21 February 2015

Liverpool at Southampton 02.21.15

11:15am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 08.17.14
3-0 Liverpool (a) 03.01.14
0-1 Southampton (h) 09.21.13
1-3 Southampton (a) 03.16.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Besiktas (h); 2-1 Palace (a); 3-2 Tottenham (h)
Southampton: 0-0 West Ham (h); 1-0 QPR (a); 0-1 Swansea (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 6; Sterling 5; Lallana, Own Goal 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Markovic, Moreno, Sturridge 2; Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
Southampton: Pelle 8; Mane 5; Schneiderlin, Tadic, Wanyama 3; Bertrand, Clyne, Cork, Elia, Long 2; Alderweireld, Yoshida 1

Referee: Kevin Friend

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Sakho
Ibe Henderson Allen Moreno
Lallana Sterling

All of a sudden, Liverpool have some options.

Not in midfield, of course, with Gerrard and Lucas still absent, but this is the first time in a long time that all of Liverpool's attackers have been available. Liverpool will have to pick three from Sturridge, Balotelli, Coutinho, Sterling, Lallana, and Markovic. while either Markovic or Ibe could start at right wing-back.

Both Coutinho and Lallana underwhelmed on Thursday. Combined, they created just one chance – Coutinho's corner for Henderson in the 43rd minute – and both ended up subbed off, for Balotelli and Sterling respectively. Coutinho's looked off the pace for a few matches now, and my layman's view is that he's showing the fatigue from starting all 18 games in the last 67 days.

You'd expect that Sterling, fit again and after a substitute appearance against Besiktas, would come back into the XI. I'd be amazed if Liverpool went with the lineup that ended Thursday's match, if both Balotelli and Sturridge started, with Liverpool again keeping Balotelli in reserve if needed off the bench.

So the suspicion is that it's Lallana or Coutinho, with Sturridge up front, Sterling as the other attacking midfielder, Ibe again at wing-back, having proven his worth against Everton, Tottenham, and Besiktas, with both Balotelli and Markovic available as substitutes if needed.

There's also the small matter of Lallana's return to St Mary's, but Rodgers has rarely been one for sentiment (at least when Gerrard isn't involved). Guessing Lallana in the above XI has much more to do with Coutinho's apparent fatigue than sentiment. But if sentiment reigns supreme, there could be a place for both Lallana and Lovren, with Can replacing Allen in midfield – something we've often seen after substitutions, but never from the start.

It's nice to have options.

Southampton's injury issues are easing as well. Alderweireld will be out for another week or two, Jay Rodriguez and Mayuka remain long-term absentees, but Schneiderlin and Shane Long should both be available tomorrow. And if both are available, you'd expect both to feature.

Long will probably be used off the bench, although with Pelle struggling for goals, he's definitely an option. But otherwise, I'd expect the same XI which drew 0-0 against West Ham but with Schneiderlin involved. Forster; Clyne, Fonte, Gardos, Yoshida; Wanyama, Schneiderlin; Mane, Davis, Elia; Pelle. Tadic could also replace Davis in the #10 role, but I suspect Southampton will play it safer at the start before bringing on Tadic as a substitute; Ward-Prowse seems more of an option than Tadic, at least at the start.

Southampton's main weakness is at left-back. Ryan Bertrand is suspended for one more match after his red card against Swansea three weeks ago. Yoshida started there against West Ham, 19-year-old Matt Targett played at QPR before going off with concussion. Targett may be available tomorrow, and unlike Yoshida, left-back is at least his preferred position, but it'd still be just his fifth league appearance (two previous starts). Whether it's Ibe or Markovic at right wing-back, they'll simply have to put the stand-in left back under pressure early and often.

It's somewhat a resistible object versus an immovable force at both ends of the pitch. I've written and you've read more than enough about Liverpool's struggles in front of goal, but it's at least been coupled with vast improvement in defense.

Southampton are in a similar situation. They've scored just once in their last three matches: a solitary strike at QPR, bracketed by scoreless matches at home against Swansea and West Ham. They've averaged just a goal per game over the last seven matches. But those seven matches include a 1-1 draw against Chelsea on December 28, a 2-0 win over Arsenal on New Years' Day, and a 1-0 win at United on January 11. They've only averaged a goal per game since December 28, but they've conceded just three league goals during that stretch. Three. In total. They remain, without a doubt, the best defense in the division.

There will be 12 matches after this one, but few if any will be more important to the Top 4 race. Southampton currently occupy fourth – although that could and probably will change after Arsenal face Palace in a few minutes – four points ahead of Liverpool. That gap could be just one, which would be fantastic, even if both United and Arsenal would remain favorites for the spots. But a four or seven point gap – with United, Arsenal, and Tottenham still ahead of Liverpool – would be incredibly difficult to overcome.

It certainly doesn't help that Liverpool have played two matches – with little rotation – since Southampton last played one. But it does help that Liverpool won both of those matches – a late victory and a comeback victory – with Liverpool winning five of its last six, unbeaten in 90 minutes since December 14.

These are the matches which define a season. And the matches which we watch football for.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

No doubt, this is a hugely important match in our chase to finish in the top 4. A win puts us on 45 points and immediately within striking distance, 1 point behind Saints, 2 points behind United, 3 points behind Arsenal, with Spurs on 43 points before their West Ham home match.

Southampton have by far the best defense in the league conceding only 17 goals in their 25 matches. The last 6 league games they have conceded just 3 times. The one goal they conceded at home against Swansea on Feb 1, neither Wanyama nor Schneiderlin were in the team.

Combine the factors of us struggling somewhat in front of goal, Sturridge looking a bit off form and fitness as he works his way back, having played a Europa league game 3 days ago and both Wanyama and Schneiderlin back with Saints having the best defense in the league and it seems pretty obvious our biggest challenge tomorrow will be to score.

Step up Mario Balotelli. Expect him to be a big influence in the game, probably in the 2nd half, despite Rodgers recent inane comments about Mario having stopped working after the 85th minute penalty and stood on the side of the football field. I actually replayed the final 8 minutes of the Besiktas match and Mario works his ass off all over the pitch. Defensively and offensively. It's never a good idea to channel the junior psychologist and challenge a player by making critical statements that are patently untrue. Mario will rise above it as he has done his entire career. Of course it will be more important what BR has said and done in practice over the last few days than one silly comment in a presser.

Will be interesting to see how Lallana plays in his first return to St. Mary's and the reaction he receives from the fans. Hope and expect him to have a big game.

Lovren may get a game in order to move Can to midfield to battle Wanyama. Chance of a start but I'm guessing that DL will maybe be saved for a 2nd half sub for Allen.

3 points. Need all of them tomorrow.