Bellamy and Welbeck: The unlikely lads
The Anfield spotlight will be pointed firmly at Patrice Evra when Manchester United visit in the FA Cup fourth round, with Liverpool's fans expected to reserve a rather hostile reception for the Frenchman. Less pantomime villain and more Hans Gruber from Die Hard, the visiting captain's role has been cast as chief antagonist. However, there are two players who look more capable than most of upstaging Evra in Saturday's blockbuster.
In the red corner is Liverpool's Craig Bellamy, with five goals in his last seven games.
In the blue-and-black hooped corner stands United's Danny Welbeck, with four goals in his last six games.
The pair have emerged as important players for their respective sides in 2011-12 but their prominence for English football's two biggest clubs is a touch surprising given the less illustrious positions they both occupied this time last year.
In January 2011, Bellamy - whose outspoken nature and heart-on-your sleeve desire saw him ostracised by Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini - was on loan at hometown club Cardiff, attempting to rebuild a reputation that had been damaged by his fall from grace at Eastlands. The Welshman was scoring freely for the Bluebirds, but it was in the Championship, not the Premier League.
At least Bellamy was playing though. Twelve months ago, the life of Danny Welbeck most likely consisted of infinite games of FIFA and misty-eyed re-runs of his boyhood training session with Ruud van Nistelrooy . On-loan at Sunderland, the young striker was in the middle of a two-month spell on the sidelines after suffering the ill-effects of an exploratory knee operation.
Welbeck had spent the first couple of months of his spell at Sunderland looking like a sympathy signing; a favour from Steve Bruce to his old boss Sir Alex who appeared more profligate than promising. The teenager's relentless enthusiasm eventually manifested itself in goals, though, and after waiting 14 matches for his first for the Wearsiders, he netted six in nine games. However, just as his performances were beginning to prick the interest of United fans, who were starting to forget what in the world had happened to the much-heralded striker who had scored a screamer against Stoke on his debut, Welbeck was cut down in his prime.
A fallen Bluebird and a non-purring Black Cat, Bellamy and Welbeck were a world away from their January 2012 meeting.
The summer of 2011 brought a change in fortunes, though it was initially only for Welbeck. Convinced of the abilities of a player he had urged Fabio Capello to take to the 2010 World Cup and described as "a certainty to make it to the highest level" after just three Premier League appearances, Sir Alex Ferguson was ready to demonstrate his faith in his English forward after impressive showings in the European Under-21 Championship and pre-season tour of the United States. With Javier Hernandez injured, Welbeck started the season as Wayne Rooney's strike partner and thrived on the responsibility - netting five goals in his first eight games.
Things weren't going so well on the other side of Manchester. Pining for former manager Mark Hughes and with Mancini determined for him not to play any role in the City first-team, Bellamy was at his wits' end. "It was tough [when Hughes left]," Bellamy said last July. "It was probably as bad as losing a family member in some ways. I even struggled to eat for a few days." The likes of Stoke, Sunderland and Celtic reportedly came knocking but it seemed that Bellamy had also lost his appetite for football - happy to take home his weekly wage packet without doing an awful lot for it.
Then came the twist in his tale. On transfer deadline day in August, Bellamy made a shock return to Liverpool.
In his first spell at Anfield, Bellamy had been solid without ever sparkling - most eulogies to that 2006-07 season will have focused on the words 'nine-iron' rather than 'nimble feet' - his golf-club attack on team-mate John Arne Riise the 'highlight' of the campaign. But buoyed by playing under Kenny Dalglish - Rafa Benitez had been another foreign manager unable to tame Bellamy - the Welsh speedster was desperate for another crack at the big time.
With Luis Suarez playing a starring role and Andy Carroll usually called upon as his supporting actor - though scooping a Razzie has seemed more likely than an Oscar - Bellamy looked destined to be utilised as an impact sub. But a goal on his first start against Brighton in the Carling Cup, followed by another on his second start against Norwich, and it was clear that despite there being no sign of Mark Hughes anywhere around Anfield, Bellamy had regained his hunger.
And with Carroll continuing to carry a £35 million albatross around his neck and Suarez still serving his suspension, it is Bellamy who has stood up to be counted for Dalglish's Liverpool in recent week - his pace on the break proving a significantly more dangerous weapon than Carroll's ponytailed bonce. In a team lacking experience, Bellamy has bags of it, and though his on-pitch lippiness has not been the best example of leadership, his lung-busting running and unremitting energy certainly has been. A glance at the stats (courtesy of Castrol EDGE) shows that Liverpool have won 63.6% of games that Bellamy has started and just 41.6% when he hasn't. In comparison to fellow forward-cum-winger Dirk Kuyt, there is no contest; the Welshman has a pass completion of 86% to the Dutchman's 77% and creates on average a chance every 24 minutes to his 54. And of course, Kuyt hasn't even scored yet in the league.
At United, Welbeck has also gone from strength to strength, keeping Chicharito out of the side even when he returned from injury, and ensuring last season's Premier League top scorer Dimitar Berbatov has been mainly restricted to a watching brief. Like Bellamy, Welbeck's key quality is that he offers swiftness in attack - and both United and Liverpool look a better, more free-flowing outfit without their languid, verging on lethargic, No. 9s.
While Dalglish is perhaps only now waking up to the fact that this is how his Liverpool side should play, Ferguson made the decision many months ago that speed up front is more potent than style. Like Bellamy, Welbeck's stats also point to a man of heightened importance to his team - United's win percentage with him in the starting XI is 75%, compared to 66.6% when he's not.
Welbeck and Bellamy can expect to lead their sides' lines at Anfield on Saturday, and if FA Cup drama is to be the order of the day, you certainly wouldn't bet against one of this season's unlikely lads to be the hero of the hour.