25 February 2015

Liverpool at Besiktas 02.26.14

1:00pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1 (or Fox Sports Go and Fox Soccer 2Go apps)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 Southampton (a); 1-0 Besiktas (h); 2-1 Palace (a)
Besiktas: 0-1 Eskisehirspor (a), 0-1 Liverpool (a); 3-2 Bursaspor (h)

Previous European matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Besiktas (h); 1-1 Basel (h); 2-2 Ludogorets (a); 0-1 Real (a); 0-3 Real (h); 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Besiktas: 0-1 Liverpool (a); 1-0 Spurs (h); 2-2 Asteras (a); 2-1 Partizan (h); 4-0 Partizan (a); 1-1 Spurs (a); 1-1 Asteras (h); 0-1 Arsenal (a); 0-0 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard 2; Henderson, Lambert 1
Besiktas: Ba 5; Töre 3; Kavlak, Özyakup, Tosun 1

Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN)

Guess at a line-up:
Toure Skrtel Lovren
Ibe Can Allen Moreno
Lallana Sterling

Unless Rodgers is really going to spring a surprise, there's not a lot that Liverpool can do with tomorrow's line-up.

Gerrard and Lucas remain injured, Markovic's suspended for three more matches, and now Henderson, Coutinho, Sakho, and Johnson are also out. Henderson has a minor ankle problem, Sakho's still bothered by the hip injury which kept him out of Sunday's match, Johnson's ill, and Coutinho's finally being rested.

So, unless Jordan Williams or Jordan Lussey make an unexpected appearance, the central midfield has to be Allen and Can. And if that's the case, the defense has to be Toure, Skrtel, Lovren, unless Javi Manquillo comes in at right center-back for his first appearance in a month, cup ties against Wimbledon and Bolton his only appearances in 2015.

Liverpool have a few more options up front, but I'd still be surprised if it's anything other than Sterling, Lallana, and Sturridge. Maybe Balotelli partners Sturridge with either Sterling or Lallana left out, maybe Balotelli replaces Sturridge with an eye on Sunday's match against Manchester City. Maybe Rodgers remembers which room he locked Lambert and Borini in. But I doubt it. Not with so many other senior players absent.

And even with all the above players absent, I also highly doubt that Liverpool would shift from the three-at-the-back system which has seen so much improvement over the last three months. That's gonna stay the same, regardless of how many players change.

Besiktas, coming off a weekend loss to 12th-place Eskisehirspor – just the second time the club have lost back-to-back matches this season – have injury concerns of their own. Attackers Demba Ba and Töre are questionable, but I'd expect both to be available if at all possible. Starting keeper Zengin remains injured, while both Gülüm and Ramon are suspended after picking up yellow cards in the last leg. And with defenders Koybasi and Milosevic already long-term casualties and Tomas Sivok not on Besiktas' Europa League player list, the home side will be starting a very makeshift defense. Either Atinc Nukan or midfielder Uysai will be drafted in at center-back, while I've no idea who'll start at left-back. Daniel Opare, joining on-loan from Porto last month, but yet to make an appearance for the club and usually a right-back? The other of the two players capable of starting at center-back? Someone else I've never heard of? Your guess really is as good as mine, and might even be better.

Regardless, Liverpool will look to take advantage of that weakness, even though I'd expect a lot less attacking in general from a Liverpool side away from home with a one-goal advantage and with many of its own regulars missing. As against Southampton, Liverpool will look to the counter-attack, especially Ibe against the stand-in left-back and Sterling and Sturridge against the unfamiliar center-back pairing.

Liverpool simply have to not lose tomorrow. "Simply." The suspicion is that should lead to a counter-attacking strategy – midfielders and defenders denying space in Liverpool's half, then looking to break through the front three – but this is still Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, even if it's not last year's Liverpool. An early goal at the Ataturk would go a long way toward sealing the tie, not allowing Besiktas' unfamiliar defense the time to settle into a rhythm. Which, incidentally, is what Southampton attempted to do to Liverpool on Sunday. You remember how that went for Southampton.

Over the last few months, these two sides have taken more points because of their defense rather than their attack. But, and it seems obvious to say, this match will be won by goals, by the team with the better attack. Because you can't expect two makeshift defenses to go through 90 minutes without conceding.

Which, I expect you'll remember, is exactly how last season's Liverpool liked it.

23 February 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Southampton

Previous Match Infographics: Besiktas (h), Tottenham (h), Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except shot location from Squawka and average player position from ESPN FC.

For the first time in a long time, this Liverpool almost kinda sorta reminded you of last year's Liverpool.

