13 December 2014

Liverpool at Manchester United 12.14.14

8:30am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.16.14
1-0 United (a; League Cup) 09.25.13
1-0 Liverpool (h) 09.01.13
1-2 United (a) 01.13.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Basel (h); 0-0 Sunderland (h); 3-1 Leicester (a)
United: 2-1 Southampton (a); 2-1 Stoke (h); 3-0 Hull (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard, Own Goal, Sterling 3; Henderson, Lallana 2; Can, Coutinho, Johnson, Lambert, Moreno, Sturridge 1
United: van Persie 6; Rooney 5; Mata 4; di Maria 3; Fellaini, Herrera 2; Blind, Falcao, Smalling 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Toure Moreno
Henderson Gerrard
Lallana Balotelli Sterling

Did Liverpool learn anything from its disappointing Champions League exit?

My main takeaway was that pace and playing on the front foot remain more important than "experience" or "keeping it tight." Admittedly, Liverpool still lack firepower up front, but "keeping it tight" has rarely worked, and when it's worked, it's been at home against the likes of Stoke and Sunderland, neither side overflowing with attacking talent.

Even though we've had our differences this season, if he's anywhere near full fitness, I'd like to see Balotelli start.

The only time Balotelli has scored against United was when tallying a double in City's 6-1 win at United in 2011, but if there's any match Mario will be up for, it's a match at Manchester United. Which means he could score a hat-trick, the final goal coming through nothing but telekinesis, or get sent off within 90 seconds. Neither would surprise me, but I'm down for the ride. Also, I'm fairly sure Lambert's still wheeling around an oxygen tank after the last six matches, while no one's yet found Fabio Borini's almost certainly decaying remains.

Sterling will obviously be one of the two wide players flanking the striker, but, as usual, the other spot's up for grabs. I'm tempted to suggest Markovic after his short cameo against Basel, another who fits the "get at them with pace, take no prisoners" mantra, but it still seems more likely that he'd be used as a substitute. I do not want to see Henderson pushed out wide again. Which leaves Coutinho or Lallana, the former out of form and much better as a midfielder, the latter still recuperating from broken ribs suffered at Leicester. Maybe starting Markovic isn't such a bad idea.

As for the midfield. Gerrard will start, ideally as part of a more-advanced two rather than in the hole as a #10, partnered with Henderson, Coutinho, or Allen, with Lucas as the deeper lying midfielder.

I'd be tempted to suggest Toure and Lovren or Sakho and Lovren rather than Skrtel with one of the other three center backs, but that's extremely unlikely. Toure's fit again, so Toure will probably return, but Sakho's also fully fit and deserves a chance (if only by process of elimination), while – whisper it quietly – Lovren was actually Liverpool's best defender against Basel. The fullbacks are still a guessing game, but I think Tuesday rather concretely proved that Jose Enrique is not an option, and I doubt Rodgers will start both Manquillo and Moreno against United.

Manchester United are currently on a five-match winning streak, the longest in the division, beating Palace (h), Arsenal (a), Hull (h), Stoke (h), and Southampton (a). Sure, the home matches weren't against entirely impressive opposition, but Liverpool failed to beat two of those three, and Arsenal and Southampton are two very difficult away fixtures. Also worth noting: four of those five wins, aside from the 3-0 victory over Hull, were by a solitary goal. United haven't really overpowered anyone except Hull, but they're re-learning how to win those closely fought contests. Something that Liverpool could certainly stand to do.

Last week's win at Southampton was that to the extreme. United had 45% possession, took all of three shots to Southampton's 15 (all three by van Persie), and Southampton were in control for long stretches. But van Persie put two of those three shots on target and United won 2-1. Both goals were gifts: a terrible back pass for the first, Forster completely misplaying Rooney's free kick for the second. But Liverpool have been excellent at providing the opposition with unearned and unwarranted gifts this season.

United still have a lot of absentees to cope with: Smalling, Shaw, di Maria, and Blind are definitely out; Jones and Rafael are questionable, both close to fitness after a couple of months out.

Van Gaal continues to switch between three- and four-man back lines. 4-3-1-2 has been the more frequent formation during the last two months, but United shifted to 3-1-4-2 in difficult matches at both Arsenal and Southampton. I have no idea whether United's absences in defense make three-at-the-back more or less likely. If it's three at the back, it'll be De Gea; McNair/Jones, Evans, Rojo; Rafael/Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick, Young; Mata; Rooney, van Persie. If it's four at the back, De Gea; Rafael/Valencia, Evans, Rojo/Jones/McNair, Young/Rojo; Fellaini, Carrick, Herrara; Mata; Rooney, van Persie. My suspicion is the latter.

It's a good thing that form means next to nothing in this fixture given the two sides' respective form. This could be exactly the match that Liverpool need: a good performance and/or good result against your rivals on their ground could kickstart the second half of the season, especially with Balotelli and Sakho returning to fitness and Sturridge only a couple of weeks away (*crosses fingers*).

Liverpool have an opportunity to change the narrative tomorrow. And Liverpool have not taken any of those previous opportunities since the end of August.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

That top photo is too funny. Everbody has a handfull of "Super" Mario's Jersey, even Mancini, and he's just standing there and smiling.

Completely freezing "Fabulous Fab" Borini out of the match day squad makes perfect sense. He needs less encouragement than Jim Carey to think he's got a chance.

We have to take it to them. Like the end of the Basel game. And if Fellaini starts throwing any elbows, Stevie needs to lay him out like he did last year. He already needs some payback for Joe Allen in that Wales/Belgium match.