29 November 2011

Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea

Maxi 58'
Kelly 63'

A diligent, comprehensive win sealed with two strikes within five minutes around the hour mark. After briefly basking in the afterglow of yet another away win and yet another victory over Chelsea, the result seems somewhat overshadowed by Lucas's frightening knee injury – the last thing the team needed from this poorly-scheduled fixture.

With wholesale changes for both sides – only Reina, Lucas, Enrique, and Henderson from those who started against City a little more than 48 hours ago – it's little surprise it took both teams time to come into the game. With Carroll and Bellamy up front, Lucas and Spearing in central midfield, and Henderson and Maxi on the flanks, Liverpool looked to take the sting out of the match, keep possession, and work the ball up the flanks for crosses towards Carroll. And it was little surprise to see a fairly tepid first half mainly devoid of chances for either club.

Chelsea's one notable opportunity was a penalty shout that wasn't in the opening minutes: Coates rashly diving in on Luiz (his lone misstep of the match), but the Brazilian going to ground early prompted Phil Dowd to show the Chelsea man yellow. Liverpool's one notable opportunity was a penalty, won because of Carroll and then wasted by Carroll. Holding up play for Bellamy, eventually ending with Enrique's cross, Carroll's aerial threat forced Alex to awkwardly handle while defending. Carroll stepped up, looking for that needed confidence boost, but blasted straight down the middle, easily saved by Turnbull. Of course he can't catch a break. It was Liverpool's third miss in four penalty attempts this season.

The second half was far more open, with both sides feeling the effects of the recent weekend matches, and Liverpool looked to play more direct football on the break. Liverpool had a couple of quick half-chances before Chelsea should have opened the scoring, somehow failing to prod the ball over the line after a righteous scramble following a 55th-minute free kick: Lampard's dead ball found Malouda at the back post, whose attempted volley hit the cross bar, fumbled half-clear by Coates, who then excellently blocked Luiz's follow-up on the goal line.

It didn't take long to punish the home side, helped by the half-time adjustment focusing more on quick counter attacks. Bellamy had spent the majority of the first half dropping deep onto the left, taking up positions Maxi normally takes up and not helped by Enrique having an off-game. But in the second, the Welshman moved to the right, and it was down that flank that Liverpool burst in the 58th. Henderson's throughball found Bellamy's clever run behind the defense, and Bellamy smartly centered for a Maxi tap-in – his tenth goal in his last nine starts.

With Chelsea reeling, Liverpool killed the tie five minutes later: Bellamy winning a free kick on the left holding up play well, then providing the assist to a free Martin Kelly, who cleverly lost his marker (Lukaku) to head in from point-blank range, his first senior goal for the club.

The game would have been completely done and dusted if not for Lucas' injury four minutes later. Colliding knees with a Chelsea player and left with a bloody gash, the midfielder attempted to play on, but had to be stretchered off soon after, leaving us all in a dreadful worry. Without Lucas' perpetual, wonderful holding in midfield and two goals to the good, Dalglish re-jigged the formation, replacing Lucas with Adam and bringing on Kuyt for Bellamy, shifting to an orthodox 4-5-1 with Adam, Henderson, and Spearing sealing the middle. Torres wasted a couple of headers, while Reina needed to play sweeper-keeper once more, coming out to deny Anelka an easy opportunity when put through on goal in the 75th, but otherwise, Liverpool safely saw out the match. More than a few Chelsea "supporters" left well before the 90th minute, summing up their hopes for an unlikely comeback. London traffic is notoriously difficult, after all.

Deserved winners, the better side for long stretches, it's difficult to pick a man of the match. Despite his first half struggles, it's hard to look past Bellamy's two assists, in what had to be a difficult match so soon after Sunday's tragedy. A clever, perfect run and assist for the first, winning and taking the free kick for the second. Kelly's first goal for the club is also special, especially since the defender kept the dangerous Bertrand and Malouda quiet for long stretches. Coates was also excellent after the early jitters, ably assisted by the returning Carragher (interestingly, Reina kept the armband). Lucas was Lucas prior to the injury, ostensibly trying to further destroy Torres' soul with every bone-crunching tackle; it goes without saying we should all be holding our breaths for good news on that front. Henderson and Spearing were solid in midfield; Maxi scores goals; and despite the penalty miss, Carroll's work-rate, tracking back, defending on set plays, and hold-up play were promising. The 2-0 victory was more than merited.

On to the semi-finals, to face City, Cardiff, or United/Palace over two legs. As Andrew Beasley pointed out on Twitter, Dalglish's three wins at Stamford Bridge over the last 10 months are more than Liverpool managed in the previous 21 years. Can we play you every week? More importantly, Liverpool maintains its unbeaten run, showing continual improvement in almost every area, with a record of seven wins and four draws since losing to Spurs in September.

Keep on keeping on.

28 November 2011

Liverpool at Chelsea 11.29.11

2:45pm ET, live in the US only on FoxSoccer.tv, so most of us will have to make do with streams again. There is a delayed showing on Fox Soccer Plus at 5pm ET.

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (a) 11.20.11
1-0 Liverpool (a) 02.06.11
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.07.10
0-2 Chelsea (h) 05.02.10

Previous rounds:
Liverpool: 2-1 Stoke (a); 2-1 Brighton (a); 3-1 Exeter (a)
Chelsea: 2-1 Everton [aet] (a); 0-0 Fulham [4-3 pens] (h)

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 City (h); 2-1 Chelsea (a); 0-0 Swansea (h)
Chelsea: 3-0 Wolves (h); 1-2 Leverkusen (a); 1-2 Liverpool (h)

Goalscorers (all):
Liverpool: Suarez 7; Carroll 3; Adam, Bellamy, Maxi 2; Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Kuyt, Skrtel 1
Chelsea: Lampard, Sturridge 7; Mata, Ramires, Terry, Torres 4; Drogba, Kalou 2; Anelka, Boswinga, Ivanovic, Luiz, Malouda, Meireles 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Dowd missed his weekend assignment due to illness, but should be available for tomorrow's match.

Guess at a line-up:
Kelly Carragher Coates Aurelio
Downing Lucas Spearing Maxi
Carroll Bellamy

Been awhile since Liverpool faced this lot, eh? More importantly, it's been awhile since Liverpool had a Carling Cup game at Anfield, forced to travel for all four fixtures this season.

Few starters from Sunday's match seem likely to play with just 48 hours of recovery time. I doubt Dalglish will throw the youth team to the lions, as was threatened when the fixture was announced, but Liverpool will assuredly make multiple changes, and we'll probably see a 'weaker' XI than in previous rounds of the competition. Which Liverpool has taken surprisingly seriously to this point. At least the next match isn't for six days, on Monday at Fulham.