Score early, soak up pressure, extend the lead with direct counter-attacks. Liverpool remain nowhere near as potent as last year's side, so Liverpool have to be much, much better at soaking up pressure. And, somehow, they did so, by hook and by crook, before finally getting the game-killing second – admittedly, thanks to Targett's mistake – on one of those counter-attacks.

Liverpool have taken fewer than 10 shots in seven of Brendan Rodgers' 102 league matches. Twice in his first season, three times last season, and twice so far this season. Yesterday was only the second time that's happened and Liverpool still scored two or more goals, only the third time that's happened and Liverpool still won the match.

In case you're curious, here are the match infographics for Villa, Newcastle, Wigan, 1-2 Chelsea, 1-1 Chelsea, and Hull.

I guess it's surprising that Liverpool actually won three of the seven. Yesterday's performance was probably closest to the 1-0 win over Villa at the beginning of last season, a defensive shell reliant on a basically non-existent counter-attack after an early goal. This Southampton side is vastly better than that Villa side. There are similarities in each of the results, except the 4-0 win at Wigan – which was, however, the only result with both similar shot accuracy and goal conversion – which was something of a Luis Suarez-led fluke. Because every now and then, Suarez did things like single-handedly score a hat-trick from just four shots.

I'd also like to point out that 33.3% is, by some distance, Liverpool's best goal conversion in a match this season, even if it's an admittedly small sample size. The next best, the only other match over 20%, was Liverpool's 3-1 win at Leicester, a win that was very much aided by Leicester's defense. Southampton's defense, even considering Targett's mistake, is light-years better than Leicester's.

Another key similarity to those other matches? The three times Liverpool have won, Liverpool have kept a clean sheet.

Liverpool were admittedly very lucky to keep a clean sheet yesterday. Somehow, Liverpool made it through the match without an Opta-defined error, but three mistakes nearly led to two goals and a sending-off in the first half, one from each of Liverpool's three center-backs. Can, caught infield and ball-watching when playing on an unfamiliar side, let Djuricic in behind from a ball over the top, lucky to get away unscathed when Djuricic threw himself to the ground under little contact. The second penalty claim came because Skrtel unnecessarily charged out to try to head a ball that Can had covered, putting Elia through on goal in the space that Skrtel had vacated. And Lovren did the same thing that Can did on the long ball which Mignolet handled inches outside his area.

Most days, Liverpool are punished for at least one of those. Every now and then, like the aforementioned 1-3 loss at Hull last season, Liverpool would be punished for all three. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

It's probably not coincidence those three mistakes all happened in the first half, and it's a good example of why managers really dislike making changes in defense. One center-back started his first match since mid-December, another started on the opposite side for the first time since he joined the club. But the defense improved after that frightening start, with Southampton opportunities few and far between in the second half until a final late flurry when Liverpool were two-up, a flurry which was all sound and little fury. Credit goes to both the individual defenders, who eventually figured out their roles, and Rodgers, whose halftime changes – the defensive line, especially Lovren, playing deeper, coupled with Moreno replacing Markovic – made a difference.

And credit also goes to Mignolet, who made four excellent saves: on Elia just after the second penalty shout, the accidental handball just outside the box with Elia through on goal, Djuricic's deflected effort just before halftime, and Tadic's tricky free kick in the 78th. Even if there's an argument that Mignolet should have been sent off in the 44th minute (I'll again remind that the PGMOL said Friend made the right decision by not calling handball), I'm still most impressed by that moment, simply because he was quick and decisive off his line to get into position to deny Elia, to make up for Lovren's mistake. Mignolet playing sweeper-keeper is not something we've often seen.

So yes, Liverpool were lucky. But the fact that Liverpool have now kept five consecutive clean sheets away from home in the league is not solely down to luck. Liverpool are allowing about the same amount of shots per match since the switch to three at the back (11.2 before, 11.0 since), but have dramatically cut their goals conceded per match (1.27 before, 0.9 since, a stat that'd look even better without the fluky 0-3 loss at United). And it's been accompanied by an almost exactly similar rise in goals scored per match before and since (1.27 before, 1,73 since).

So yes, Liverpool were lucky. But Liverpool have also been demonstrably better in almost every area of the pitch.

22 February 2015

Liverpool 2-0 Southampton

Coutinho 3'
Sterling 74'

I've written it before, but I haven't written it often this season. It is far better to be lucky and good rather than lucky or good. And infinitely preferable to unlucky and sometimes good, sometimes bad, and often flawed. Which has been the dominant theme this season.

By all rights, Liverpool could have conceded two, three, even four in the first half. The first 15 minutes were an utter abomination aside from the best goal that Coutinho has scored for Liverpool and probably will ever score for Liverpool.

