20 December 2013

Liverpool v Cardiff 12.21.13

7:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 [3-2 on penalties] Liverpool (n; League Cup) 02.26.12
2-1 Liverpool (h; League Cup) 10.31.07
0-4 Cardiff (h) 12.19.59
2-3 Cardiff (a) 08.22.59

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 5-0 Tottenham (a); 4-1 West Ham (h); 5-1 Norwich (h)
Cardiff: 1-0 West Brom (h); 0-2 Palace (a); 0-0 Stoke (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 17; Sturridge 9; Gerrard 3; Sterling 2; Coutinho, Flanagan, Henderson, Moses, Sakho, Skrtel 1
Cardiff: Campbell 3; Caulker, Mutch, Whittingham 2; Kim, Gunnarsson, Odemwingie 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Sakho Flanagan
Henderson Allen
Sterling Suarez Coutinho

I'd be very surprised if Liverpool's XI looked any different than last Sunday's.

It worked to near-perfection, there have been six days since Liverpool's last match, and there will be four more before the Boxing Day trip to City. Gerrard, Sturridge, and Enrique are all still out injured, and will be for a few more weeks.

However, Liverpool will be facing a side completely different from Tottenham. There will be no high back line, no wide open spaces behind a broken offside trap. Caulker and Turner will sit far deeper, camped just outside their penalty box, supported by Medel nipping at Liverpool ankles across the length and breadth of Cardiff's half. Johnson will need to have a much more dynamic game getting forward from fullback, but the biggest test would be of Henderson. He's struggled in an attacking midfield role against deep defenses, and his runs almost certainly won't be as effective as they were on Sunday.

But Liverpool's performance against Tottenham merits another go-around – Rodgers often subscribes to the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' school of management – and will help prove whether it's a formation for the future or a one-off fluke.

Also, I will be incredibly disappointed in Suarez doesn't mark his new contract with at least one goal. Fair warning.

It seems a handy time to play Cardiff at Anfield, with the traveling side amidst self-inflicted turmoil. Malky Mackay is still the manager, for now, supposedly given an ultimatum by the owner to resign or be fired, but has been allowed to take charge of tomorrow's game. So either Cardiff implodes, or the players respond with a magnificent performance to support their embattled manager. Crap. It's probably going to be the latter, isn't it? Super. Maybe it's not a handy time to play Cardiff.

The "Dragons'" (read: Bluebirds') last two matches seem a decent guide as to how Cardiff will play tomorrow. Away to Palace, Cardiff lined up in a more defensive 4-4-1-1, packing the midfield with Medel, Kim, Whittingham, Cowie, and Mutch, with Campbell up front on his own. And Cardiff lost 0-2, conceding an early goal then unable to get back into the game.

In contrast, Mackey chose one of his most-attacking XIs in the next match against West Brom at home, and reaped a 1-0 win as a reward, a result which cost Steve Clarke his job. More a 4-1-3-2 formation, with Noone, Mutch, and Whittingham ahead of Medel, and both Campbell and Odemwingie up front.

Despite the poor result, I suspect Cardiff's XI will look more like the one which lost at Palace. More defensive, more compact, with the hopes of preventing the early goal which ruined the strategy at Palace. Especially since Liverpool thrives when Liverpool scores early. Which would make the XI something like: Marshall; Theophile-Catherine, Caulker, Turner, John; Cowie, Medel, Whittingham, Kim; Mutch; Campbell. Craig Bellamy is Cardiff's only injury doubt, perpetually struggling with the knee problems that have plagued him over the last few seasons, but knowing Craig, he'll probably do all he can to at least make the bench.

Only Crystal Palace have scored fewer goals than Cardiff this season, 11 to Cardiff's 12 (Sunderland have also scored 12). But five of Cardiff's 12 goals – 41.7% – have come from set plays, tied for the highest proportion in the league along with Sunderland. Liverpool have scored the most set play goals this season, but they only account for 28.2% of all goals. Whittingham is excellent on dead ball situations, either taking direct free kicks or crossing into the box. And Liverpool remain vulnerable on set plays, no matter who plays in defense. Five of the 18 that Liverpool have conceded (27.8%) have come from set plays, and that doesn't include goals by Everton and Hull which came after Liverpool failed to clear a free kick.

I'll be honest. Even though Liverpool will be at Anfield, I can't get the Hull performance out of my head. The home side cannot cannot cannot be complacent. Liverpool can't turn up expecting to win, can't already be thinking about Christmas dinner and the next two matches at City and Chelsea. The last time Liverpool underestimated Cardiff was the last time Liverpool faced Cardiff, needing extra-time and penalties to lift Liverpool's first trophy in six seasons.

It should go without saying, but these matches are just as important as the next two. Three points are three points are three points. Hopefully, the side will have learned something from the Hull debacle.

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