Four players have started all three cup matches to date: Suarez, Maxi, Spearing, and Reina. Of those four, only Suarez seems doubtful, and that's solely down to the amount of games he's played. The only match he hasn't started was the second at Arsenal, way back in August.

Carragher and Coates look likely to renew the pairing which featured in the last two rounds, spelling the outstanding Skrtel and Agger. Either Kelly or Flanagan will replace Johnson on the right, while left-back is harder to forecast – Enrique hasn't played any of the cup games, but Robinson's injured and Aurelio's hasn't yet appeared this season. I doubt we'll see Agger at left back, as against Stoke, which was most likely a one-time occurrence to counter Stoke's height.

Despite his all-action performance on Sunday, Lucas might have to play due to a lack of options in midfield; I'd assume Adam needs the rest more than the Brazilian. Henderson is another possibility, but he also played 90 minutes against City. As said above, Maxi seems certain to take one of the two spots on the wing. Having started the last two league fixtures, Kuyt's unlikely; I expect the right flank to be manned by either Henderson or Downing playing as an inverted winger, as he often did for Villa.

And up top should be Carroll and Bellamy – the former returning to the XI after nearly notching the winner yesterday, the latter back after missing Sunday's match due to compassionate leave. Suarez could take the place of either, but could use the respite given the number of minutes he's played, held in reserve if needed off the bench.

As we'll probably see a weakened lineup from Chelsea as well, I expect Torres to start. Chelsea's other ex-Liverpool man is cup-tied due to his involvement in the win over Exeter, though. Terry got himself suspended with his fifth yellow of the season on Saturday, either to avoid humiliation at Liverpool's hands yet again or because he'd rather miss a Carling Cup match than a league fixture. I'm sure it's one conspiracy or another. The Blues have no injury concerns other than Essien's long-term knee problem.

Like Liverpool, Chelsea's used the cup to give time to their stronger reserves and talented youngsters: Luiz, Alex, Bertrand, Romeu, McEachran, Malouda, Lukaku, and Kalou featured in both fixtures. Both of Chelsea's Carling Cup matches have gone to extra time, winning the first on penalties when Bryan Ruiz missed for Fulham and winning the second when Sturridge scored in the 116th minute.

No matter the restrictions placed by the Football League, hamstrung by the vagaries of scheduling, Dalglish will continue to take this competition as seriously as possible. Only eight teams remain in the competition, and we can be certain that Liverpool will do its utmost to be one of the four left standing after this round.

A Day in the Life: Lucas v City

There seems little point in doing a usual chalkboard review. I'd end up focusing on Lucas Leiva's marvelous performance, and you can just as easily head to the Guardian or Stats Zone app and see them for yourself. Each is a beautiful, unique snowflake worthy of admiration, and I recommend doing so.

I thought I'd display his statistics somewhat differently.

As usual, click to expand. Larger version available here. You can see similar in StatsZone's player dashboard, but not in its full chronological glory, which does the comprehensive, exhaustive performance more justice.

Lucas won more tackles and aerial duels than any other player (with zero unsuccessful in both categories), tied for the most completed passes with Barry and Toure, and tied for the most interceptions with Clichy and Kompany, while committing just one foul (in the 7th minute). He was head and shoulders the best player on the pitch; only Hart's brilliant saves get him in the discussion. I also can't help but mention that the Brazilian completed 11 straight passes in less than four minutes, from the 78th through the 81st – that very thick block of dark blue near the end of the chart. That's only four passes fewer than Agüero completed in his 82 minutes on the pitch.

Lucas put in work for 90 straight minutes, and it shows in his statistics, as well as the effusive praise he's getting from all corners of the internet. I'm admittedly prone to exaggeration when it comes to the player and have said it so much I fear it'll lose its meaning, but he's indescribably important to this Liverpool side, and would walk into almost any XI in the league. Few sides have so diligent a destroyer, and even fewer are as clever, disciplined, durable, and efficient. Or young, for that matter; it's incredibly easy to forget the midfielder's still just 24.

Long may it continue. And odds are that it will.

27 November 2011

Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City

Kompany 31'
Lescott (og) 33'

I guess a second consecutive late winner against more-fancied opposition is asking too much. Still, if not for Joe Hart, we'd be reveling in one.

Today's match was far more in line with what I expected last week against Chelsea. Dalglish brought Henderson and Downing in for Maxi and Bellamy (who was understandably unavailable after the sad death of Gary Speed), and Liverpool did far less furious pressing. In a flexible 4-1-4-1 formation, Liverpool were more content to form two solids banks of five and four in defense, initially focused on preventing City from playing through the center – which was their aim with Agüero as lone striker and Nasri and Silva lurking dangerously between the lines.

For the first 30 minutes, City were the better side, maintaining possession as Liverpool prioritized defense. Despite that possession, chances were few and far between, limited to two half-hearted shots from distance and a 17th minute fright when Reina had to clean up Enrique's short back pass. But then the away side struck on a corner, with Kompany taking advantage of Kuyt's man-marking, also getting in front of Johnson. Still, the finish was slightly lucky, flicked in off the Belgian's shoulder into the far corner.

Instead of regressing, Liverpool regrouped, and were arguably the better side for the rest of the match. And Liverpool equalized in under two minutes, fortunate in their goal as well. As against Wolves, a more-than-speculative Adam shot from distance was haplessly turned into goal by an opposition central defender. The equalizer knocked City back, and only an excellent Hart save kept City level, somehow parrying out Adam's 37th-minute effort with his trailing leg, while Johnson curled a left-footer wide seconds later.

The second half was just as precariously balanced, and again, Joe Hart's the only reason there weren't more goals in the match. Liverpool were increasingly ascendant; Nasri curled a half-chance well wide and Enrique did well to put Clichy's dangerous cross behind, but otherwise, the home side were creating all the openings. And they were usually stopped by Joe Hart, both before and after Balotelli's hilarious cameo.

Kuyt headed a deflection off target in the 53rd, Hart pushed Downing's shot over in the 68th, City were lucky to see Lescott two failed clearances following Suarez's burst down the left bounce off Kuyt for a goal kick in the 74th, and Downing's shot-cum-cross blasted through the six-yard box untouched in the 78th. But Liverpool nearly doomed themselves again, with Reina necessarily leaving his box to clear Adam's short back pass.

Then Balotelli made the headlines, as Balotelli is wont to do. On in the 65th for Nasri, off in the 83rd after picking up a second yellow for a forearm smash on Skrtel. From there, it was Joe Hart versus the world, somehow preventing Suarez in the 87th after lovely interplay with Lucas, then amazingly clawing away Carroll's header in the third minute of injury time, also blocking Suarez's narrow rebound with his legs. Unbelievable, Jeff. Not to be completely overshadowed by his opposite number, Reina needed to be aware on the break minutes earlier, again playing sweeper-keeper when Dzeko broke down Liverpool's right, giving defenders time to get back and clear Silva's shot off the line.