Southampton had two very viable penalty shouts in the first four minutes. Within 30 seconds, Đuricic was in from a long ball over the top, and went down under next to no contact from Emre Can (surprisingly starting on the left with Lovren on the right after Sakho was ruled out with a hip problem). No call was probably the right decision, but you've seen them given. Three minutes later, a much better claim, Allen chasing down Elia, narrowly missing the ball with his attempted tackle and taking out the player, which had to have been unseen by both referee and linesman. I'm admittedly incredibly biased. It was absolutely a penalty.

But neither was given, and those no-calls bracketed Liverpool's goal of the season to date, a perfectly placed 30-yard blast from Coutinho, giving Forster absolutely no chance on a shot that cannoned off the underside of the bar and into the net. It was an unbelievably frenetic start to what would remain a frenetic match.

Liverpool settled after that storm: still under pressure, still reliant on a misfiring counter-attack, but better, able to actually keep possession on occasion. And Kevin Friend was at least consistent, ignoring Liverpool's claims for a penalty when Fonte got both Sterling and the ball, another that you've seen given and what would almost certainly have been a foul on any other part of the pitch.

Chances were few and far between for Southampton, nonexistent for Liverpool, but controversy was never far off.

In the 44th minute, Liverpool's defense was beaten by yet another long ball over the top, Elia racing behind Skrtel and Lovren, and Mignolet rushed out to close down. And handled outside the box. Both Friend and his linesman were unmoved, and the PGMOL actually came out after the match and said it was the right decision, Mignolet blocking the ball with his chest before it accidentally ricocheted off his arm. But there was no way that referee or linesman could have seen that in real time. Or seen that Mignolet was inches outside his area. So when there's that uncertainty, no decision is the usual and probably correct decision, especially when it's a decision that would radically change the game. Not that it's any consolation to Southampton, who were soon infuriated by another non-call on a potential Lovren handball – which absolutely wasn't, as his arms were at his sides.

Thankfully, the second half was a different story. Southampton brought on Schneiderlin for Steven Davis, Liverpool Moreno for Markovic, and Southampton remained the more dominant side. But it was dominant in possession only; Liverpool were rarely under the pressure they faced in the first half. Skrtel and Mignolet were phenomenal, Lovren and Can ranged from acceptable to decent (and, to be fair, "acceptable" is "phenomenal" for Dejan Lovren given his season so far).

Liverpool's defense played deeper, denying the long balls which led to Southampton's best chances in the first half. Southampton were limited to an abhorrent shot from Pelle after one of the few slick passing moves through Liverpool's midfield and an outstanding block from Skrtel after the substitute Mane was able to control a cross in the box.

And once Sturridge replaced Lallana, joining Sterling as a second striker rather than Sterling moving deeper, Liverpool finally became more threatening on the break. Liverpool shots in the 62 minutes before Sturridge came on: 1. Liverpool shots after Sturridge came on: 5. Granted, most weren't great shots, and too many moves broke down in the final third, but at least Liverpool were marginally threatening. And they threatened without any regression at the other end of the pitch.

Still, it took a mistake from Southampton for Liverpool to seal the match. Moreno's pressing led to Liverpool reclaiming possession in the final third, and he broke into the box after receiving the return ball from Sterling. His low cross wasn't good – behind Sturridge, ahead of Sterling – but Targett slipped on the slick pitch while trying to clear, a perfect set-up for the on-rushing Sterling, his shot deflected by Fonte past Forster.

That was the hammer blow. Sure, 15 minutes is more than enough time for Liverpool to throw away two goals, but that might well be the old Liverpool. Southampton's lone fright came from Tadic's set play, somehow through Liverpool's wall but incredibly well-held by Mignolet given the conditions. Sturridge probably should have added even more undeserved gloss, putting two shots straight at Forster, a third on-target but deflected behind by a Southampton defender.

So, yeah. Wow. It may not have been the best performance (hint: it wasn't, even considering how well Liverpool defended in the second half and the quality of the opening goal) but it's without a doubt Liverpool's best result of the season.

Liverpool were assuredly lucky. But Liverpool also made its own luck.

Liverpool's unfamiliar defense should have conceded at least once from the spot, but Liverpool's unfamiliar defense improved as the match went on, and kept Liverpool's fifth clean sheet in the last five away league matches, the last away league goal coming at United on December 14. Which is a ming-boggling statistic. Similar credit goes to Liverpool's midfield, providing strong protection at the back aside from Allen's should-have-been-a-penalty and Southampton's slice-and-dice chance wasted by Pelle on the hour mark. Incidentally, Henderson and Allen have been Liverpool's only fit central midfielders for the last three matches.

Rodgers responded well to Southampton's first half threats, adjusting the defensive line after halftime while bringing on Moreno for Markovic. The other two substitutions – Sturridge for Lallana and Johnson (!!!) for Ibe – also improved the overall play.

