By Matt Rowson
Regular readers of these pages will be familiar with my recent, unpleasant encounters with Mother Nature. Flies and Dead Pigeons having been disposed of, New Year's Eve saw another unwelcome turn of events when scratching noises were heard from the top of our kitchen cupboards. Climbing tentatively on top of a chair and peering across yielded no clues. Rapping the top of the vent-pipe leading from the extractor hood above the hob to the outer wall with a screwdriver handle yielded frantic scuttling.
In normal circumstances, either my wife or I will generally be capable of being sensible and pragmatic in the face of a crisis, even if the other is tumbling into panic. Not on this occasion. Mice and rats are enemies that neither of us possessed the capability to be terribly rational about, and a week or so of disquiet and largely sleepless nights followed. Bait was purchased, and plug-in devices making high-pitched inaudibletoyouandmebutverynastyforbastardrodents noises were also acquired and plugged in to quarantine the key battle zones of the kitchen and the bedroom.
Unfortunately, the inaudible sirens are accompanied by just-about-audible clicks that reminded us as we attempted to drift off to sleep of the conflict that was ongoing. Whilst no concrete evidence of lines having been broken was detected inside the house, repeating the rapping of the vent pipe continued to provoke excitement, albeit on a agonisingly unpredictable basis.
Liverpool, meanwhile. At last. The game has been eagerly anticipated of course... possibly to the detriment of our league form. But it's here now, and there's no further cost involved in focusing on it entirely. Six and a half thousand Watford fans in convoy, the same number of yellow balloons funded by yourselves... and Anfield, scene of a famous victory five years ago. Bring it on.
A central question with respect to our opponents is the sort of line-up to expect; will we face the first team (or as close to it as Anfield's injuries will permit), or the kids? Or a combination of the two?
At some point, "even" for the likes of Liverpool, the League Cup will become significant. However, given the imminentish resumption of the Champions' League with two games against Bayer Leverkusen next month, plus the ongoing Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) programme in the face of injuries to the likes of Alonso, Cissť, Kewell and Baros, it seems likely that Benitez will at any rate not want to play the big guns in both legs.
It's possible, of course, that the Reds could look to field a strong team on Tuesday with a view to killing the tie off. However, this wouldn't do a great deal for the confidence of the kids that have got Liverpool this far, seeing off Spurs and Middlesbrough en route. This approach also runs the risk of having to decide whether to expose the senior players to another battering from H should the first-leg result prove inconclusive. It seems likely, therefore, that we'll be facing a less familiar line-up on Tuesday, with the big names coming in for the game at the Vic if needed. Frankly, that would suit me just fine.
Having said which, Jerzy Dudek is likely to be in goal for our hosts; Chris Kirkland is out for three months with a back problem, and whilst twenty year-old Paul Harrison was on the bench during the Quarter Final win over Spurs, he has yet to take to the field for the first team. The other keeper on the books, Patrice Luzi, hasn't featured this season and was displaced by a loaned Paul Jones after his one involvement last term. It would appear that the prolonged negotiations over Fernando Morientes' transfer (or not) from Madrid might also include goalkeeper Cesar as cover for Dudek and Kirkland, but it seems unlikely that he'll arrive in time to feature at Anfield.
At the back, one definite starter is new recruit Mauricio Pellegrino. Signed by Benitez from his old club Valencia, nominally as cover for Hyypiš and Carragher, this colossal bandito is a bit like Colin Foster with a knife between his teeth. And an Argentine international. American born Zak Whitbread is also likely to play, either partnering Pellegrino in the centre or, if Biscan for example is played alongside the new recruit, at left back. Stephane Henchoz appears to be on his way and is persona non grata; Bolton and Southampton have both been linked with the centre-back.
Other candidates for left back are Djimi Traore, still linked with Everton, and Stephen Warnock, player-of-the-season whilst on loan at Coventry last year. He can also play further up the pitch on the left side of midfield, but would have missed the postponed F.A. Cup tie at Burnley on Friday with flu. On the right David Raven, and England Youth international picked up from Tranmere, seems likely to start. Steve Finnan and John Arne Riise are the senior alternatives, with the as yet unconvincing Josemi out for another month with a knee problem.
In midfield, England U21 cap and reserve team skipper John Welsh could feature; he's made less of a breakthrough than anticipated since Houllier have him his debut two years ago but is still rated. He could be partnered in the centre by Irish U21 midfielder Darren Potter, given his senior debut in the Champions' (sic) League at Graz in August and a regular in the League Cup sides since. One would assume that Salif Diao is also in contention, whilst Dietmar Hamann and some guy called Gerrard who's supposed to be useful are also available. With Xabi Alonso, hugely impressive since his summer arrival, out until April with a broken ankle, the latter two are unlikely to be risked. Knee injury victim Vladimir Smicer is also a few weeks short of a return from a long-term knee injury.
Other options in wide positions include yet another Spanish recruit Antonio NuŮez, who arrived as part of the Michael Owen transfer but whose point is still a subject of speculation. Scottish U21 left-winger Robbie Foy should also get at least a place on the bench; he's yet to feature, but was on the bench against Spurs and scheduled for involvement in the Burnley tie. Harry Kewell is out with a groin injury, whilst another former Coventry loanee Richie Partridge is also out with a knee problem.
Up front, injuries to Djibril Cissť have left what was already a limited number of senior options looking very sparse indeed. Liverpool look certain to recruit more attacking firepower during January, but whether this arrives in the form of a cup-tied England-based player (Andy Johnson, Darren Huckerby and Nicolas Anelka have all been linked) or from abroad (Morientes), it's unlikely they'll feature on Tuesday. Nor would it be reasonable to expect Luis Garcia or Milan Baros to be risked. Garcia, at any rate, tends to flourish as part of a successful flowing side and may not be best suited to the role of old head in a team of kids. Baros is on his way back from a hamstring pull and although he's near to a run-out and may get a game or a place on the bench for fitness, the chances are that we won't be seeing him either. Which is obviously a tragic shame.
So the Reds' forward line looks like comprising Neil Mellor and Florent Sinama Pongolle. Mellor has impressed in his more frequent involvement as a target man this season and scored a memorable winner against Arsenal in November but failed to impress on loan at West Ham last term. Sinama's sprightliness has started to yield a few goals this season; he has four to his name in all competitions so far. The pacy Mark Smyth, released by Houllier but retained by Benitez, could get a place on the bench.
Back to those rodents. Exhausted by a week's worry and uncertainty we called in The Man From The Council. He arrived on Thursday, not with an elephant gun as hoped but with a small black bag of tools and a bit of common sense. Pointing his flashlight straight down the vent from the external hole he confirmed that our mice were, in fact, a Blue Tit which had already vacated its premises, possibly as a consequence of some idiot bashing the roof of his property continually with a screwdriver handle.
We have nothing to fear on Tuesday. We would have nothing to fear from Liverpool's senior side; we've been there and done that before. The League Cup, even at the Semi Final stage, is a bonus; to get here is a phenomenal achievement given that we've been the underdogs in the previous four rounds. But as this weekend's F.A. Cup encounters have illustrated, apprehension and fear of failure are sometimes the biggest concerns for lower division clubs against senior opponents. Something that I can't see H, Gav, Boris, or the astonishingly single-minded Jay Demerit having an issue with.
If we get something halfway decent out of Tuesday, the return leg is going to be one hell of a night.