A draw against the runaway league leaders, a side who beat second-place United by five goals on United's ground, now seems disappointing. No one's given City a tougher game in the league so far, but it's also yet another two points "dropped" at home, even if I'd wager a majority of Liverpool fans would have taken a draw before kickoff.

Despite Reina's sweeper heroics, it's hard to look past Lucas for Liverpool's man of the match. The team's spoilt for choices – Agger and Skrtel were both as excellent as against Chelsea; Adam turned in another disciplined, clever performance; Downing looked far more of a threat; and Enrique and Johnson got forward well despite City's strength – but once again, the Brazilian's beyond essential to this side. He was absolutely everywhere, constantly mopping up where City's usually at it's most dangerous. It's little coincidence Silva had least influential match of the season. 69 of 75 passes completed (92%), including 18 of 19 in the attacking third. Six interceptions, 7/7 on tackles, and 4/4 on aerial duels, while committing just one foul. He was a crucial outlet time and time again, steadying the side when trying to play out from the back, and nearly got Liverpool the winner with his bursting run leading to Suarez's chance in the 87th. I cannot do him justice with either superlatives or statistics. We're at the point where he has few peers in the Premiership, and he's still just 24 years old.

No English side has made City look remotely ordinary, but Liverpool did. While disappointment with the result is understandable, especially with more points dropped at Anfield, there's little to be disappointed with in the performance. Players continues to settle, while Liverpool continues to look more a coherent team, continues to improve, and continues to impress against the best the Premier League has to offer.

25 November 2011

Liverpool v Manchester City 11.27.11

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.11.11
0-3 City (a) 08.23.10
0-0 (a) 02.21.10
2-2 (h) 11.21.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-1 Chelsea (a); 0-0 Swansea (h); 2-0 West Brom (a)
City: 1-2 Napoli (a); 3-1 Newcastle (h); 3-2 QPR (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 4; Adam, Carroll 2; Bellamy, Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson, Maxi, Skrtel 1
City: Agüero, Dzeko 10; Balotelli 6; Silva 4; Johnson 3; Milner 2; Barry, Kolarov, Kompany, Nasri, Richards, Savic, Y Toure 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Lucas Adam
Kuyt Henderson Maxi

Still basking in the afterglow of last Sunday's victory, it's ever so tempting to suggest Liverpool should play the exact same line-up as against Chelsea. But City don't play a high-line defense, and while unable to keep a clean sheet in the last five league matches, aren't especially lacking in confidence or prone to mistakes. Not to mention City are in far better form than Liverpool's last opponents.

We can't really look at previous league matches for a template against the leaders, who are unbeaten through this season's 12 games. Averaging 3.5 goals per league game, City have scored at least twice in every Premiership fixture so far. But City's two losses in Europe, as well as their lone draw in the Premier League against Fulham, could provide some sort of road map.

Both Bayern and Napoli soaked up early City pressure and demolished their opponents on the counter. Munich's 4-2-3-1 survived two early penalty claims before Gomez's quick strikes before halftime: the first on a fast break, set up by Ribery and Müller, the second scavenging on a set play. Napoli, in a 3-4-3 formation, did similar on Tuesday: Suarez's international strike partner Cavani opened the scoring on a set play, then canceled out Balotelli's equalizer on a counter-attack soon after the restart, converting Dossena's clever cross after Napoli sped down City's right. As many pointed out after the match, City had more than 70% of the possession – on the road, in Europe. Not that it mattered. With Napoli ahead and a three-man defense becoming a five-man defense, the visitors had little clue what to do with that possession.

Fulham's point was slightly more fortunate, although it's churlish to call it a fluke. But City went to sleep after going two up, arguably drained by their first Champions League encounter the week before, and Zamora's bullying muscle and a fortunate deflection brought the Cottagers back into the game. Like happens to many sides, some of City's shakiest moments have come after Europe: that draw at Fulham and the fright QPR gave them at the beginning of the month. But the 6-1 win at United, as well as a 4-0 win at Blackburn, followed Champions League fixtures.

So, how can Liverpool replicate any of these successes?

I thought Dalglish would shift to his usual 'big game' strategy last week, especially with the match at Stamford Bridge. But Liverpool stuck with the 4-4-2, albeit a different type of 4-4-2. Liverpool still looked for the counter, but instead of soaking up pressure, they pressed from the front in the first half, reverting to type in the second when a goal to the good. Once bitten, twice shy, but I still think a three-man midfield is likely on Sunday, and like in the last match preview, would point to Henderson's box to box runs as crucial. Of course, to counter my own "logic," Henderson's been more influential off the bench in recent matches against United and Chelsea.

A three-man defense, like Napoli's was, isn't completely out of the question after Liverpool's wins over Stoke and Chelsea last season, but it seems a remote possibility; the last time we saw the tactic was in March, in the 1-3 loss at West Ham. Liverpool played some sort of 4-4-2 in both matches against City last season, first under Hodgson, then under Dalglish. One was a success, one wasn't. No prizes for guessing which was which. Incidentally, City played 4-3-3 in their home win and 4-2-3-1 at Anfield, with Liverpool aided by Tevez's early injury in the latter. Hazarding a guess, I'd wager Tevez isn't going to feature this weekend. The away side are obviously spoilt for riches; Nasri, Agüero, and Barry – left out against Napoli – seem likely to feature, while it'd be surprising to see both Balotelli and Milner start three matches in eight days.

Liverpool fans' focus will be on the inclusion of last Sunday's surprise starters: Maxi and Bellamy. Based on two Carling Cup appearances and last week at Chelsea, Maxi's simply in better form than Downing, always threatening to seamlessly combine with Suarez. At the same time, it's hard to leave Bellamy out, undoubtedly champing at the bit to punish his previous club. The other personnel question is one presented last week: will Carragher come back in at the expense of Skrtel or Agger?

If Liverpool stick with two strikers, Bellamy will probably play at the expense of the star man in last season's fixture at Anfield. Divining the entrails of Dalglish's press conferences is always dangerous, but it's not hard to sense a veiled shot at Carroll in this quote:
"You take into account what is happening now," Dalglish said. "Just because he scored twice last season doesn't mean he's going to score this time. We will all start afresh, Andy included."
Of course, knowing Dalglish's precedents, it could all be dissemination and "mind games." That's part of the fun of these guessing games. Early pressing, as against Chelsea last week, combined with crosses for Carroll, then sitting back and soaking up pressure in the second half, was what led to Liverpool's win against these lot last season. The similarity to those aforementioned Bayern and Napoli victories over City seems unavoidable.

