Preview: Blackburn v Reds

Liverpool travel to Ewood Park this afternoon for a Boxing Day clash with Blackburn but if past encounters are anything to go by Rovers won't be showing any festive spirit to the Reds.

The Blackburn defender Lucas Neill has been particularly disliked by Reds fans in past encounters, but could actually be making his final appearance at Ewood before joining the Reds in the January transfer window. Liverpool tried right up to the end of the August window to sign the player, but after losing Craig Bellamy for a low price thanks to a release clause in his contract Mark Hughes didn't want to see any player go at a cut-price. That looks set to be out of his control soon though – Neill can negotiate directly with the Reds from Monday for a summer move, and it seems Rovers have decided they'll let him go in January to enable them to at least get a nominal fee.

Liverpool have got long-term midfield casualties still missing in Momo Sissoko, Bolo Zenden and Harry Kewell, but otherwise have a very strong squad available. They reported minor leg injuries for both captain Steven Gerrard and scorer Craig Bellamy after Saturday's win over Watford, but in both cases they are expected to be fit for selection. Gerrard is unlikely to miss out today, but Rafa's rotation policy could see Bellamy or his strike partner Dirk Kuyt rested in place of Peter Crouch.

Blackburn striker Benni McCarthy will be available again after his suspension. His fellow striker Shabani Nonda has a hip problem but isn't expected to miss out, and defender Zurab Khizanishvili could return from a groin injury.

Blackburn have three former Reds available to face their old club – goalkeeper Brad Friedel and defenders Stephane Henchoz and Dominic Matteo.

There's also a milestone for one of Liverpool most unsung heroes, full-back Steve Finnan. The Irish international will make his 100th League start for the Reds assuming he's selected.

Liverpool won the same fixture last season, with Robbie Fowler getting the only goal of the game. The reverse fixture this season saw the two sides share the points, with Craig Bellamy scoring the Liverpool goal against his old club, back in October.

This will be the thirteenth time that the two sides have met in the Premiership at Blackburn, and so far the honours are shared equally – four Blackburn wins, four Liverpool wins, four draws. In the league itself the spread is 24-14-20.

The gap between the two sides going into today's game is 15 points, Liverpool in 3rd place on 34 points and Blackburn down in 17th on 19 points. Liverpool need to be wary of Blackburn's desire to put their 6-2 hammering to Arsenal on Saturday behind them.

Rafa Benitez is aware of that and predicts a difficult game: "This will be a tough game against a good team with a good manager in Mark Hughes." He thinks that Blackburn's current league position isn't really and indication of where they should be, and feels the UEFA Cup run they've been on has caused them some league problems: "It is difficult when a team is playing in the Premier League and the cups. I have some experience of this. When we are playing Champions League and then you have to play the league it is not easy for the players. I remember when we were 11th in the table people thought we were struggling in the league, but if they win two games in a row they will be in the middle or the top half of the table."
Rafa always follows up any comments on other teams with a reminder that he's only really bothered about the Reds, and that was different looking forward to today's game: "My only concern though is Liverpool and I am happy with my team's form and we have gone many games without conceding now and that shows the whole team is playing well. We have balance and we do not give opponents many chances."
Rafa hinted that Craig Bellamy is unlikely to be the one to make way if he does decide to rotate this afternoon, hoping he's going to score the winner against his old club: "Bellamy is playing really well for us now and if he plays I hope he can score the winning goal for us, enthused the Reds boss."

Bellamy's former boss Mark Hughes is as much a fan of Bellamy as Rafa is, and was sorry to see him leave. He feels Bellamy can join the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush as a legend at Anfield: "He can become a Liverpool legend, he can do that. If he went to a Barcelona, a Milan or a Madrid he would have an impact because of what he has – a great work ethic as well as great ability. Sometimes his personality grates on some people but as a professional, as someone who comes in to try to better himself every day, you can't fault Craig."

Bellamy's "moaning" attitude does upset some, but it shows he cares about winning. Mark Hughes says this is hard for some to understand, and that people who don't know him criticise him unnecessarily: "If you don't know him you don't understand the desire he has to be the best player he can be. I don't think he should ever be knocked for that. He did an excellent job for us at Blackburn. We embraced him and he embraced us and what we were about, that's why it worked. Captaining his country was also important to Craig. He likes to be recognised as one of the more important, senior players."

Kick-off is at 3pm and because it's not a Saturday TV coverage is allowed – although Sky have opted to make this one pay-per-view in the UK.