Southampton hadn't conceded twice in a league match since December 8, a 10-match streak prior to today. And that happened with Liverpool taking just six shots, tying their low in the league this season. That's the sort of conversion rate that's been sorely lacking from Liverpool's performances of late.

And all that happened after a difficult Europa League fixture on Thursday. Everton and Tottenham, both lucky to draw at home against Leicester and West Ham respectively, will tell you how difficult it is to perform at a high level after a Europa League match.

And now, Liverpool are just a point behind Southampton, two points behind fourth, and three points behind third, with 12 matches to play. That's unbelievable considering where the side was just three months ago. 21 points from a potential 48 to start the season, 24 points from a potential 30 since, after the switch to 3-4-2-1.

They admittedly haven't been the most difficult fixtures, at least until the last two, but now Liverpool have beaten their two closest competitors in the race for fourth in consecutive weeks. Battling victories, victories that admittedly had a bit of luck, but victories that Liverpool also earned. A side that's clearly believes in itself after this impressive run.

There's obviously quite a long way to go, but it's been a very good week for the club.

21 February 2015

Liverpool at Southampton 02.21.15

11:15am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.17.14
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.01.14
0-1 Southampton (h) 09.21.13
1-3 Southampton (a) 03.16.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Besiktas (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 3-2 Tottenham (h)
Southampton: 0-0 West Ham (h); 1-0 QPR (a); 0-1 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 6; Sterling 5; Lallana, Own Goal 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Markovic, Moreno, Sturridge 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Southampton: Pelle 8; Mane 5; Schneiderlin, Tadic, Wanyama 3; Bertrand, Clyne, Cork, Elia, Long 2; Alderweireld, Yoshida 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Ibe Henderson Allen Moreno
Lallana Sterling

All of a sudden, Liverpool have some options.

Not in midfield, of course, with Gerrard and Lucas still absent, but this is the first time in a long time that all of Liverpool's attackers have been available. Liverpool will have to pick three from Sturridge, Balotelli, Coutinho, Sterling, Lallana, and Markovic. while either Markovic or Ibe could start at right wing-back.

Both Coutinho and Lallana underwhelmed on Thursday. Combined, they created just one chance – Coutinho's corner for Henderson in the 43rd minute – and both ended up subbed off, for Balotelli and Sterling respectively. Coutinho's looked off the pace for a few matches now, and my layman's view is that he's showing the fatigue from starting all 18 games in the last 67 days.

You'd expect that Sterling, fit again and after a substitute appearance against Besiktas, would come back into the XI. I'd be amazed if Liverpool went with the lineup that ended Thursday's match, if both Balotelli and Sturridge started, with Liverpool again keeping Balotelli in reserve if needed off the bench.

So the suspicion is that it's Lallana or Coutinho, with Sturridge up front, Sterling as the other attacking midfielder, Ibe again at wing-back, having proven his worth against Everton, Tottenham, and Besiktas, with both Balotelli and Markovic available as substitutes if needed.

There's also the small matter of Lallana's return to St Mary's, but Rodgers has rarely been one for sentiment (at least when Gerrard isn't involved). Guessing Lallana in the above XI has much more to do with Coutinho's apparent fatigue than sentiment. But if sentiment reigns supreme, there could be a place for both Lallana and Lovren, with Can replacing Allen in midfield – something we've often seen after substitutions, but never from the start.

It's nice to have options.

Southampton's injury issues are easing as well. Alderweireld will be out for another week or two, Jay Rodriguez and Mayuka remain long-term absentees, but Schneiderlin and Shane Long should both be available tomorrow. And if both are available, you'd expect both to feature.

Long will probably be used off the bench, although with Pelle struggling for goals, he's definitely an option. But otherwise, I'd expect the same XI which drew 0-0 against West Ham but with Schneiderlin involved. Forster; Clyne, Fonte, Gardos, Yoshida; Wanyama, Schneiderlin; Mane, Davis, Elia; Pelle. Tadic could also replace Davis in the #10 role, but I suspect Southampton will play it safer at the start before bringing on Tadic as a substitute; Ward-Prowse seems more of an option than Tadic, at least at the start.

Southampton's main weakness is at left-back. Ryan Bertrand is suspended for one more match after his red card against Swansea three weeks ago. Yoshida started there against West Ham, 19-year-old Matt Targett played at QPR before going off with concussion. Targett may be available tomorrow, and unlike Yoshida, left-back is at least his preferred position, but it'd still be just his fifth league appearance (two previous starts). Whether it's Ibe or Markovic at right wing-back, they'll simply have to put the stand-in left back under pressure early and often.

It's somewhat a resistible object versus an immovable force at both ends of the pitch. I've written and you've read more than enough about Liverpool's struggles in front of goal, but it's at least been coupled with vast improvement in defense.