22 November 2011

Chelsea Chalkboards - Half by Half

You don't need chalkboards to tell you that Liverpool changed tact in the second half against Chelsea, unable or unwilling to keep pressing in the same furious manner as the first. This isn't revelatory information, and I tried to explain why in the match review: pressing for 90 minutes was an impossibility due to fitness and personnel, so Liverpool went all out for the early goal, then tried to soak up pressure and hit Chelsea on the counter in the later stages. Despite conceding early in the second half, it worked a treat due to Johnson's bursting run and Chelsea's less than diligent defending, which I wrote about yesterday.

Nonetheless, it's interesting to compare the differences in a few passing charts and defensive chalkboards.

In the second half, there were fewer passes attempted by almost every Liverpool player, more Chelsea passes in Liverpool's half, tackles and interceptions came closer to Liverpool's goal, etc., etc. How few passes the center-backs attempted in the second half was the only major surprise, as it's quite noticeable despite Liverpool being under Chelsea pressure for long stretches. I'll also note than neither center-back "emptied it" regularly; while both Skrtel and Agger attempted far fewer passes, they're still short passes, attempting to build from the back. And Reina's passes and Liverpool's total attempted clearances (neither shown) stayed fairly similar from first to second half.

21 November 2011

Goal Breakdown: Suicidal Defending and Taking Advantage

Both of Liverpool's goals against Chelsea were fantastic, strikes which have an excellent chance of showing up on various best-of-season lists. The first showed the benefits of pressing from the front and quick pass and move football, the second direct football at its finest: a cross-field diagonal opening up acres of space for an attacking full-back bombing forward.

But make no mistake. Despite each goal's outstanding qualities, both came because of some suicidal decision-making from Chelsea's defense.

Cech's decision to send the goal kick to Mikel (an illegally-taken goal kick, having touched it twice, I might add...) baffles in the extreme. Four Liverpool players are closer to Mikel than any in blue. Both Terry and Luiz have gone wide, each to the left and right of the penalty box, which has to be by design. Mikel's lone option in that position is to empty it as far as humanly possible, and when he dawdles in making that decision, Adam's on him in a flash.

With Mikel out of the picture after Adam's tackle, it left Chelsea with two defending four, and Bellamy, Suarez, and Maxi's quick passing and movement rendered them irrelevant. Terry was beaten by Suarez's touch back to Bellamy, Luiz by Bellamy's extra pass to Maxi, leaving the Argentinean open to smartly finish past Cech.

The second, in the final minutes of the game, was little better from the home side's point of view.

With the ball held up on the left flank – Enrique, Downing, and Suarez successfully keeping possession after bringing the ball out from defense – Adam's pinpoint cross-field caught multiple players out of position.

Chelsea have eight defenders in their own half. Eight. Pity they're all bunched up on the wrong side of the pitch after Adam's diagonal. Terry and Luiz's positioning (circled) is exceptionally unforgivable: both far forward, both basically atop each other. Why Terry, ostensibly the left-sided center-back, is in that position is almost completely unexplainable.

Malouda and Cole are the only two defenders on the left side of the pitch in Chelsea's half, and both are closer to the center circle than the touchline. When Malouda can't get back, a retreating Ashley Cole's left one-on-one with a rampaging Johnson, who still has work to do to beat the Chelsea full-back, which he does brilliantly by shifting onto his left foot, nutmegging Cole in the process. Kuyt's run into the box keeps both Luiz and Terry occupied, leaving England's Brave Captain unable to clear off the line after he decides to stick closer to the already-marked Kuyt instead of bailing out Cole and Malouda.

Liverpool needed smart, sublime plays from its attackers in both cases: excellent pressing from a central midfielder and divine interplay between three of the front four in the first case; Adam's pass and Johnson's run in the second. And Dalglish's tactical chess – first half pressing, second half counter-attack – provided the platform for Liverpool to get both goals. But both were infinitely aided by Chelsea's defensive decisions: a strange clear-out leaving Mikel isolated on the first; positional indiscipline (especially in drifting toward the ball) as well as Luiz and Terry's indecision on the second.

The media's quick to draw knifes, as we've seen unfairly happen to Dalglish following Liverpool's multiple disappointing draws. But after conceding in this fashion, it's little wonder that those knifes are out for Villas-Boas this morning.

20 November 2011

Liverpool 2-1 Chelsea

Maxi 33'
Sturridge 55'
Johnson 87'

Another big game, another tactical master-class from Dalglish.

Instead of reacting to Chelsea, keeping it tight in the hopes of breaking through on the break, just like last year's trip to the Bridge, we saw a completely unexpected line-up and Barcelona-esque heavy, high pressing in the first half. Liverpool ostensibly stuck with the 4-2-2-2 formation, but it was a completely different 4-2-2-2: Bellamy partnered Suarez up front and Maxi got his first league start, replacing Downing on the left.

Liverpool's front six gave no quarter in Chelsea's half, furiously chasing any player in blue in possession. Chelsea's vulnerability was known to all, and Liverpool refused to let them settle and grow in confidence. The style led to an exhilarating, furious half, and Chelsea apparently opened the scoring, but on second viewing, Drogba's free kick against the run of play was thankfully, narrowly wide.

But Bellamy and Maxi provided the break-through, and Charlie Adam was the platform, just as essential to everything good. It was as disciplined and intelligent a performance as we've seen from him. Instead of his usual center-circle quarterback role, the midfield harried forward, far better in tackling and closing down. He nearly diced Chelsea open in the 18th, winning possession and providing a quick through-ball for Suarez, only for the Uruguayan to be unforgivably offside.

But just over ten minutes later, Adam won the ball 30 yards out, after Mikel lingered on a goal kick, setting up a Bellamy-Suarez-Bellamy-Maxi concerto, with the extra short, quick pass crucial to the goal. While less threatening after the opener, Liverpool continued to deny space in the slightest, with Chelsea relying on set plays for any sight of goal.

That all changed in the second half. Liverpool were never going to be able to keep up that pressure for 90 minutes. The unexpected starters were the main reason Liverpool took the lead, but neither can keep up that pace for the full match, which is the main reason why neither's a regular starter. Nor can Adam. Liverpool were far more passive in the second half, more like what was predicted in the run-in: defending deep and reliant on the counter, more concerned with the clean sheet than extending the lead. Understandably so.

But it was Villas-Boas' tactical response which brought Chelsea back into the game. Removing holding midfielder Mikel (on a yellow) for striker Sturridge allowed Chelsea to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation; forwards pushed wider, challenging Liverpool's fullbacks, while Mata was far more influential in the middle.

