Liverpool's opening fixtures could hardly have handed new boss Roy Hodgson a more difficult start to his tenure as manager: Arsenal at home on the opening day of the season, followed by both Manchester City and Manchester United away within the first five games.
While the draw against Arsenal showed Liverpool's character and commitment as they fought for a point with only 10 men, the away match at City saw Liverpool undone, defeated by three goals to nil. The second away match of the season also saw the Reds fail to score; a 0-0 draw with Birmingham last week.
This Sunday sees one of the biggest matches of the football calender, Manchester United vs Liverpool, and Hodgson needs to get his team right in terms of tactics and personnel.
Last week's team looked devoid of ideas and attacking thrust, as Maxi failed to shine in the absence of injured Dirk Kuyt and the central midfield pairing of Poulsen and Lucas provided little ammunition for the front pairing of Gerrard and Torres. Spanish forward Torres was criticized for his listless display against the Blues, but the failure of the midfield to provide chances for the striker was a main reason for this.
Against Manchester United, and defender Nemanja Vidic in particular, Torres has a very good recent record, scoring in the 2-0 victory at Anfield last season and the 1-2 reverse at Old Trafford, as well as 2009's magnificent 4-1 thrashing at the same stadium.
He will hope therefore that the rest of the team can provide him with better ammunition this time around, to keep his run against the Red Devils going.
Hodgson has four key decisions to make regarding his team:
Firstly, the formation to play.
With United missing Valencia and Carrick from their midfield, they may adopt a 4-4-2 approach, with Berbatov and Rooney paired up front, Giggs and Nani providing the midfield width and Scholes and Fletcher in the centre.
Hodgson must decide whether to combat this with a 4-4-2 of his own, pairing Torres with Ngog up front and hoping to win the midfield battle, or whether to stick with the 4-2-3-1 we have seen in most games this season.
For me in either case, Steven Gerrard needs to return to the centre of midfield. Lucas and Poulsen showed in the games against West Brom and Birmingham that at this stage, they cannot control a midfield effectively and in such a big game, the midfield battle is likely to be key in who creates the most chances to win the match.
Jovanovic is likely to return to the left flank after being rested midweek against Steaua, while Joe Cole and Ryan Babel played their way into contention with good performances in the same game. Maxi Rodriguez has started the past two games without impressing and will be sweating on his place in the starting 11.
Gerrard's partner in midfield brings us to Hodgson's second big decision: whether or not to hand a full Premiership debut to new signing Raul Meireles.
The Portuguese international played the full 90 minutes against Steaua and his fitness levels looked fine; but while he is still coming to terms with the pace of the English game, Hodgson may decide that this is too risky a fixture to throw him into from the start. In that case, Poulsen or Lucas may line up alongside Gerrard in the centre.
Key Decision Number three for Roy Hodgson is the return from suspension of Joe Cole.
While he played very well against Steaua in the Europa League, Cole has not featured in the Premiership since the opening day, after he was sent off against Arsenal. The former Chelsea playmaker was the match winner at Old Trafford last season for his former club and will be hoping to get the chance to make a similar impact at his new club, just days after opening his goalscoring account against Steaua Bucharest. Liverpool's attack has been crying out for the invention and creativity that Cole can provide and it seems a no-brainer that he will be picked from the start against United—but it remains to be seen whether he is given a run in his favoured role off the striker or moved out wide.
If Hodgson goes with the 4-4-2 system, we may see Cole out on the right wing in place of Maxi, with Gerrard and one of Poulsen, Lucas, and Meireles in the middle. In spite of a Man of the Match performance on Thursday, youngster Jay Spearing is unlikely to be included in the match day squad of such a high profile game.
Finally, boss Roy Hodgson will need to decide on a partner for Jamie Carragher in the centre of Liverpool's defence.
Agger is the more naturally gifted defender of the three which remain, while Skrtel offers a stronger presence and has partnered Carragher for most games this season. Soto Kyrgiakos also remains in contention but is likely to have to settle for a place on the bench at best. Skrtel is favourite for the position by virtue of having played and helped keep a clean sheet last weekend, but his form has been sketchy and against an in-form Dimitar Berbatov Liverpool will need the defence to have a high level of concentration.
The Reds are missing Kuyt and Fabio Aurelio with injury but everyone else so far shows a clean bill of health, leaving almost a full squad for Hodgson to choose from. Come the end of the game, we will know just how well Hodgson knows his players at this point in his career at Anfield and whether he has garnered an early ability to pick the key players in the right positions in such a big game.
Liverpool's confidence should be boosted after an improved showing against Steaua, and as fans we must hope that the attacking prowess on display on Thursday continues over the weekend with the return of familiar faces such as Torres, Gerrard, and Jovanovic.
Hoped-for Liverpool lineup (4-4-2): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Konchesky; Cole, Meireles, Gerrard, Jovanovic; Torres, Ngog. Subs, Jones, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Lucas, Maxi, Pacheco, Babel.
Expected Liverpool lineup (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Konchesky; Poulsen, Gerrard; Maxi, Cole, Jovanovic, Torres. Subs, Jones, Agger, Kyrgiakos, Poulsen, Meireles, Babel, Ngog.
Feel free to post your hoped-for or expected teams below if they differ to my own.