29 December 2011

Liverpool v Newcastle 12.30.11

2:45pm ET, live in the US on FSC.

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.01.11
1-3 Newcastle (a) 12.11.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.03.09
5-1 Liverpool (a) 12.28.08

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-0 Wigan (a); 2-0 Villa (a); 1-0 QPR (h)
Newcastle: 2-0 Bolton (a); 2-3 West Brom (h); 0-0 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 5; Own Goal 3; Adam, Bellamy, Carroll, Maxi, Skrtel 2; Gerrard, Henderson, Johnson 1
Newcastle: Ba 14; Best 3; R Taylor 2; Sh Ameobi, Ben Arfa, Cabaye, Gosling, Jonas 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Terrified of jinxing it, but since I bash referees here all the time, unfairly or not, probably should mention that Probert is one of my favorites. Please keep it that way.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Downing Henderson Spearing Maxi
Carroll Bellamy

And to think, in Monday's match review, I hoped that Suarez would soon get a rest, both for his and Liverpool's sake. Thankfully, the FA has everyone's best interests at heart. Due to Suarez's non-verbal "outburst" against Fulham, he's suspended for Friday's match.

With the Uruguayan absent, Carroll seemingly has to start against his former club – something he was unable to do in this fixture last May. Whether it's with Bellamy or Kuyt or, less likely, up front on his own is a far tougher question. Aside from Carroll's penalty miss, one of seemingly hundreds for Liverpool so far this season, the Carroll-Bellamy pairing played well in its last outing, against Chelsea in the Carling Cup.

The other lineup question pertains to central midfield. Maxi and Downing played well against Blackburn; there's no need to change either without fitness concerns. Conversely, Liverpool's central midfield was incredibly poor against Blackburn. Adam was the worst offender, and his unlucky own goal is irrelevant to that opinion. More important was that he and Henderson failed to look a pairing in the slightest. They were two central midfielders ostensibly playing in the same area, with only a general idea of what the other was trying to accomplish. Small wonder Liverpool looked so disjointed at times. Liverpool have multiple options for rectifying that problem: Gerrard could join the duo or replace either – although I suspect he'll have one more appearance off the bench before starting – or Spearing could replace one of the two or Shelvey could play behind the striker as against Aston Villa. Regardless, something needs to change. Cabaye and Tiote are miles upon miles better than Nzonzi-Dunn-Pedersen or McCarthy-Diame.

Finally, there also seems no need to change the back-line unless fitness demands it. If Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique start, it'd be the 10th league game in a row where Liverpool played the same back five. That's implausible consistency, and it's no coincidence the team has only conceded three goals during that 810-minute stretch. Long may it continue.

That Newcastle is just one point behind Liverpool despite winning just one of their last seven – Monday's trip to Bolton – losing four and drawing two, demonstrates just how strong the club's start to the season was. Or it's a sign that Liverpool have been wholly unable to take advantage of competitors' setbacks. Maybe both. Newcastle's descent from third on November 20 to seventh has coincided with injuries to both central defenders. Coloccini's fit again, but Steven Taylor will miss the rest of the season after tearing his Achilles. Marveaux's also out with a groin injury (surprise, surprise), while Dan Gosling is suspended.

Despite the recent slide, Demba Ba is still scoring like the world's really ending in 2012, Cabaye and Tiote have made an excellent midfield partnership, and both Obertan and Jonas could reap the benefits if Johnson and Enrique bomb forward just once too often. Ben Arfa was excellent off the bench in Newcastle's last match at Bolton; I expect he'll start on Friday, with Newcastle more a 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 than the more-frequently-seen 4-4-2 with Ba and Best/Ameobi up top. Krul; Simpson, Williamson, Coloccini, R Taylor; Obertan, Tiote, Cabaye, Jonas; Ben Arfa; Ba.

None of the Newcastle players who scored against Liverpool nearly a year ago are still with the club: Nolan's at West Ham, Barton's at QPR, and you all know where Andy Carroll ended up. I'm sure you remember the 1-3 loss; that followed up with 0-1 v Wolves and 1-3 at Blackburn were the blows which finally broke the doddering camel.

Meanwhile, Newcastle haven't scored at Anfield since December 2004, a Kluivert opener in a 3-1 Liverpool win. Liverpool have won all six meetings since conceding that goal, scoring 16 without reply. It's one of the best recent records against any club in the division.

But this is the best Newcastle side Liverpool have faced since then, no matter recent woes. The template for beating them remains the template to Liverpool's improvement. Keep doing the same successful things in defense, but put the ball in the back of the net slightly more often.

Meta FYI: I'll be gone through the weekend immediately following the match. Happy New Year's and whatnot. I will try to finish the match review before leaving town, but no promises. Then radio silence until Monday.

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