30 November 2012

Liverpool v Southampton 12.01.12

10am ET, not live in the US (unless you have the FoxSoccer2Go mobile app). Otherwise, delayed on Fox Soccer Plus at 2:00pm ET.

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Southampton (a) 01.22.05
1-0 Liverpool (h) 12.28.04
0-2 Southampton (a) 03.14.04
1-2 Southampton (h) 12.13.03

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Tottenham (a); 0-0 Swansea (a); 2-2 Young Boys (h)
Southampton: 1-1 Norwich (h); 2-0 Newcastle (h); 3-1 QPR (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Enrique, Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
Southampton: Lambert 6; Fonte, Lallana, Puncheon, Ramirez, Schneiderlin 2; Clyne, S Davis, Fox, Rodriguez 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Wisdom Skrtel Agger Johnson
Gerrard Shelvey
Sterling Suarez Enrique

After two consecutive disappointing results, despite a handful of positives shown in each match, Rodgers has to rotate some players for this match. Right?

All this talk about Lucas' potential return over the last couple of days has me far more excited than I've any right to be. Still, after two serious injuries in the last year, Rodgers has to be hesitant to start him tomorrow, after a week of training and 60 minutes of reserve football. Or so you'd think.

Gerrard and Allen have still played every minute of Premier League action. While Gerrard was one of Liverpool's better players against Tottenham – which isn't saying much – Allen again looked fatigued. In theory, I certainly wouldn't mind one of these players, most likely Allen, making way for Lucas' return, but I still think it's unlikely. At most, Lucas should get 30 or so minutes of the bench. Of course, the medical staff are far more appraised of his condition than we are.

If Gerrard and Allen both start yet again, then as per usual, the biggest issue is the third midfielder: Henderson for a third successive start in the league; Shelvey, who's replaced him as a substitute in the last two matches; Şahin, who hasn't been seen in the league since being hauled off against Chelsea – surprisingly, as he's one of the few proven goalscorers from midfield; or, less likely, Suso. A Gerrard-Allen-Lucas midfield trio's not out of the question either, but my suspicion (and that's all it is) is that Shelvey replaces Henderson in the same 4-1-2-3ish set up we've seen since the first-half change against Wigan.

The other issue is at left-back. Downing's participation should be out of the question. I'm still not sure why Robinson hasn't gotten a chance in the league, with Rodgers ever so willing to blood attackers – as well as Wisdom, until his injury – but Wisdom returning with Johnson on the left seems more likely. Or Enrique could drop back into defense with Suso coming in on the flank. All three of those options should be streets ahead of giving Downing a third successive start in defense.

In the last few matches, Nigel Adkins has played record signing Gaston Ramirez (remember him?) behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with good effect. He was especially impressive in Southampton's 2-0 win over struggling Newcastle, assisting Lallana on the first goal and scoring the second. Southampton are unbeaten in the four matches he's started in the middle, drawing twice and winning twice since a comprehensive 2-0 loss at West Brom to start the month.

Like Liverpool, Adkins has rotated sparingly, if at all, over the last month. The same XI has started the last four matches: Gazzaniga in goal; a back four of Clyne, Fonte, Yoshida, Shaw; Cork and Schneiderlin in midfield; Puncheon, Ramirez, and Lallana as the attacking line of three; and top scorer Rickie Lambert up front. It's also the third match in a week for the Saints, but I suspect we'll see few changes for Adkins' side as well. Danny Fox, the usual left-back but out with a knee injury recently, is questionable to return in time for tomorrow's match.

The eight points Southampton have taken in the last four matches have seen them almost escape the relegation zone, just a point behind Sunderland and Aston Villa. And just four points behind Liverpool.

There have been a fair few banging on about how December is full of winnable fixtures, starting with tomorrow's match against a promoted side. With the state that Liverpool are in, have been in for the last couple of seasons, this is a flawed assumption, and simply not the way to go into matches. It's a recipe for disappointment, at best. There are no easy wins, no matter the opposition, whether due to Liverpool's form this season or Liverpool's form against relegation candidates since, say, 2010.

Southampton's struggles in defense do pose an opportunity for Liverpool's attack to get back on track – or get on track in the first place. Not that we'll have a repeat of the Norwich performance, but Southampton is similarly vulnerable, conceding in every match except last weekend's win over Newcastle, letting in an average of 2.22 goals per game so far this season and conceding at least three in more than a third of their fixtures. It's no coincidence that their improvement in the last month has come by tightening up at the back, conceding just three in total in the last four matches, no more than once per game. And no coincidence that Southampton have stopped changing personnel in defense during this stretch.

At the same time, Southampton know where the back of the net is. 10 Saints have scored so far this season – compared to just six for Liverpool – including seven or eight of tomorrow's likely starters. Lambert is a prototypical predatory striker, Lallana an excellent winger, and Ramirez dangerous in one-on-one situations, especially on the break. Southampton have the weapons to punish Liverpool if they're similarly open and similarly profligate, as we've seen in far too many matches this season.

There are no rightful wins anymore. Liverpool will have to earn each and every point, no matter the opposition, through tangible improvement. These December fixtures are an opportunity to right the ship. But these fixtures will not be straightforward or uncomplicated, especially if Liverpool demonstrate the flaws which have led to the situation the side's currently in.

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