With Liverpool penned in its own half, the substitute leveled matters ten minutes after the restart. Malouda cut inside and deep with Johnson dropping off, and Adam couldn't get back in time to close down. His decision to shoot was selfish and stupid but somehow paid off as Enrique went to sleep, allowing Sturridge in behind for a point blank tap in at the far post. That Malouda's shot fell so perfectly seems another dismal stroke of luck, but once again, the blow was partially of Liverpool's making, a mistake quickly punished.

Newly-confident Chelsea continued to hammer at the away side; only Reina prevented the second, somehow saving Ivanovic's flicked header from a free kick. But Dalglish's response in the 64th, replacing the tiring Bellamy with Henderson, solidified the midfield and helped stem the tide. Malouda's 70th minute acrobatics, carving space between Skrtel and Johnson, was the last non-speculative effort from the Blues and was off target anyway, like all their shots following Liverpool's first substitution.

The home side targeted Liverpool's right throughout, putting more and more pressure on Johnson with Kuyt also showing signs of fatigue. If a goal was coming, it looked like coming from Glen Johnson's part of the pitch. And it did, but not as pessimists like me were expecting. Enrique, Suarez, and Downing kept possession on the left before Adam's brilliant deep cross-field ball found Johnson in acres of space with defenders sucked inside. The right-back successfully ran at Ashley Cole, dancing past onto his left before Malouda could get back, then tucking his shot perfectly inside the far corner. So that's why Johnson's preferred at right-back then. Neither of Chelsea's former Liverpool players – both left on the bench, only sent on in the last 10 minutes – could find the winner, it was Liverpool's ex-Chelsea man. Have that, media narrative.

Given the heavy first-half pressure – which led to Liverpool's opener – it was always going to be a frightening second with Chelsea in the ascendancy. It was a calculated gamble on the part of Dalglish, and although Liverpool were punished thanks to a mis-hit shot, it paid off when coupled with Henderson substitution. Today

Aside from those moments of defensive terror, usually on the wings, everyone was excellent; it's nearly impossible to pick a man of the match. It was Maxi's eighth goal in his last five league starts, it was easily Adam's best game. Lucas was Lucas, utterly essential in shielding the center-backs. Neither Skrtel nor Agger put a foot wrong, and Reina again demonstrated a save that few in the league could replicate. The cheap and easy way out of the conundrum is to name Dalglish as the star, once again disproving notions of rigidity or that the game's somehow passed him by.

Another memorable match against top-level opposition, the type of away victory that's been few and far between for too long. Of course, Liverpool's performances against the Premier League's best has been one of the side smallest concerns under this manager. And it's not as if Chelsea's in a vein of hot form, losing consecutive matches at Stamford Bridge for the first time since Uncle Roman began losing rubles. But a win like this, with form like this, after the last disappointment two weeks ago, needs to be cherished, treasured, and basked in.

And then Liverpool needs to replicate its big-game heroics against the unstoppable City in a week's time.

18 November 2011

Liverpool at Chelsea 11.20.11

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-0 Liverpool (a) 02.06.11
2-0 Liverpool (h) 11.07.10
0-2 Chelsea (h) 05.02.10
0-2 Chelsea (a) 10.04.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Swansea (h); 2-0 West Brom (a); 2-1 Stoke (a)
Chelsea: 1-0 Blackburn (a); 1-1 Genk (a); 3-5 Arsenal (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 4; Adam, Carroll 2; Bellamy, Gerrard, Henderson, Skrtel 1
Chelsea: Lampard 6; Sturridge 4; Ramires, Terry 3; Mata, Torres 2; Anelka, Boswinga, Drogba, Malouda 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson Lee Probert

Evidently the Premier League wasn't that upset with Atkinson sending off Rodwell last month or he wouldn't have gotten another Liverpool game so soon. Incidentally, Howard Webb is the fourth official.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Lucas Adam
Kuyt Henderson Downing

No more internationals until the spring. Enough speculating about Suarez's possible sins. Football. Finally. Back to the football.

For once, an international break was kind to Liverpool in regards to injuries, with everyone coming back fit. In addition, the two-week break means Carragher's fit and Gerrard, while still out, is well on the road to recovery. Of course, Carra's recovery poses a question: does he slot straight back into the back four after Liverpool kept consecutive clean sheets with the Skrtel-Agger pairing? Almost assuredly yes, yes he will, like it or not. It's a big game, away from Anfield, and Liverpool's defense will probably be sitting quite deep.

In addition, many of Liverpool players impressed for their countries. Suarez scored four in his one appearance for Uruguay. Kelly tallied twice in the two England u21 games while Henderson, who captained the side, provided three assists (two from set plays). Agger scored for the Danes, Downing was England's best player in the win over Sweden (setting up the lone goal), and Kuyt was Holland's best player in a 0-3 loss to Germany. Needless to say, it's far more important they do similar (or better!) for Liverpool.

While the most-frequently used lopsided 4-2-2-2 has come under a lot of criticism, mainly for Liverpool's multiple disappointing draws, the side has lined up in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 for the "big" games: at Arsenal, at Spurs, and against United. I expect we'll see much the same on Sunday. There seems little chance of repeating last season's three-man defense.

Given Villas-Boas' preference for a high-line, high pressing 4-3-3, I think Liverpool's formation will look most like the side which faced Arsenal but with Suarez in for Carroll. Suarez's pace could pierce Chelsea's rearguard as Van Persie did multiple times when Arsenal traveled to the Bridge, and that vulnerable defense might also be an argument for Bellamy starting in place of Downing. We've criticized the side for being too reactive, but away from Anfield, Chelsea will have far more of the initiative. Liverpool will be "defensive," will have to be patient, and will rely far more on counter-attacks. And as both Chelsea full-backs (especially if Boswinga starts over Ivanovic ) look to get forward at every opportunity, Liverpool will need to play quick and direct, and use any available width. With Gerrard absent, Henderson's forward runs from midfield could be crucial, which is a main reason why I think he'll be playing between the lines.

Chelsea have few injuries as well, with Essien out long-term and Drogba doubtful. Villas-Boas will pick three from four in midfield – Lampard, Ramires, Meireles, and Mikel – and will probably deploy Sturridge and Mata on either side of Torres. Regardless of participants, it'll be a very fluid front six, which means Liverpool defenders will have to be both clever and perpetually aware of who to pick up, not necessarily limited to who lines up opposite them at the opening whistle.

With Liverpool having done the double over Chelsea last season, the Blues will have even more motivation than usual. Of course, both Liverpool's goal-scorers in those meetings now ply their trade in West London. Chelsea are three points ahead of Liverpool after 11 games. As a reminder, Chelsea were 10 points ahead of Liverpool at this stage last season, top of the table while Liverpool sat in 9th, 24 goals better on goal difference rather than the current five.

