21 January 2011

Liverpool at Wolverhampton 01.22.11

7:45am ET, live in the US on espn2

Last four head-to-head:
0-1 Wolves (h) 12.29.10
0-0 (a) 01.26.10
2-0 Liverpool (h) 12.26.09
1-0 Liverpool (h) 03.20.04

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Everton (h); 1-2 Blackpool (a); 0-1 United (a)
Wolves: 5-0 Doncaster (h); 3-4 City (a); 2-2 Doncaster (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Torres 7; Gerrard, Kuyt 4; Maxi 3; Kyrgiakos, Ngog 2; Babel, Cole, Johnson, Meireles, Skrtel 1
Wolves: Ebanks-Blake, Fletcher 4; Doyle, Foley, Hunt, Jarvis, Milijas 2; Edwards, Jones, Ward, Van Damme, Zubar 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Skrtel Agger Johnson
Spearing Lucas
Kuyt Meireles Maxi

With Gerrard suspended for one more match, my best guess is the same XI which drew with Everton last Sunday. At the very least, I assume Liverpool will stick with the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1 formation instead of a potential 4-4-2 with Ngog partnering Torres. We've seen the more fluid formation in each of Dalglish's three matches.

The Daily Mirror, surprisingly, suggests an interesting possibility: Joe Cole could start his first game since Hodgson's final loss at Blackburn. I expected Cole to get chances because of Gerrard's suspension, but he hasn't featured in the two previous games. Cole survived 45 minutes with the reserves on Wednesday, proving his fitness. He could take up Gerrard's usual position behind Torres, which would allow Meireles to play deeper in his preferred role, relegating Spearing to the bench.

Playing Glen Johnson at left back continues to provoke questions, but Johnson was better against Everton than Blackpool, and Kelly's recent form has made it near impossible to leave him out. The clamor to see Johnson in midfield remains, but I'm still skeptical. I don't see the same parallel with Gareth Bale, whose close control and acceleration are far better than Johnson's, making him better suited for a more advanced position. Johnson's attacking improves as he has room to operate, charging forward from deep. I don't think he'd have anywhere near the same effect in midfield. I am admittedly curious, though.

Questions also remain about Martin Skrtel, who's suffered a mind-boggling drop in form this season. Arguably at fault for both goals conceded against Everton and Blackpool's winner, among multiple other defensive calamities, Skrtel's regression has fostered the belief that Liverpool needs another center-back. It hasn't helped that this regression parallels Carragher's extended stint on the sidelines. But Liverpool's options are limited: Kyrgiakos, who also looked shaky against Everton, and the untried Wilson are the alternatives to partner Agger. Kelly could also feature at center-back, where he spent time in the reserves, but his performances at right-back have been so promising that I doubt he'll change position in the near future. For now, I imagine Dalglish will stick with the devil he knows best until the vice-captain's fit.

I've seen few Wolves matches this season, but every one I manage to catch leaves me wondering how they're stuck in 19th, only one point off the bottom of the table. They hammered one of the many nails in Hodgson's coffin with a 1-0 win at Anfield, beat Chelsea at the beginning of the month, and surprised Manchester City in October. United needed goals after the 90th minute for victories in both the league and Carling Cup. And Wolves deserved something from a 3-4 thriller at City a week ago. But then you look at their full results and see five losses out of seven games played against sides placed 15th or lower, including two losses against 18th-placed Wigan and a loss and draw against bottom-of-the-table West Ham.

Wolves played a reasonably strong lineup mid-week in an FA Cup replay, starting Fletcher, Doyle, and Hunt among others. Hopefully, that will lead to fatigue, as happened to Liverpool against Blackpool after a tough FA Cup match at United. Joint top-scorer Ebanks-Blake is still out with a calf problem, while Kightly and Mancienne are long-term casualties and left-back Elokobi is suspended.

Yesterday, Wolves bought highly-regarded former Liverpool trainee Adam Hammill. During a week where Dalglish rightfully lauded Benitez's contribution to the Academy, Liverpool's opponents purchase one of Rafa's biggest youth mistakes. That El Zhar got chances ahead of Hammill still rankles many fans. Tomorrow may be too soon for young winger's first appearance, but a cameo would be poetically frightening. Hammill playing a crucial role would fit perfectly with this season's gruesome leitmotif.

Tomorrow could mark a first win for Dalglish and a break with the usual away day voodoo. That Liverpool needs a victory goes without saying; it's gone without saying since August. 13th place, only four points above the relegation zone and five points ahead of Wolves, with a negative goal difference, is no place to be in the middle of January.

Liverpool have deserved more than a draw and two losses from their performances since Dalglish took the reins. Now they need to start turning performances into results.

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