16 February 2013

Liverpool v Swansea 02.17.13

10am ET, live in the US on Fox Soccer Plus

Last four head-to-head:
0-0 (a) 11.25.12
1-3 Swansea (h; League Cup) 10.31.12
0-1 Swansea (a) 05.13.12
0-0 (h) 11.05.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-2 Zenit (a); 0-2 West Brom (h); 2-2 City (a)
Swansea: 4-1 QPR (h); 0-1 West Ham (a); 0-0 Sunderland (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 17; Gerrard 6; Sturridge 3; Agger, Henderson, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Downing, Enrique, Johnson, Şahin 1
Swansea: Michu 15; de Guzman, Routledge 5; Dyer, Graham, Hernandez 3; Rangel 2; Davies, Sinclair 1

Referee: Howard Webb

I'm sure it's just coincidence, but the last time Liverpool won a league match with Howard Webb as referee was the 5-0 win against Birmingham in April 2011. He's been in charge of two draws and five losses since.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Henderson Borini

Four matches in 11 days puts an incredible strain on the squad, and fitness concerns will dominate the starting XI selection much more than form or tactics.

Lucas, Sturridge, Agger – three who didn't start against Zenit – will almost assuredly come back into the team, but who will depart? Rodgers has already promised a strong side on Thursday to try to overhaul the two-goal deficit, and he might consider that a more important match given how far behind fourth Liverpool currently find themselves.

It borders on scandalous, but I'd expect at least one of Gerrard and Suarez to be left on the bench, possibly both. Yes, Liverpool's two nuclei, Liverpool's top two scorers in the league. How the medical/fitness staff has managed Gerrard has been one of this season's biggest successes, but (unsurprisingly) I remain worried. He hasn't missed a minute of league action so far this season through 26 matches; the most league matches he's started in a single season was 35 in 2006-07 (also making one substitute appearance) and he only started 12 last season and 20 in 2010-11. I think he's slightly more likely to feature than Suarez is, but wouldn't be surprised were he replaced by Allen. It'd be a chance to further validate my "always play players against their former club" theory.

Meanwhile, Luis Suarez has struggled against Swansea in every match he's played against them. His lone goal came as a substitute in the Capital One Cup – a free header from a set play – but he's been almost wholly nullified in the three league meetings. Swansea are one of just three sides that Suarez has faced at least twice in the league but failed to score against (the others are Tottenham and West Brom). In addition, Suarez has failed to create a chance in nine of his 66 Premier League starts; three of those nine were also against Swansea. He's looked jaded since playing on the left against Arsenal, hitting the target with just two of the 18 shots he took against City, West Brom, and Zenit. Without a goal for three consecutive matches ties his second-longest drought of the season; the only longer stretch was when he was went a month without scoring between wins over Wigan and Fulham. Tomorrow could well be an excellent opportunity to limit his action and use him as a game-changing weapon off the bench.

There are also concerns about Henderson and Downing, who've started multiple consecutive matches (Downing's actually played more minutes than anyone else over the last two months), as well as Carragher's ability to start all four of these matches during this stretch.

In an ideal world, Suarez would play as the #10 behind Sturridge, Gerrard would be paired with Lucas in midfield, Henderson would reclaim his left-sided berth, and Carragher would continue to partner Agger. That's the system that's worked the best recently. I'm pretty sure we don't live in an ideal world. But at the same time, I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest to see both Gerrard and Suarez in the XI, no matter the potential costs. Rodgers et al have a lot better idea of both's fitness and capabilities than the rest of us.

Swansea, on the other hand, who have had eight days to prepare, will start what's nearly their strongest XI. Britton should both be over a recent knock, but Chico will miss out through an ankle injury, while Neil Taylor remains a long-term casualty (although Ben Davies has done excellently in his absence).

Laudrup's side will play 4-2-3-1, as usual, with the same lineup debates he's had all season. Which three from Ki, Britton, Agustien, and de Guzman will play in midfield; which two from Routledge, Dyer, and Pablo will play on the flanks? With Danny Graham sold to Sunderland in January, Michu's almost certain to play as the central striker rather than an attacking midfielder, although Shechter did start in the reverse fixture (and only lasted 45 minutes). Chico will be replaced by either Garry Monk or Kyle Bartley, most likely the latter, while Vorm, Rangel, Williams, and Davies are certain starters in defense.

Liverpool remain winless against Swansea since the Welsh side were promoted to the Premier League, losing on the last day at the Liberty Stadium last season and in the league cup on Halloween, held 0-0 at Anfield last season and in the reverse fixture three months ago. Suarez's league cup consolation remains the only goal scored in the four matches they've played since November 2011.

And at the same time, Liverpool have won just one of nine league fixtures following a Europa League match this season, the 3-2 win at West Ham after a 1-0 win at Udinese in early December.

The omens aren't good; there are few positives to be divined from the entrails. But we're still waiting for a Liverpool response to recent setbacks. Back-to-back losses against West Brom and Zenit were the first time Liverpool have lost back-to-back matches this season. And, frighteningly, this is just about the same point where Liverpool's league form took a nose dive last season, with fourth place finally off the table after successive losses to United, Arsenal and Sunderland. No matter who starts tomorrow, Liverpool will need to be better than they've been during the first half of these difficult two weeks.

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