Southampton are in a similar situation. They've scored just once in their last three matches: a solitary strike at QPR, bracketed by scoreless matches at home against Swansea and West Ham. They've averaged just a goal per game over the last seven matches. But those seven matches include a 1-1 draw against Chelsea on December 28, a 2-0 win over Arsenal on New Years' Day, and a 1-0 win at United on January 11. They've only averaged a goal per game since December 28, but they've conceded just three league goals during that stretch. Three. In total. They remain, without a doubt, the best defense in the division.

There will be 12 matches after this one, but few if any will be more important to the Top 4 race. Southampton currently occupy fourth – although that could and probably will change after Arsenal face Palace in a few minutes – four points ahead of Liverpool. That gap could be just one, which would be fantastic, even if both United and Arsenal would remain favorites for the spots. But a four or seven point gap – with United, Arsenal, and Tottenham still ahead of Liverpool – would be incredibly difficult to overcome.

It certainly doesn't help that Liverpool have played two matches – with little rotation – since Southampton last played one. But it does help that Liverpool won both of those matches – a late victory and a comeback victory – with Liverpool winning five of its last six, unbeaten in 90 minutes since December 14.

These are the matches which define a season. And the matches which we watch football for.

20 February 2015

Visualized: Liverpool 1-0 Besiktas

Previous Match Infographics: Tottenham (h), Everton (a), West Ham (h), Chelsea (a) [League Cup], Chelsea (h) [League Cup], Villa (a), Sunderland (a), Leicester (h), Swansea (h), Burnley (a), Arsenal (h), Manchester United (a), Basel (h), Sunderland (h), Leicester (a), Stoke (h), Ludogorets (a), Crystal Palace (a), Chelsea (h), Real Madrid (a), Newcastle (a), Hull (h), Real Madrid (h), QPR (a), West Brom (h), Basel (a), Everton (h), West Ham (a), Ludogorets (h), Aston Villa (h), Tottenham (a), Manchester City (a), Southampton (h)

Match data from Who Scored, as StatsZone doesn't cover the Europa League. Which means no Passing Network because StatsZone is the only service which carries pass combinations (you can still find the players' average position at ESPN FC though).

(Nota Bene: Here's the formation diagram usually included in match reviews.)

Typical Liverpool. For better and worse.

Even with Sturridge back, Liverpool are still fairly terrible in front of goal. Liverpool's first shot on-target inside the box came in the fourth minute, Liverpool's first shot of the match: Sturridge's point-blank, no-angle effort. Liverpool's second shot on-target inside the box was Balotelli's penalty in the 85th minute. In between? Five off-target – Lallana's sitter, Moreno's mis-hit volley, set play chances from Henderson, Skrtel, and Lovren – and a sixth which was blocked. That's horrific accuracy despite getting into some decent positions.

And, as has happened more than a few times, that combined with Besiktas' well-marshalled, deep defense forced Liverpool into a lot of shots from outside the box. Moreno's broken-clock's-still-right-twice-a-day effort from 35+ yards was brilliant, Balotelli and Sturridge at least put free kicks on-target, but that was the entirety of Liverpool's threat from outside the area, as Besiktas did well to close down Liverpool's chances from distance, especially in the first half.

All together, Liverpool put just five of its 18 shots on-target – 27.7% accuracy – with five blocked and eight off-target. Yikes.

At the same time, Liverpool remained very good at the back, especially in open play, despite a couple of missteps (and one Opta-defined error) from Emre Can. Besiktas got next to no joy from open play except for Ba's lone chance on the break in the 35th minute. Besiktas' two other remotely decent chances both came from set plays: Kavlak and Gülüm's first half chances from corners, both off-target. Besiktas, like Everton a couple of weeks ago, came to defend rather than attack – which isn't at all surprisingly in a first leg away leg of European competition – but Liverpool still did fairly well to plug most potential holes.

It was Liverpool's seventh clean sheet in the 18 matches since switching to 3-4-2-1. Liverpool kept just four clean sheets in the 23 matches prior.

But Simon Mignolet only had one save to make, which is a credit to Liverpool's defense (and midfield) but also symptomatic of how Besiktas approached the match. Still, Mignolet made it flawlessly, that fast break opportunity with Ba through on goal, with flashbacks of last April's match against Chelsea almost certainly foremost in his mind.

And the match would have ended like that Everton match a couple of a weeks ago if not for Mario Balotelli's late penalty after Ibe's furious run into the box. Special mention need be made of Ibe's performance, man of the match by almost every account. His 11 successful dribbles (including the one just prior to winning the penalty) were only one fewer than Besiktas had in total, and only Jordan Henderson created more chances than Ibe yesterday. His end product could have been even better, most notably failing with two crosses when in an excellent position, but it was another heady performance for a 19-year-old in his first European appearance, in just his fifth start for Liverpool.