With the end of internationals for the next few months, matches will start stacking up. There'll be no more two-week layoffs following a disappointing draw. After this week, Liverpool will have faced all its competitors for a Champions League place (sorry Newcastle) at least once, with three of five away from Anfield. It's more than tempting to agree with the Anfield Wrap's conclusion that the season starts on Sunday. Chelsea's growing pains give Liverpool a clear opening, but it's not as if the Reds are free from similar issues.

14 November 2011

Good Against Good, Bad Against Bad

With Liverpool facing Chelsea in a week's time, I thought it interesting to look at the club's recent record against the best and worst of the Premier League. Long story short, Liverpool have a habit of playing up or down to the opposition's level under Dalglish.

Against top-five opponents:

• 1-0 Chelsea (a)
• 3-1 United (h)
• 3-0 City (h)
• 1-1 Arsenal (a)
• 0-2 Tottenham (h)
• 2-0 Arsenal (a)
• 0-4 Tottenham (a)
• 1-1 United (h)

Overall record: 4W-2D-2L
Points per game: 1.75

That points per game average is in line with Liverpool's overall record under Dalglish. The club's taken 52 points from the last 29 league matches, for an average of 1.79 points per game.

Comparatively, Liverpool's record against promoted or relegated sides under Dalglish:

• 1-2 Blackpool (a)
• 1-3 West Ham (a)
• 1-2 West Brom (a)
• 5-0 Birmingham (h)
• 3-0 Newcastle (h)
• 1-1 Norwich (h)
• 0-0 Swansea (h)

Overall record: 2W-2D-3L
Points per game: 1.14

Last season, Liverpool's record against relegated or promoted sides was contingent upon location: winning handily against Birmingham and Newcastle at Anfield but losing to Blackpool, West Ham, and West Brom on the road – continuing the despicable away form from the Hodgson era. This season, Liverpool's faced two promoted sides at Anfield and suffered disappointing draws in both, an obvious regression in results if not in form, mainly down to the much-discussed inability to convert chances.

The venue has been less important against the "big five;" in 2010-11, Liverpool beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and drew Arsenal at the Emirates, while losing to Spurs at Anfield. This season, Liverpool beat Arsenal in London, were hammered at Tottenham after Adam was sent off, and drew United at Anfield.

Unsurprisingly, playing to the opposition's level didn't occur as often under Hodgson. As happened time and time again, Liverpool did "okay" at home and were atrocious away, no matter the opposition. Hodgson's Liverpool beat Chelsea and drew Arsenal at Anfield, and lost to City, United, and Spurs away, for a grand total of four points from five games. Against relegated or promoted opposition, Liverpool beat West Brom and West Ham at Anfield, and held Birmingham and lost to Newcastle away; Blackpool's October victory at Anfield was the only match which didn't hold to the usual trends under Hodgson. Except the trend of being infuriatingly, hopelessly awful.

With two trips to Chelsea bracketed by a home match against high-flying Manchester City, we'll soon see if Liverpool continues playing to the opposition's level. Not to over-exaggerate, but with the season nearly a third over, these next three results could define the next six months, seeing Liverpool either catch up to the front runners or pushed further back into the chasing pack.

10 November 2011

Charlie Adam Creates Chances

One of the summer's main talking points was "chances created," a fairly new statistic meant to replace assists. Assists take two to tango, reliant on the goal scorer actually scoring the goal. LiverpoolFC.tv clarifies the stat by renaming it "shot assists," a name I actually prefer, although I'll stick with Opta's nomenclature since I'm using FourFourTwo's StatsZone stats throughout this piece. The official site also has slightly different numbers than StatsZone, crediting Adam with two fewer shot assists than StatsZone credits chances created.

After the summer signings, Liverpool fans couldn't wait to pass around a chart showing Adam, Downing, and Henderson in the Top 10 for chances created in the league last year. Anfield Index featured multiple articles on the stat. Given how Liverpool struggled for goals last season, most notably under Hodgson, adding players who set up goal-scoring opportunities seemed crucial.

Well, Liverpool are creating more chances. They're simply not taking them. And Charlie Adam tops the list of those creating said chances.

After 11 games, Adam's created 26 chances, more than any other in the Liverpool squad. Suarez and Enrique on 20, Downing with 17, and Lucas with 10 are the only other players in double figures. Adam played 35 games last season; currently averaging 2.36 chances created per game, Adam's on pace for 83 chances created this season if he plays the same number of matches. Which is 19 more than his total for Blackpool last season. And with Downing, Suarez, Henderson and (sometimes) Gerrard involved, he's not taking every set play either.

Adam created eight against Swansea, five more than the next closest player (Downing) and the most in any Liverpool match this season. Four came from set plays and four came from open play. There were chips and crosses to Suarez, corners to Agger, and layoffs and throughballs to Downing. Probability more than suggests at least one should have led to an assist and Liverpool winner.

In total, Liverpool have created 137 chances through this season's 11 matches. The side created 121 in Hodgson's first 11 matches and 120 in Dalglish's first 11 matches as "caretaker manager." Liverpool scored 12 goals in Hodgson's first 11 games, 18 in Dalglish's first 11 games, and 14 through this season's 11 games. This season's chances created-per-goal ratio (9.79) is far closer to Hodgson's mark (10.08) than that from Dalglish's first 11 matches (6.67). Again, creation isn't the problem. Conversion is.

Admittedly, Adam has multiple faults. Fitness is usually the first mentioned: how he tends to tire after the hour mark, with skepticism exacerbated by his less-than-ideal physique. He tends towards the spectacular and over-ambitious when Liverpool might be better served by keeping it simple. He's also more than questionable defensively: in positions he takes up, in his frequently rash tackling, in his recovery speed. And, yes, he's seemingly better in a three-man midfield, which Liverpool rarely uses.

All players have faults; it's balancing the good against the bad. As long as the positives outweigh the negatives in the manager's mind.

We can argue whether Liverpool would be better in a different formation, with support from two other "orthodox" central midfielders rather than the 4-2-2-2/4-3-3 half measure that has Henderson often coming inside. Or whether Spearing's a better partner for Lucas in the formation Liverpool's using. Those are questions for management. However hesitant I am (and you should be) to criticize Dalglish's evolutionary team after less than a third of the campaign gone, they're valid debates.

But the main reason Liverpool bought Adam from Blackpool was to create chances. And Charlie Adam creates chances.

