosts are looking for exactly the same thing. Irrespective of 'Pool's current standing in the bottom three, on paper you can understand why the bookies and neutrals favour an away win.
Luckily though, football isn't played on paper. The visitors will probably have the momentum, but hopefully with home advantage we can inflict just a little bit more Premier League misery on them. Doing so would give the team a huge boost and go some way to silencing some of the critics who think we'll be back in the Championship come 2013/14.
Now, a word on Grant Holt if I may. I refuse to write him off and I'll forever worship him, but it's just not clicking for him at the moment in front of goal. That's not the be all and end all of his game, he's a leader that inspires others around him regardless of whether he scores or not, something which many ill-informed pundits and national newspapers fail to highlight. But you can see it's knocking his confidence a little bit. Traditionally he's usually been a bit of a slow starter for us in a season before going on to silence any and all of his doubters, and I very much think he'll do the same again this year. But with Harry Kane on the treatment table for a month, and Chris Martin being on the fringes, that leaves us with just Jackson and Morison as recognized strikers to partner Holt. We'll need Snoddy and co in midfield to chip in more regularly for the goal tally, which I think will ultimately be the case as they continue to gel together.
Key to our success on Saturday will be the following-
1) Watch out for Luis Suarez and his tendency to hit the deck. That's not actually intended as a criticism on his part, and as a Grant Holt admirer I'm not going to leave myself open to accusations of double standards, but it's something we need to make sure we are privy to at the back.
2) Neutralise the passing threat in midfield. Ideally Bradley Johnson will be in the mix to combat this, but that's where the real battle will lie. It should be a fascinating test for us in what we can consider to be one of our strongest positions on the field in terms of strength, depth and variety of options.
3) Be as clinical as possible. Pepe Reina has had a shaky start between the Scouse sticks this campaign and now could be the time to make good on our recent shooting sprees. If the Doncaster game was anything to go by, the Spaniard can expect to be frequently tested from distance.
I'll predict a hard fought draw this time around. We'll miss Bassong if he doesn't make it back in time and Liverpool's midfield is a match for anyone. But with plenty of graft and without giving away too much possession we should at the very least get a share of the spoils.