More importantly, that was the seventh goal that Liverpool has scored after the 80th minute in cup competition this season: two in the home win against Ludogorets, two to beat Swansea in the league cup, two to beat Bolton in the FA Cup, and yesterday's 85th-minute penalty. Four matches that Liverpool have won at the death, after at least 80 minutes of frustration in each. It's not 2000-01, or even 2011-12, but Liverpool are turning into a reasonably competent cup side, a sign of their determination and increased confidence.

And Mario Balotelli is responsible for three of those late goals, and it's certainly worth mentioning his winner against Tottenham last week while we're on the subject. He's only scored four goals this season, but he's scored in four of the five competitions Liverpool are in this season, only needing an FA Cup goal to complete the set. It's probably no coincidence he's looked a much improved player with Sturridge back in the fold.

Not for the first time this season, Liverpool weren't at their best. But, not for the first time this season (especially during the last two-month stretch), Liverpool were still good enough. Liverpool were reasonably stingy at the back, Liverpool were resilient, and Liverpool kept pushing until finally making the needed breakthrough, even if it would have saved us a lot of agita had they made that breakthrough earlier.

This tie is still very much in the balance, taking a very narrow lead to a very tough ground, and there's still a lot of improvement that can be made, that needs to be made. But you can't ignore the improvement that's already evident.

18 February 2015

Liverpool v Besiktas 02.19.14

3:05pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 2 (or Fox Sports Go and Fox Soccer 2 Go apps)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Palace (a); 3-2 Spurs (h); 0-0 Everton (a)
Besiktas: 3-2 Bursaspor (h); 0-1 Kayserispor (a); 2-1 Rizespor (a)

Previous European matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Basel (h); 2-2 Ludogorets (a); 0-1 Real (a); 0-3 Real (h); 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Besiktas: 1-0 Spurs (h); 2-2 Asteras (a); 2-1 Partizan (h); 4-0 Partizan (a); 1-1 Spurs (a); 1-1 Asteras (h); 0-1 Arsenal (a); 0-0 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Gerrard 2; Balotelli, Henderson, Lambert 1
Besiktas: Ba 5; Töre 3; Kavlak, Özyakup, Tosun 1

Referee: Szymon Marciniak (POL)

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Ibe Henderson Allen Moreno
Lallana Coutinho

It's probably safe to assume that despite a massive, massive league match in the race for a Champions League place on Sunday, Liverpool will start a full-strength XI. Which means there are only a few possible changes from the side we saw at Crystal Palace.

With Markovic suspended for the next four (!!!) European matches, the midfield and defense seem fairly certain. Can, Skrtel, Sakho. Ibe, Henderson, Allen, and Moreno. Gerrard's still out and I assume Rodgers still sees no reason to shift Can into midfield and bring Lovren or Johnson into the side.

The front three is less predictable. Is Sterling fit after missing the last two matches? Does Coutinho need a rest after starting every match since December 9 – 17 matches in 63 days? That's a lot. And it's shown in the last few difficult fixtures against Everton, Tottenham, and Palace.

Still, if I had to guess, I'd assume Sterling will be used as a substitute, if at all – one of the few saved for Southampton – with the same front three we saw at Palace. I guess there's a small chance of Sturridge and Balotelli paired up front, with either Lallana or Coutinho in behind, as we saw in the second half of Saturday's match, but I suspect that'll also be a "break glass in case of emergency" situation. Or Lallana could play as the right wing-back, as he did after substitutions against West Ham and Palace. But, again, I'd be surprised. Rodgers rarely springs surprises, at least not when Liverpool are in a decent vein of form.

Often the third of the three big clubs in Turkey, Besiktas are currently top of the Super Lig, a single point ahead of Fenerbahce and two ahead of Galatasaray.

In lieu of attempting to preview a team I've seen all of twice this season, I'll direct you to this excellent write-up from Bass Tuned to Red. The short version: underwhelming statistics, but strong at both ends, converting more chances and conceding fewer goals than you'd expect. Which suggests we'll see a very cagey first leg.

Besitkas almost always play some variant of 4-3-3: usually 4-2-3-1, sometimes 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1. I wouldn't be surprised to see the more defensive 4-1-4-1, an XI something like Gonen; Kurtulus, Franco, Gülüm, Ramon; Kavlak; Töre, Hutchinson, Sosa, Sahan; Ba. Out-and-out defensive midfielder Uysai is also an option, most likely in place of Canadian Atiba Hutchinson. Gonen is Besiktas' back-up keeper, with club captain Zengin out injured, but its not as if Gonen – 26-years-old, with 10 appearances this season and two caps for the Turkish national team – is inexperienced.