07 November 2011

Speed Kills

Against Swansea, Liverpool started on top, couldn't take advantage of the early dominance, and finished with a draw. Against Norwich, Liverpool started on top, couldn't take advantage of the early dominance, and finished with a draw. Against Stoke, Liverpool started on top, couldn't take advantage of the early dominance, and lost. Against Sunderland, Liverpool started on top, couldn't take advantage of the early dominance, and finished with a draw.

Against West Brom, Liverpool started on top, got the early goal, and saw out the win. Against Wolves, Liverpool started on top, got the early goal, and saw out the win. Against Bolton, Liverpool started on top, got the early goal, and saw out the win.

Sensing a trend?

Each half hour is successively worse, whether in successful passes, attempted passes, passing percentage, or types of passes. The first 30 minutes sees more short passes, more sustained build-up, and many more completions in Swansea's half. The second 30 minutes sees longer passes, quicker build-up from defense out to the flanks, and far less activity in front of Swansea's penalty area. The final 30 minutes continues the regression, with a much more scattered chalkboard and almost 60 fewer passes than in the first half an hour. The passing percentage went from 83.5% from 1-30' to 80.7% from 31-60 to 76.5% from 61-90'.

And 'chances created,' that ubiquitous, quasi-abstract stat, follows the same trend. Liverpool created 15 chances against Swansea, fewer than against West Brom, Norwich, Stoke, and Bolton, but more than in better performances against United, Everton, Wolves, and Arsenal. Almost half of those chances came in the first 30 minutes.

The best chances were those in the first 30 minutes. Carroll's thwack off the crossbar most notably, but Agger's attempts from Adam's corners, Lucas' free header hitting Suarez, and Suarez's shot saved by a sprawling Vorm were also close calls. Comparatively, the second half saw a smattering of blocked shots and Vorm's two late late saves, the one on Johnson's effort more impressive than that on Suarez's.

Unsurprisingly, given how closely the statistics are related, the number of Liverpool shots parallels chances created. 11 in the first 30 minutes (one on target, seven off, three blocked), five between 31-60' (two on target, two off, one blocked), and nine in the final half an hour (two on target, three off, four blocked). That the amount blocked came mostly in the final half hour shows both Liverpool's desperation and Swansea's deep defense, happy to close down the box and settle for the draw.

We're only 11 games into the campaign, but banging the same worn drum is already tiresome in the extreme. Liverpool needs to take its chances when it's on top, and it's almost always on top in the first half.

Patience surely plays a part as well. Liverpool have scored second-half goals in just four of its 11 league matches: against Bolton, United, Everton, and Arsenal. They won three of the four. Two of those four came against 10 men, finally breaking down a resilient, defensive side, both away from Anfield. Which were two of Liverpool's best performances of the season. But those are the exceptions rather than the rule in this short season so far.

We've seen complaints about the formation, complaints about using new signings at the expense of last season's pleasant surprises, and complaints about the defense. All three pale in comparison to Liverpool's attackers – from the sublime Suarez to the disappointing Downing and in-between – not doing their jobs. Having kept a clean sheet in the last two games, the defense (and Lucas) has done its job. Having created eight chances on Saturday (four from set plays and four from open play) – five more than any other player and the most in any LFC match this season – Adam's doing his job. Reina certainly did his job against Swansea, the biggest reason Liverpool left with at least a solitary point. Liverpool certainly weren't anywhere near their best against Swansea, in almost every area of the pitch, but still had the chances to win the game.

Many have understandable doubts about this lopsided quasi 4-4-2 Dalglish prefers, including yours truly, but had Liverpool taken just a few of these frequently-mentioned chances, we'd be joyous, complimenting this strange hybrid formation as after West Brom. And Liverpool would be somewhere in the region of six to nine points better.

But when the first half onslaught fails, the team obviously tightens up, especially in front of its baying home crowd – as against Swansea, Norwich, and Sunderland. Confidence crashes, frustration mounts, and every player becomes noticeably more nervous. Which leads to more ambitious passes, less completed passes, and all the other 'bad' shown in the above chalkboards. And it's tangible for the opposition, leading to fight-backs like Swansea's, like Sunderland's, like Norwich's, and like Wolves almost succeeded in doing.

Take just one more scoring opportunity per game, and Liverpool's not in this situation, and the sky stops falling. It's become a boring mantra. Confidence and converting chances. Confidence and converting chances. Confidence and converting chances. Shantih shantih shantih.

05 November 2011

Liverpool 0-0 Swansea

Remember how multiple home draws against inferior opposition ruined the '08-09 title chase? That was fun. Let's do that again.

Out of all four of Liverpool's disappointing home draws – and I include United in that – Swansea are most deserving of the point they leave Anfield with. Rodgers' tactics were excellent, soaking up Liverpool pressure for 60 minutes before pummeling the home side for 10, then settling back into their deep, resilient defense. Still, they relied on two excellent saves from Vorm on the cusp of injury time, the first he'd had to make since the 29th minute. And it all could have been different had Carroll converted his close range chance in the 7th minute instead of hitting the woodwork. Yes, yes, the 10th time Liverpool's tattooed the goal frame in this short season.

Liverpool were rarely able to stretch Swansea, to pull at least one of those eight or nine defenders out of position, to create the havoc which led to goals like Suarez's first at Stoke. Swansea defended deeper than any side that's visited Anfield, deeper than Hodgson's dismal group sat last week, squeezing every ounce of space from the final third. That Carroll opportunity was one of the few times Liverpool passed and moved their way through the Swans, with a speedy Downing-Adam one-two down the left leading to the winger's dangerous center.

Once again, we're left ruing chances left unseized. The home side took 15 first-half shots, but only hit the target twice; nine were blocked, four were off-target. Also, approximately three of those efforts were remotely memorable: Carroll's chance and two singularly created by Suarez – a turn and shot wide in the 19th and a Vorm save in the 29th after the Uruguayan danced onto his left foot. And those three came in the first 30 minutes.

After that half an hour, Swansea were more comfortable, able to keep possession and spurred on by their 28th minute opening, when Routledge's cross to Graham would have given them the lead if not for Reina's point-blank brilliance. Comfortable on the ball, when Swansea sprang from their own half, they sprang dangerously, leading to a surprisingly open game despite the away side's packed defense. Dyer and Routledge gave Liverpool more problems than any other wingers this season; their speed restrained both Johnson and Enrique far more than expected in a home game against promoted opposition. But that Graham's chance was the only heart-in-mouth moment for Liverpool's defense in the first half.

Recognizing Liverpool's lack of width, Dalglish replaced Henderson with Kuyt during the interval, his work-rate and movement preferred to Bellamy's pace. And Liverpool momentarily threatened, with an unconscious through-ball from Adam releasing Downing, but with the winger unable to replicate his earlier cross to Carroll.

