12pm ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus
Last four head-to-head:
1-2 Tottenham (a) 11.28.12
0-0 (h) 02.06.12
0-4 Tottenham (a) 09.18.11
0-2 Tottenham (h) 05.15.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Wigan (a); 3-1 Zenit (h); 5-0 Swansea (h)
Tottenham: 3-0 Inter Milan (h); 2-1 Arsenal (h); 3-2 West Ham (a)
Liverpool: Suarez 21; Gerrard 7; Sturridge 4; Agger, Downing, Enrique, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Coutinho, Johnson, Şahin 1
Tottenham: Bale 16; Defoe 10; Dempsey 5; Lennon 4; Adebayor, Caulker 2; Assou-Ekotto, Dawson, Dembele, Gallas, Sandro, Sigurðsson, Vertonghen 1
Referee: Michael Oliver
Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Henderson Suarez Coutinho
Spurs have given Liverpool more problems than any other side in the last three or four seasons. Liverpool are without a win against Tottenham in the last five meetings, losing four of those five, and have won just one of the last seven. And many of those losses have come in a similar manner: Tottenham demolish Liverpool by starting at a faster pace, often winning the game before Liverpool realize it's kicked off. You know, exactly how they beat Inter Milan on Thursday.
Three of those Liverpool losses, one in each of the last three seasons, have come after conceding in the first ten minutes. Spurs start quickly and score early, and Liverpool either a) fall apart (the 0-4 loss last season) or b) regroup but still fall short (the reverse fixture in November).
The one match since Benitez's sacking that hasn't followed that trend was last season's 0-0 at Anfield, a match that Liverpool "dominated" but still only drew because of determined opposition defending and its own wastefulness. Like so many others that season. Liverpool negated any early headway by keeping possession and setting the tempo, not even getting a shot on target until first half stoppage time. And other than Liverpool's finishing, it worked wholly as planned; had Liverpool been able to convert just one of their subsequent 13 shots in the second half, they'd have taken all three points.
But this will also be a very different Tottenham to the one faced last February. That Tottenham defended exceptionally deep, making 25 interceptions in its own half and blocking 40% of Liverpool's shots, comfortably ahead of Liverpool in the table and content to play for the scoreless draw. Andre Villas-Boas' Tottenham will do no such thing. Praising Gary Neville's punditry has become passé, but this 13-minute clip analyzing the Arsenal match is required viewing, wonderfully demonstrating Tottenham's high line defense – both the good and bad features – and the dangers trying to use the same tactic against Spurs. But, as the opening graphic shows, Liverpool frequently do the exact opposite; only United have caught fewer opponents offside. Too much space behind the back four isn't usually a problem with Carragher in the XI.
Liverpool beat Villas-Boas' Chelsea twice last season by exploiting that high line and the defense's determination to play out from the back, and pressing from the front. And had Liverpool finished better in November's meeting, they should have at least overhauled the two-goal deficit to leave White Hart Lane with a point after overcoming Tottenham's onslaught in the first 20 minutes. Again, finishing blah blah blah blah. Thankfully, that's been a slightly smaller problem over the last few weeks, and Suarez, Sturridge, and Coutinho seemingly have the talents to expose a high line defense with their pace and vision.
Like those Tottenham victories over Liverpool, the Reds' recent big wins – specifically against Wigan, Swansea, and Norwich – have come because of their fast starts. And there's the quandary. If Liverpool start fast and get the early goal, confidence will sky-rocket, possibly setting the tone for the rest of the match. But if Liverpool start too fast, too exposed, Tottenham can and probably will counter, and Sunday could go the way of last November, September 2011, May 2011, etc.
As usual, there won't be many changes to Liverpool's XI. It won't be the same side which demolished Wigan because Sturridge will return, but how will Liverpool rejig its attack?
There seems to be three options.
My hope is that with Sturridge coming in for Allen, Henderson also replaces Downing. Prior to Coutinho's starts against Swansea and Wigan, Henderson spent a few games on the left, ostensibly a winger but frequently adding a third body in midfield, the link between the two lines with Sturridge and Suarez attacking centrally and Downing offering width on the right. However, Coutinho's been excellent at providing width as well as a goal threat from the left in Liverpool's last two league matches, and has done his fair share of tracking back. Starting Henderson on the right rather than Downing would add that third body in midfield for additional solidity, while keeping the threat that Suarez, Sturridge, and Coutinho can provide. That Henderson's likely to cut inside would also provide more space for Johnson to overlap. Finally, it could be extra protection against Bale; Welsh Jesus has been spending much more time in the middle these days, but still prefers to pull to the left more than the right when going wide. It's also, incidentally, somewhat similar to how Dalglish used Henderson last season. Take that as you will.
