23 February 2007

Liverpool v Sheffield 02.24.07

10am, available in the US on Setanta Sports.

Liverpool: 3rd place; 50 points out of 27 games
Sheffield: 15th place; 30 points out of 27 games

Last meeting: 1-1 (a) 08.19.06

Liverpool beat Sheffield over two legs in the 2003 League Cup (which Liverpool won) semifinal, and before that, hadn’t played United since 1994.

Last 3 games:
Liverpool: 2-1 Barcelona (a); 1-2 Newcastle (a); 0-0 Everton (h)
Sheffield: 2-1 Tottenham (h); 1-2 Blackburn (a); 2-0 Fulham (h)

Goalscorers (league; more than one goal):
Liverpool: Kuyt 9; Bellamy 7; Crouch 6; Gerrard 4; Alonso, Garcia 3; Gonzalez 2
Sheffield: Hulse 7; Jagielka, Webber 3; Gillespie, Nade, Quinn, Stead 2

Referee: Steve Bennett

Guess at a squad:
Carragher Hyypia Agger
Finnan Gerrard Alonso Sissoko Riise
Kuyt Bellamy

Back to reality. And back to using wingbacks?

There’s an excellent chance Benitez will use this game to rest players with Manchester United and return leg of the Barcelona tie coming up, despite a lengthy time off prior to the Barca match. And there’s also an excellent chance we could see all three strikers, as Liverpool did against Watford, West Ham, and Everton. But that would mean leaving one of Sissoko (who should be available despite going off with injury), Alonso, and Gerrard out, and after how all three played against Barcelona, I can’t see that happening. Gerrard’s isolation on the right flank and his inability to force things in the Barca game leads me to believe he’ll play more towards the center (that does not mean he should not play on the right, mind you) in what would appear to be a five-man midfield, but as Jamie Redknapp said in Sky Sports’ post-match coverage, when Liverpool’s on, Gerrard is more a cog in the machine than the basis for said machine.

At Anfield, Liverpool should be able to take the game to Sheffield. Whether that’s in the form of three strikers, or a five-man midfield with three center backs, Liverpool should set the tone and the impetus. Bunching up the midfield, with Sissoko breaking up play, Alonso distributing, and Gerrard setting up the attack, should let Liverpool retain possession at Anfield most easily, and allow them to send wave after wave toward United’s goal. Liverpool had their chances at Bramall Lane in August (double Sheffield’s shots on goal), but did not really create enough or take enough, and were reliant on an iffy penalty to equalize. I think this formation goes some way towards remedying that.

But we all know there’s no predicting Benitez. And we haven’t seen Pennant, Crouch or Gonzalez start in a while, Arbeloa played very well for a starting debut against Barca, and we’ve been expecting Javier Mascherano’s debut (there was talk he’d play against Barca and was on the bench). Must be nice to have so many “possibilities.”

Liverpool will also be looking for revenge for the away draw suffered on opening day of the league campaign, a draw that set the tone for away games to come. But don’t think that I am underestimating Sheffield. Neil Warnock’s got his usual well-drilled side, and despite a rash of predictions to the contrary, they look certain to stay up, which (and really, no offense meant) is an accomplishment looking up and down the team sheet. But that’s what Neil Warnock can do -- motivate a side into a tightly-drilled, backs against the wall outfit.

A win will put Liverpool 4 points ahead of Arsenal. However, Arsenal will have two games in hand, as they’re out of league action again this week with the Carling Cup final. Anything less than the full 3 points will give Arsenal even more of an opportunity to overtake 3rd place. And I’m sure Benitez will have that drilled into his team before kickoff.

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