That was Liverpool's last chance until an eventual flurry in the final ten minutes. After suffocating the home side for ten minutes, Swansea counter-punched as the home side's frustration turned to out-and-out nervousness. Swansea passed and prodded and passed and struck, Liverpool flustered almost immediately the few times they managed to reclaim possession, and Reina threatened to morph from hero to goat. He again saved Liverpool when rushing out to block Dyer's 64th-minute shot, but almost gave away a goal twice. Nearly turning into Graham after lingering on a back pass sparked Swansea's burst in the 58th, then he nearly spilled Dyer's long range strike to the same player in the 65th, thankfully recovering quickly.

Gower's 84th-minute blast over, free on the spot following Sinclair's knockdown of Dyer's cross, marked the end of Swansea's threat as the away side finally tired. Bellamy coming on for Carroll with 15 to play certainly helped matters, and Liverpool spent the final few minutes frantically pushing for the needed winner. Suarez, quiet for long stretches, was typically central, nearly carving openings for Kuyt and from the byline. Vorm's sprawling save on the Uruguayan's outside-of-the-right-foot cannon in the 89th was the first of two jaw-dropping stops to seal Swansea's 'triumph', mimicking those acrobatics on Johnson's desperation thunderbolt a minute later.

Once again, Liverpool's flaws are laid bare, obvious to all. Chances missed, dominance unconverted. Not to mention the unbelievably frustrating inconceivable woodwork spawned by Satan. That Liverpool continues to hit the frame is beyond implausible, improbable, and impossible. Otherwise, Swansea swallowed Liverpool whole. Nullifying Liverpool's full-backs seems most important, denying the overlap also shut down both wingers. Henderson simply ran into defenders when cutting inside, where he found space against West Brom and Stoke, while Downing continues to struggle (although admittedly again unlucky to not register at least an assist).

But that Suarez didn't cause his usual anarchy, wasn't able to arrogantly toss as many bombs into Swansea's defense, was probably just as damaging. He was shadowed by at least two, sometimes three players at all times, a symptom of their smothering defense. Liverpool remains dangerously reliant on its little genius.

11 games into the season, already November, and regretting somewhere in the region of 10 points that have somehow slipped away makes it harder to deliver the usual rationalizations. Yes, this team is still maturing and unusually prone to set-backs. At least Liverpool didn't carelessly concede, which has happened all too infrequently – and they had multiple opportunities to do so. And, while obviously disappointed, we were treated to an eminently watchable, open game – probably even enjoyable for neutrals – a far cry from the dour, turgid, defensive side seen 12 months ago. Can't throw the baby out with the bathwater, at least there's obvious potential, etc. etc.

Just, you know, start putting the ball in the back of the net please.

04 November 2011

Liverpool v Swansea 11.05.11

11am ET, not live in the US. Delayed on Fox Soccer Plus at 3pm ET. It's FoxSoccer.tv or streams.

Last four head-to-head:
8-0 Liverpool (h; FA Cup) 01.09.90
0-0 (a; FA Cup) 01.06.90
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.09.83
3-0 Liverpool (a) 09.18.82

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-0 West Brom (a); 2-1 Stoke (a); 1-1 Norwich (h)
Swansea: 3-1 Bolton (h); 2-2 Wolves (a); 1-3 Norwich (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 4; Adam, Carroll 2; Bellamy, Gerrard, Henderson, Skrtel 1
Swansea: Graham 4; Sinclair 3; Allen 2; Dyer, Lita, Williams 1

Referee: Phil Dowd

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Lucas Adam Downing
Carroll Suarez

Same as against West Brom, please.

At home, Liverpool are likely to stick with the 4-2-2-2 (or 4-3-3 or 2-3-2-3 or whatever) we saw against West Brom. Carroll and Suarez will remain the front pairing, with Lucas and Adam in midfield as Gerrard's still injured, and Johnson and Enrique providing width and overlaps from full-back.

There seem only a couple of possible changes. Downing hasn't had the best of spells recently, struggling for form and influence, summed up by his barely-defended cannon off the foot of the post in injury time on Saturday. Bellamy could be a straight swap, with Maxi and Kuyt as less likely options. Kuyt could also reclaim his place from Henderson, although the young Englishman did well against both Stoke and West Brom.

And there's the elephant in the room: whether Carragher will be fit, immediately restored to the starting XI, or whether we'll get to see Skrtel and Agger for a second-straight match. There were two interesting relevant pieces on Liverpool's defense this week: Dan Kennett analyzed Liverpool's record with different center-back pairings over at The Tomkins Times and Noel from Liverpool Offside wondered whether Liverpool's deep defensive line will remain constant no matter Carragher's inclusion or exclusion. Both are recommended reading.

Like Blackpool last season, Swansea have become the new neutral's favorite by combining aesthetically-pleasing football with a heavy underdog status. I doubt I'll have to remind how much Liverpool suffered against the likes of Blackpool last season, losing both fixtures under both Hodgson and Dalglish. Swansea can be exposed, caught out on the counter attack because of their preference for going forward. But Liverpool can also be exposed, as Sunderland, Stoke, Spurs, United, and Norwich have proven.

Swansea have loads of quick, deft players who can cause a static backline problems: striker Danny Graham, wingers Sinclair and Dyer, and Joe Allen in midfield. Graham's scored in Swansea's the last four matches. That Sinclair and Dyer can get down the flanks and whip in crosses should have both Johnson and Enrique very wary. Stephen Dobbie is the lone injury concern now that Kemy Agustien is fit, but Agustein's unlikely to start with Allen, Gower, and Britton in fine form.

For all the deserved compliments for how Swansea have come up, dancing with what brought them to Premiership, the Swans have truly struggled away from the Liberty Stadium. Still winless on their travels, their lone away point came against Wolves two weeks ago. The natural disclaimer is that their other away matches came on fairly difficult grounds: against City, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Norwich.

Liverpool can't fall into the trap of expecting a promoted side to lie down at Anfield, which seemed to be the case against Norwich two weeks back. Increasingly frustrated and impatient when the second goal wasn't coming, Norwich made Liverpool pay, stealing off in the night with an undeserved point after Holt headed Carragher, Johnson, Reina, and the ball into the net.

Patience will be crucial tomorrow. Swansea's possession football means Liverpool will look to be direct more often than not, carving Swansea open on the counter rather than pummeling them into submission. Which will require Liverpool's nullifying defense to be as secure as against West Brom, using the clean sheet as the platform to get the needed victory. City's win over Swansea in the first match of season provides the template: after cagily holding out for an hour, with David matching Goliath step for step, City finally put Swansea to the sword, scoring four in the last half-hour as the away side tired.

Patience, then the sword. And, as often repeated, the utter necessity of converting one's chances.