There are two other alternatives. The first is keeping Coutinho on the bench, ideally a super sub to unlock a tiring opposition, returning to the formation which saw Liverpool demolish Norwich and nearly beat Manchester City. The second is to replicate the tactics used at Arsenal with Suarez as a wide forward, although most likely on the right because Coutinho would probably be preferred to Downing.
I dislike the third option; it negates the best parts of Suarez's game, could lead to disconnect between midfield and attack, and invite Spurs pressure, conceding too much control to a dangerous opponent. I prefer the first option, and wouldn't necessarily mind if it's that formation but with Downing rather than Henderson; the much-maligned winger truly has been better since December. But I think the second option's probably the most likely. Otherwise, same old, same old. Lucas and Gerrard as something of a double pivot, Johnson and Enrique at fullback, Carragher and Agger at center-back, and Reina in goal. Skrtel's also available again, but I'd be amazed if he reclaimed a place at Carra's expense.
Not only are Liverpool seemingly cursed when facing Tottenham, Spurs are in immaculate form, unbeaten in the league since losing at Everton on December 9 and coming off a dominating 3-0 victory against Inter Milan on Thursday. While Liverpool have memorably struggled in matches following Europa League ties, Spurs have won five of seven following European fixtures this season, albeit also losing to City and Everton. Fatigue hasn't been an issue for Villas-Boas' side, but unlike Liverpool, squad depth hasn't been an issue. Also, something something about Bale scoring in 10 goals in the last eight games. Sigh.
I can't help but wonder if Chelsea fans watch Spurs and wonder what could have been. Tottenham started the season almost as slowly as Liverpool, winless in its first three, in the bottom half of the table until late September and with the British press corps at the ready to stick knives into Villas-Boas' midsection in defense of their beloved 'Arry. Since then, Tottenham have lost just five and drawn just four of 25 league matches, and are odds-on favorite for third place – which would be its highest finish since 1989-90 (also known as the last time Liverpool won the league). So much for that narrative.
Clint Dempsey is still doubtful with a calf injury, while Sandro will miss the rest of the season with an ACL tear, but both Adebayor and Dembele will be available after going off with knocks against Arsenal. Dembele, fit enough to start against Inter, is utterly crucial to Tottenham – Spurs average 2.38 points per game in the 21 league matches he's played and 0.57 in the seven he didn't – but regardless of fitness, Tottenham would probably be better served by starting Defoe rather than Adebayor because of his pace and ability on the counter.
Had Lennon not picked up a hamstring injury against Inter, Sunday's XI would probably look an awful lot like the one which dispatched Arsenal and Inter. But Lennon's absence would force some sort of reshuffle, especially with Dempsey also unavailable. Like Liverpool, Villas-Boas also seemingly has three options. The first two would keep the usual 4-2-3-1 formation with either Sigurðsson-Holtby-Bale in the line of three or bringing in Kyle Naughton and pushing Kyle Walker forward from right back. The third is to switch to 4-4-2, starting both Defoe and Adebayor, with Bale and Sigurðsson on the flanks. Or maybe either Lennon or Dempsey will make a miraculous recovery; it's not totally out of the question because players magically finding fitness is never out of the question prior to facing Liverpool.
Finally, we can't ignore Liverpool's past disappointments against the top sides. They finally beat a top 10 team with the 5-0 win against Swansea, but have a record of 0W-5D-4L against the six sides above them in the table, with home matches against Chelsea and Everton also to come.
In theory, Sunday's match is the most difficult left this season. I mean no offense to the upcoming Merseyside derby, but those fixtures need to be taken in isolation, and Liverpool have become miles better than the side which would have won at Goodison in October if not for an errant offside call. But Tottenham are the highest placed opponent remaining on the schedule, and other than United, playing the best football in the division. They, unlike Liverpool, have demonstrated that they can do it against the strongest opposition.
I've written it so often that it's lost all meaning, but if Liverpool can play to its potential and take all three points, finally roll that boulder over Sisyphus' hill, it will not only bode well for the next nine weeks, but next season as well. Until then, there's a large, Gareth Bale-sized monkey that Liverpool need to get off its back.