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Last four head-to-head:
6-0 Liverpool (a) 04.27.13
1-1 (h) 11.04.12
0-2 Newcastle (a) 04.01.12
3-1 Liverpool (h) 12.30.11
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-1 Palace (h); 3-1 Sunderland (a); 0-1 United (a)
Newcastle: 2-1 Cardiff (a); 2-3 Everton (a); 2-0 Leeds (h)
Liverpool: Sturridge 5; Suarez 3; Gerrard, Moses 1
Newcastle: Remy 5; Ben Arfa 2; Cabaye, Gouffran 1
Referee: Andre Marriner
Guess at a line-up:
Toure Sakho Agger
Johnson Gerrard Lucas Enrique
Every now and then, international breaks are good for something.
This one's allowed Liverpool to get healthy: Coutinho's still out for another couple of weeks, but Johnson, Allen, and Cissokho are all available. I've made no secret that I think Johnson will improve Liverpool immeasurably at wingback in the 3-4-1-2, far more suited to that position than Henderson or Sterling. Neither did poorly in that role, but it's a role tailor-made for Johnson's talents.
But as one hand giveth, the other takes away. We learned today that Iago Aspas has torn his thigh in training, supposedly out for the next five-six weeks. Aspas has struggled – to phrase it nicely – when used this season, but it's an injury that puts even more pressure on Suarez and Sturridge. As if they needed any more.
And at the same time, Liverpool's players returned unscathed from their international duties, which is no small feat. However, those matches and subsequent travel may have taken a toll. Suarez, Gerrard, Sturridge, Agger, and Skrtel all started both matches their countries played over the break. Lucas came off the bench in Brazil's first friendly, and played 90 minutes in the second, which took place in South Korea and China respectively. Moses plated the full match in Nigeria's lone contest, Kolo Toure didn't get off the bench in Cote d'Ivoire's match against Senegal, Sakho played just one half of France's friendly against Australia, unused in the final qualifier against Finland.
We could see an awful lot of tired legs on Saturday. Benitez used to rotate fairly heavily in situations such as these. Rodgers rotates far less frequently regardless of situation, and seems fairly happy with his preferred formation and personnel. Which is why I expect Rodgers will dance with what brought him here, with only a couple of changes from Liverpool's last XIs.
There are two obvious changes from the side which beat Palace: Johnson's return from injury and Lucas' return from suspension. Henderson and Sterling seem most likely to make way, but I'm tempted to think it'll be Moses left on the bench, with Henderson as the #10 behind the frontmen. He was outstanding in Liverpool's last match against Newcastle, starting on the left flank, and – in theory – could better knit midfield and attack than Moses has, with the Nigerian available as a substitute in case Liverpool need a potential game changer.
This might also be the match that Agger finally takes over for Skrtel. Which is meant as no slight to the Slovakian; Skrtel has done very, very well – better than expected, to make it even more a back-handed compliment – in Agger's absence, but the Dane is vice-captain for a reason. Sakho has the mobility and aerial presence to play in the middle of the three-man defense, while Agger is better with the ball at his feet than any of Liverpool's other defenders. On paper, Toure-Sakho-Agger looks like Liverpool's best trio. But Rodgers may well continue to go with the men in form.
Newcastle will continue with the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation they've used all season long, where they've been as reliant on Remy's goals as Liverpool have been on Sturridge's.
Coloccini will miss out after incurring a muscle strain while away with Argentina, while defenders Steven Taylor and Haidara are questionable. If all three are still unavailable, Williamson will partner Yanga-Mbiwa in defense, but Taylor seems likely to return after missing the last month with a hamstring injury. Jonas Gutierrez is also absent, in Argentina because of what's being called a "personal issue." Which makes Newcastle's probable XI: Krul; Debuchy, Yanga-Mbiwa, Taylor, Santon; Sissoko, Cabaye, Anita; Ben Arfa, Cisse, Remy.
As usual, Newcastle's strength comes from out wide. Remy and Ben Arfa are responsible for 78% of the side's goals, and both Debuchy and Santon are primarily attacking fullbacks. Which is a main reason why I expect Liverpool will persist with three at the back, able to put Toure on Remy and Agger/Sakho on Ben Arfa, provided support by the retreating wing-backs. Both players like the ball at their feet, both frequently cut inside onto their stronger foot to shoot. Lucas and Gerrard will also need to track Cabaye and Sissoko's runs from deep, with both capable of bursting into the box and scoring from long range.
There will be goals to be had tomorrow. Newcastle haven't kept a clean sheet in the league since August. Liverpool have scored in every league match but one and, at the other end of the pitch, have conceded more shots per game than everyone except Fulham, Cardiff, Hull, and Norwich. And then there's this fixture's history: 6-0 at St. James' Park last season, the memorable 4-3s in 1996 and 1997, just to name the first that come to mind. The last time Liverpool-Newcastle finished 0-0 was in February 1974, 57 league meetings ago.
Liverpool need to ensure they're the ones getting those goals, and Suarez and Sturridge seem the men to do it. A more coherent midfield performance from Lucas and Gerrard, a side better able to retain possession, and fewer opposition shots conceded would also be nice.