18 January 2013

Liverpool v Norwich 01.19.13

10am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
5-2 Liverpool (a) 09.29.12
3-0 Liverpool (a) 04.28.12
1-1 (h) 10.22.11
2-1 Liverpool (a) 01.03.05

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 United (a); 2-1 Mansfield (a); 3-0 Sunderland (h)
Norwich: 0-0 Newcastle (h); 3-0 Peterborough (a); 1-2 West Ham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 15; Gerrard 4; Agger, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin, Sturridge 1
Norwich: Holt, Pilkington, Snodgrass 4; Bassong, R Martin 3; Hoolahan, Jackson, Johnson, Morison, Turner, Whittaker 1

Referee: Michael Oliver

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Downing
Gerrard Lucas
Sturridge Suarez Borini

Can we just put Suarez down for a hat-trick now? No? Please? You're no fun.

That is, if the match actually occurs. It's snowing in Liverpool. I will try not to be patronizing, despite being raised in the snowiest city in the United States, as I know from experience that a couple of inches will almost completely shut down England. The Liverpool Echo has a live blog going, with pictures as the millimeters rack up, in case you want to keep updated. As of now, there has been no announcement as to the status of tomorrow's game, but I'm pessimistic. Because I'm always pessimistic.

If the match does take place, Rodgers will have an almost full contingent of players to choose from. With Sturridge getting another 45 minutes and Borini appearing for 30 minutes against United, both should be able to join Suarez in Liverpool's "first choice" front three. If any of those three are left out for fitness concerns, it'll probably be Borini, but I'm hopeful he'll be available with Sterling on the bench as a "super sub" – which is how I expect Liverpool to play more often than not. I'm obviously still interested to see how Suarez and Sturridge line up; here's Wednesday's post how on the second half against United gave us some clues, but I'm still skeptical that Suarez will play as an orthodox number 10 – which is how he spent the majority of those 45 minutes.

Related to Suarez's potential as a #10 is the perpetual debate over Liverpool's best midfield. What combination of Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson, and Allen works best? Is it contingent on the opposition? Henderson has simply been better than Allen over the last six weeks or so; Liverpool were far better against United after Lucas went off with a midfield containing just Gerrard and Allen. Allen played well as an attacking midfielder against Sunderland at Anfield, he was dreadful in a similar role at Old Trafford. Henderson appears to be out of Rodgers' favor, at least compared to the other three (and formerly Shelvey), but has increasingly improved when used in smaller doses (compared to being a struggling ever-present last season). And I'm admittedly very, very biased in favor of Lucas' inclusion. So the above is my best guess, but consistent with my preferences. Maybe Suarez does play between the lines, behind a front three of Borini, Sterling and Sturridge, supported by Lucas and Gerrard. Or Gerrard and Allen. Or Gerrard and Henderson. Maybe Allen gets another chance at the attacking midfield role since Lucas and Gerrard are seemingly the preferred deep-lying duo. Or Henderson. I've admittedly little idea what Rodgers will choose going forward now that he has a full complement of attackers.

Finally, as I expect Liverpool to be more attacking against a side that Liverpool should expect to take the game to, don't be surprised if Downing drops to left back with Johnson on the right. That's nothing to do with Wisdom's form; Downing offers more going forward than Wisdom, despite the latter's attempts against United. Although it's hard to say Downing "deserves it" after his tepid display against the Mancs.

Norwich lost all four matches during the festive season prior to a third-round FA Cup victory over Peterborough and a scoreless draw against Newcastle. They had been one of the most in-form sides during the fall, unbeaten from October 20 through December 11, taking 22 points from ten league matches. Since then, they've taken one point from five league matches, an even worse run than the start of the season which saw them in 19th before that eight-week streak.

Norwich's away record is a paltry 1W-5D-5L. Only Newcastle, Reading, and QPR have taken fewer points away from home. That said, Villa's away record before facing Liverpool was 1W-2D-5L and we all remember how that turned out (unless your ability to repress memories is better than mine).

Starting keeper John Ruddy is a long-term injury, while Whittaker and Morison are also out. But midfielders Howson and Surman should return to the squad, as will joint-top scorer Grant Holt. With Howson and Holt back, Norwich's likely lineup is Bunn; Martin, Turner, Bassong, Garrido; Howson, Johnson; Snodgrass, Hoolahan, Pilkington; Holt. Tettey could keep his place instead of Howson, Jackson instead of Holt, but the above seems Norwich's strongest line-up. Chris Hughton's side usually plays 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, but started with a 4-4-2 against Liverpool in the reverse fixture. I doubt he'll make that mistake again. Holt's burliness could cause similar problems as Benteke, Walters, and Carlton Cole, but that attacking line of three is the danger area: Pilkington and Snodgrass routinely chip in with goals – the latter mainly on set plays – while Hoolahan is Norwich's creative hub. His potential for havoc is a main reason why I think Lucas is likely to be included in the XI.

Liverpool have usually (usually, he emphasizes) been better against sides in the bottom half of the table. Liverpool have beaten Norwich by three goals in the last two meetings thanks to consecutive Suarez hat-tricks. All this optimism is making me pessimistic. Of course, if the match actually takes place.

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