26 April 2013

Liverpool at Newcastle 04.27.13

12:30pm ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-1 (h) 11.04.12
2-0 Newcastle (a) 04.01.12
3-1 Liverpool (h) 12.30.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 05.01.11

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 2-2 Chelsea (h); 0-0 Reading (a); 0-0 West Ham (h)
Newcastle: 1-1 West Brom (a); 0-3 Sunderland (h); 1-1 Benfica (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 23; Gerrard 9; Sturridge 5; Downing, Henderson 3; Agger, Coutinho, Enrique, Skrtel, Sterling 2; Cole, Johnson, Şahin 1
Newcastle: Ba 13; Cisse 8; Cabaye 6; Ben Arfa, Sissoko 3; Gouffran 2; Sh Ameobi, Jonas, Marveaux, Perch, Santon 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Gerrard Lucas
Downing Coutinho Henderson

Well, Suarez's suspension (which he isn't appealing) takes a bit of the fun out of the lineup guessing game. It also takes 40% of Liverpool's goals and 13% of Liverpool's assists this season out of the lineup for the next ten games. And it's now up to Brendan Rodgers to figure out how to cope with this irritating situation.

Borini's back in training, and Sterling may be used before the end of the campaign after making just one appearance in the last two months, but tomorrow's front four seems as certain as the other seven positions. It'll be Sturridge, Downing, Henderson, and Coutinho. The only question is whether Henderson or Coutinho is the number 10, with the other ostensibly playing on the left.

I think we'll get the version which started at Reading: Coutinho in the hole and Henderson out wide. Liverpool will need added creativity in the center of the park with Suarez absent, which Coutinho can provide. And Newcastle are strong on the flank, whether Ben Arfa or Gouffran starts on the right; Henderson's a better option to help nullify that potential threat.

Otherwise, same old, same old. Reina in goal; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, and Enrique in defense; and Gerrard and Lucas in central midfield. With news that Gerrard might need shoulder surgery this summer (everybody wants to be like Joe Allen), there were questions as to why he just doesn't get it over with now. But Rodgers has been incredibly unwilling to sit Gerrard during better times; even with little to play for, he'll want his captain out there that much more with Suarez absent.

While Liverpool frets over Suarez's future, 16th-placed Newcastle is trying to cope with an overwhelming injury list. Cisse and Tiote should be available despite respective rib and hamstring problems, but Marveaux, Krul, Santon, Coloccini, and Ryan Taylor are all out. If the first two play, I suspect Newcastle's XI will be: Rob Elliot; Debuchy, Steven Taylor, Yanga-Mbiwa, Haidara; Tiote, Cabaye; Gouffran, Sissoko, Jonas; Cisse. Ben Arfa could start in place of Gouffran; Jonas could play left-back allowing both Gouffran and Ben Arfa to start. If Cisse's unavailable, it'll be Gouffran or Shola Ameobi up front. If Tiote's unavailable, it'll be Perch or Anita in midfield.

Six points outside of the relegation zone with four games to play and level on points with 14th-placed Sunderland and 15th-placed Stoke, Newcastle is *probably* safe. This season has been the definition of "regression to the mean" – vastly overachieving last campaign, vastly underachieving in this campaign. The loss of Demba Ba, still Newcastle's top scorer this season, hasn't helped, but Newcastle are in almost the exact same position in the table as they were on January 1. The difference is those aforementioned injuries; they were incredibly lucky last season, and have been incredibly unlucky this season.

That said, Newcastle remain a dangerous side, one capable of causing Liverpool problems: speedy on the flanks and good crossers of the ball. Only four teams attempt more crosses per game, no team attempts more long balls per game. Cabaye is outstanding on set plays, Cisse can conjure goals from nothing if you give him the space, and Sissoko has proven especially dangerous on rampaging counter-attacks.

Liverpool may wish the season over, may have little and less to play for with Europe very unlikely, aggrieved over its talisman's absence. But Liverpool can't show up thinking those thoughts. We need to see the side finish as strong as possible, if only to gain the confidence that it can start next season in a similar manner.

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