Besiktas have a few players you've heard of. We'll mention and then quickly move on from Demba Ba, for fear of provoking traumatic memories and/or bad trip acid flashbacks. As Bass Tuned to Red wrote, Jose Sosa – formerly of Atletico Madrid, among others – is also an important player, their version of Coutinho. More specifically, last season's Coutinho: the most advanced in a midfield three, the primary chance creator and assist maker. You'll also probably remember attacking midfielder Kerim Frei from Fulham, most often used as a substitute (as he was in his two previous appearances against Liverpool). And then there's Besiktas' manager, Slaven Bilic: former Everton and West Ham player, Croatian manager, and all-around enjoyable character.

With the first leg at Anfield, it's imperative that Liverpool perform well tomorrow, to have something to take to Turkey in a week's time. A side that's as defensively strong as Besiktas isn't going to give you much opportunity in Istanbul, so Liverpool needs to make its own opportunities on its own ground.

At the same time, two-legged ties are rarely won in the first leg, but they sure as hell can be lost. Liverpool have to strike a balance between taking the game to Besiktas and not leaving themselves open at the back, not doing anything stupid. But this season's been all about finding a balance, and Liverpool seem closer than ever to doing so.

14 February 2015

Liverpool 2-1 Crystal Palace

Campbell 15'
Sturridge 49'
Lallana 58'

The first half could not have been more infuriating.

It was the same old trauma at Selhurst Park: dominating possession but utter frustration in the final third. A moment of insanity from Martin Skrtel on an aimless long ball allowing Gayle a shot and then Campbell the easy rebound, Crystal Palace scoring from Crystal Palace's first attack.

And Palace easily soaking up Liverpool's response: 17 first half shots, but just four on-target. Eight were blocked. Nine of 17 came from outside the box, and only two of the eight inside the box were on-target: Lallana and Coutinho's efforts which were admittedly well saved. And a referee bound and determined to keep little Palace in the competition, highlighted by a remarkable non-decision for a blatant penalty on Sturridge.

The second half could not have been any different from the first.

An excellent start to proceedings, prompted by Rodgers' change in tactics, bringing on Balotelli for Markovic and shifting to a 3-5-2 with Lallana at right wing-back. Liverpool scoring twice within 15 minutes, from Liverpool's first two chances of the half. The first came from sustained possession, Allen's pass to Henderson, Henderson's chip over the back-line, Sturridge's unerring finish. The second came from Balotelli's free kick (which Balotelli won); Speroni's saved Balotelli's effort, but Lallana was quickest to the rebound.

And from there, Liverpool absolutely controlled the match – controlling the ball, the tempo, the tenor – continuing to monopolize possession but without allowing counter-attacks. Not necessarily needing to attack anymore, Liverpool didn't push too hard, didn't turn the ball over unnecessarily, taking just two shots in the 30+ minutes after the second goal. It was Joe Allen's time to shine; he wasn't Liverpool's best player, but he does exactly what Liverpool needed in that situation – keep possession, keep it simple, spread play to the open man, lather, rinse, and repeat.

A double change with 12 minutes left consolidated Liverpool's stranglehold, Lambert and Lovren replacing Sturridge and Coutinho, giving Liverpool even more protection at the back, an outlet for long balls upfield, and allowing Liverpool's two key attackers a slight bit of rest prior to Besiktas on Thursday. The only frightening moments in the final few minutes came from unnecessary fouls conceded by Can and Skrtel, both fairly soft, but both came to nothing.

Which is a handy segue into complimenting Liverpool's goalkeeper. Simon Mignolet's long interview in the Independent today was timely. Crystal Palace had 10 corners and six or seven free kicks in Liverpool's half. Liverpool dealt with all of them fairly competently, and Mignolet was central to it; it seemed as if he punched all of them clear. There was little he could do about the goal conceded, and actually did well to save Gayle's initial effort. And added two other spectacular saves, both on Gayle shots, in the 41st and 51st minutes. It's probably a very different match if Palace take a 2-0 or 2-1 lead.

In the third round, Liverpool won 2-1 at Wimbledon after conceding a soft equalizer. In the fourth round replay, Liverpool won 2-1 at Bolton after conceding a stupid penalty for the opener. And in the fifth round, Liverpool won 2-1 at Crystal Palace, a ground that's haunted them in the last two visits.

Despite my natural pessimism, it felt as if Liverpool should, could, and would win all three of those matches, despite the setbacks. And they did. This team is still not perfect, still fairly far from perfect, but it has confidence, even arrogance, in its assumption that it'll come good. That's no small matter.

And it's very much a landmark change from where Liverpool were on this ground three months ago.

