There's still something special about the FA Cup to me. Sure, it probably doesn't mean what it used to, but as the Premier League becomes more and more a board of directors meeting, you get the feeling that more and more teams that might not have are starting to look more seriously at the competition. Arsene Wenger may say finishing fourth is a trophy, but I doubt his bosses or fans believe that. Spurs are in the same boat. And so are Liverpool. Because it's going to take something truly inexplicable to bring home Europa glory this spring. So tomorrow kicks off the most likely path for a special day this season.
I haven't seen anything today to suggest that Mansfield's dodgy pitch is going to keep this from going off yet, so let's assume it will. We know the themes going in, as everyone who isn't a Red will be tuning in or checking the score to see if a true FA Cup Miracle takes place. A non-league side vs. a name that still carries a lot of weight to it. It's the kind of thing that if it did happen, you'd never hear the end of. Or does the word "Barnsley" still not make you quake at night? So while Liverpool only get to partake in what is nothing more than a chore for them, even if it's a win, the Mansfield players and support get a day they've dreamed about and will do everything they can to make sure it's logged into future highlight packages and openings for match coverage.
But we want more to look forward too, and it's disappointing when you don't even get one chance to book a place in the hat and get the excitement of seeing who you draw the next round. Or at least one you earned. So let's get that.
The big question for Pool fans is whether Daniel Sturridge will make his Liverpool debut. The reasons he wouldn't, at least from the start, are pretty obvious. He hasn't played in six weeks, he's had to deal with some minor injuries in the meantime. He's not match fit. Do any of you care? He's not going to get match-fit playing United next week when the pace will pass him by. He doesn't need to be that sharp to play well tomorrow. Even if it's just for a half. While logic suggests he won't start, I'd still be surprised if he doesn't.
We know the names of the people who really can't play at all tomorrow to get a respite. Gerrard, Lucas, Suarez, Agger, and I'd throw Skrtel into that too, along with Johnson. But if Sturridge doesn't start, Suarez might have to. Though if Yesil can't at least do a job against a non-league side, no matter how raw he might be, well....
From there, we can expect to see Carragher captain the side, Brad Jones to come in for Reina, Jack Robinson at left-back (I hope). There's more and more smoke of Sebastien Coates going out on loan (or stupefyingly worse) so I wonder if he won't be risked tomorrow to avoid fucking up any move. But he should play. If not the temptation will be to throw Skrtel out there again, but I'd rather see Wisdom come inside and have Flanagan play. But both Robinson and Flanagan have been stored in a closet, so who knows?
The same buzz about Coates also floats over Nuri Sahin, so you wonder if he can't be played to help along his exit. Whether he does or not, I'd like to see Conor Coady get another chance as he did in Russia, because both Allen and Lucas shouldn't be required. Shelvey hasn't started the past couple games behind Henderson, so he'll get in. Possibly as a forward again, too.
I'd imagine Suso starts, and the other part of the front three has to be Downing. That's because Assaidi is heading off the ACN, this week, and you wouldn't imagine he comes up for air right before he's gone for a month. Is there anyone else?
I'm not going to pretend I know anything about Mansfield, nor am I going to pretend you care. You know they'll be committed and hopeful. But only giving away the first goal, or going scoreless deep into the second half, will see them get true life. Yes, this will be the biggest match most of these guys ever play in, but an early goal and this becomes a day to enjoy rather than one to remember.
Don't make this any uglier than it has to be.