LONDON - Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez will get a close-up of the missing piece of his jigsaw puzzle tomorrow when Gareth Barry runs out for Manchester City at Anfield for a match with huge implications for both clubs.
If things had gone according to plan for Benitez, Liverpool would have signed the versatile midfielder from Aston Villa at the end of the 2007-08 season and gone on to win a long-awaited Premier League title a year later. That deal fell through, however, and now England international Barry is a key figure at ambitious City, one of several clubs hoping to evict Liverpool from England's top four.
Failing to sign Barry was a huge blow for Benitez, though Liverpool's superb title challenge last season, which they narrowly conceded to Manchester United, disguised the impact.
This season, however, five defeats in 12 league games have left Liverpool's title aspirations in ruins and with Xavi Alonso sold in the off-season, the Anfield club looks short on the kind of proven midfield quality Barry would offer. Defeat against City tomorrow would leave Liverpool in grave danger of becoming mid-table also-rans.
While Liverpool have struggled badly this season, Manchester City's impact on the Premier League has not quite been what their billionaire Abu Dhabi owners had hoped for.
A stoppage-time defeat by Manchester United is City's only league loss this season but Mark Hughes's side have drawn their past five matches, and for all the millions spent on signing the likes of Barry, Emmanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tevez, they still look far from the finished article.
Barry believes that with no international breaks now until March, City can begin to make their move.
"I'm looking forward to getting a few months of solid work in with the lads here," Barry told City's website (www.mcfc.co.uk). "This is a very important period."
Defeat for City tomorrow would shift the spotlight away from the under-fire Benitez for a while and turn up the heat on Hughes. Benitez has been confidently predicting that the real Liverpool is about to stand up.
Both sides have injury problems. Liverpool are expected to be without striker Fernando Torres for the lunchtime kickoff at Anfield though Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson should be fit. City will be without injured Bulgarian winger Martin Petrov.
Log leaders Chelsea host Wolverhampton Wanderers tomorrow, Manchester United face Everton while in-form Arsenal face Sunderland. - Reuters