13 February 2015

Liverpool at Crystal Palace 02.14.15

12:30pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports Plus or Fox Soccer 2Go (*shakes fist at Fox Sports' scheduling department*)

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 Palace (a) 09.23.14
3-3 (a) 05.05.14
3-1 Liverpool (h) 10.05.13
1-2 Palace (a; League Cup) 10.25.05

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 Spurs (h); 0-0 Everton (a); 2-1 Bolton (a)
Palace: 1-1 Newcastle (h); 1-0 Leicester (a); 0-1 Everton (h)

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Bolton (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 2-1 Wimbledon (a)
Palace: 3-2 Southampton (a); 4-0 Dover (a)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Gerrard 10; Sterling 9; Lallana 4; Balotelli, Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Markovic 3; Moreno, Sturridge 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Lovren, Rossiter, Skrtel, Suso 1
Palace: Gayle 10; Jedinak 5; Campbell 4; Chamakh, Dann, Puncheon 3; Hangeland, Ledley 2; Bolasie, Doyle, Kaikai, McArthur, Sanogo, Zaha 1

Referee: Robert Madley

Madley has never been in charge of a Liverpool game before.

Guess at a line-up:
Lovren Skrtel Sakho
Markovic Can Henderson Enrique
Sturridge Balotelli

As always, the conflict is between Liverpool's need to rest players and Rodgers' desire to compete on all fronts.

Personally, I think this competition is the lowest on the food chain. The league will almost always be the most important, while the Europa League is a potential route into next season's Champions League (even if winning the competition remains an incredibly difficult proposition). But Rodgers rarely approaches any match that way. A couple of changes but a stronger-than-expected XI is almost always his modus operandi in cup competition.

That said, there has to be some rotation. Gerrard and Lucas are out injured, I suspect Sterling will miss out as well as he recovers from a foot injury, and Jordon Ibe's cup-tied. Rodgers is already limited in some of his choices.

One change that everyone seemingly agrees on is shifting Can in midfield, as we saw at the end of Saturday's match (and at Bolton in the previous round). Liverpool immediately looked more dynamic, with surprisingly little loss of solidity at the back with Lovren on the right of defense. I've no preference whether Can's partnered with Allen or Henderson, although I suspect it'll be the vice-captain, simply because he's vice-captain, even though he too could probably use the rest.

There's also the option of switching one or both of the wing backs. Not both, given how that spectacularly failed in the first match against Bolton. But either replacing Moreno with Enrique, or bringing Johnson or Manquillo on the right is a possibility. And using Johnson or Manquillo on the right would free up Markovic to again start in attack.

Other possibilities: give Coutinho the night off – he looked off the pace on Saturday, and I suspect the knock suffered at Everton had something to do with it – and start both Sturridge and Balotelli, a 3-4-1-2 rather than the usual 3-4-2-1. The match at White Hart Lane, while more than five and a half months ago, was a tantalizing glimpse of what Balotelli and Sturridge can do in a strike partnership. Sturridge is getting back to full fitness, able to play 70 minutes on Saturday; Balotelli is coming off a match where he scored a vital winner. And as with Can in midfield, this is a match where Liverpool can experiment without as many repercussions as in the Premiership or Europa League.

However, Crystal Palace is in even better form than they were when they took points off of Liverpool in the last two meetings: the soul-killing draw at the end of last season, the soul-killing loss in November. Since Alan Pardew became manager at the beginning of January, Palace have won five, drawn once, and lost once. In the 22 previous matches this season, they'd won just three. Just twice in the league. Including, of course, that thrashing of Liverpool.

Pardew's Palace is deployed the same way as Pardew's Newcastle: either 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 (usually the former), fairly resilient in defense, but more importantly fast and direct in attack. Palace's likely XI is probably that which drew with Newcastle on Saturday – Speroni; Kelly, Hangeland, Delaney, Ward; McArthur, Ledley; Puncheon, Chamakh, Zaha; Sanogo. However, Pardew should be tempted to start Dwight Gayle, with three goals in those last two matches against Liverpool, whether it's in place of Puncheon, Zaha, or Sanogo. Bolasie could also start in place of one of the wingers, returning from the African Cup of Nations to set up Palace's equalizer on Saturday. Mile Jedinak looks likely to miss out in midfield, returning from the Asian Cup with ankle issues, while Scott Dann and Jerome Thomas are also injured.

Tomorrow won't quite be a chance for revenge after the last two meetings – both vastly more important to Liverpool's fortunes than tomorrow will be – but it's still a chance for revenge, and a chance to mute those traumatic memories. The November loss at Palace was a turning point, this season's nadir, leading to a change in style and formation which led to the incremental improvement we've seen since. And there's no better way to reinforce that improvement than to curb stomp the team which prompted it.