24 April 2015

Liverpool at West Brom 04.25.15

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h) 10.04.14
1-1 (a) 02.02.14
4-1 Liverpool (h) 10.26.13
0-2 West Brom (h) 02.11.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-2 Villa (n); 2-0 Newcastle (h); 1-0 Blackburn (a)
West Brom: 2-0 Palace (a); 2-3 Leicester (h); 1-4 QPR (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Sterling 7; Gerrard, Henderson 6; Coutinho, Lallana, Sturridge 4; Lambert, Markovic, Moreno 2; Allen, Balotelli, Borini, Can, Johnson, Skrtel 1
West Brom: Berahino 12; Ideye 4; Gardner 3; Anichebe, Dawson, Morrison 2; Brunt, Dorrans, Fletcher, Lescott, Sessesgnon, Varela 1

Referee: Lee Mason

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

Right, there's still football to be played. I'd almost forgotten.

It sure felt as if the season ended with last week's loss to Aston Villa. Liverpool's disappointing season was to be redeemed by a FA Cup final, as Liverpool's push for a Champions League place is held together by string, duct tape, hopes, and dreams, seven points behind fourth, albeit with a game in hand. But it wasn't to be. Close, but not close enough. Which has been this season's mantra, modus operandi, and bane.

With Lallana fit and Ibe available – although Sturridge, Sakho, and Lucas are still injured – I suspect Liverpool will revert to the 3-4-3. And maybe this time they'll use the formation throughout the match; with the aforementioned three players absent, it seems the best option by far. Skrtel and Lovren in a center-back pairing is an accident – nay, an atrocity – waiting to happen. Gerrard can't play in midfield, especially not as the deepest midfielder in a diamond or 4-3-3, and probably shouldn't start at all.

Because fourth isn't completely out of the question, we won't see wholesale changes, we won't see a plethora of under-21s. But there seems little point in starting those who won't have a role to play next season: Gerrard, Johnson, Toure, Lambert, and probably a couple of others (*sadly looks in Balotelli's direction*).

So the only questions should be who plays if Lallana's only fit enough for the bench – probably Markovic or Ibe, with the other at wing-back, but maybe Gerrard because Rodgers seemingly can't help himself – and whether Coutinho or Sterling play as the "striker." We haven't seen Coutinho as a false nine since his lone appearance in that position against Newcastle, but it was a tantalizing enough taste to want more. I doubt it works as well if Lallana's on the right: he's far less likely to run beyond defenders, a player who (like Coutinho) drops in and looks to knit play, but if it's Markovic or Ibe starting in that position, I'd really like to see Coutinho given a second chance.

West Brom aren't completely out of danger, although last week's win at Crystal Palace looks likely to have put them out of reach of relegation. 13th place, six points ahead of 18th and with a better goal difference (even though both Leicester and Hull have a game in hand), is probably enough. And that win over Palace was fairly impressive, mostly untroubled after scoring early, for just Palace's third league loss at home in 2015.

West Brom's survival looked a lot more tenuous prior to that win, prefaced by home losses to both QPR and Leicester, two sides still favored to go down. QPR scored four, Leicester three, and it's not like a Tony Pulis side to concede seven goals in two games at home to teams below them in the table. Prior to those two losses, West Brom had won four straight at home, against Swansea, West Ham, Southampton, and Stoke, keeping a clean sheet in all four. That's more like a Tony Pulis side. That's more like what I expect from Tony Pulis' side tomorrow.

Pulis' side have played 4-4-2 in the last three matches, and I expect similar tomorrow. Myhill; Baird, McAuley, Lescott, Brunt; Morrison, Fletcher, Yacob, Gardner; Berahino, Anichebe. With Dawson (and first-choice keeper Ben Foster) injured and Wisdom ineligible, Baird will have to play at right-back. Sessegnon or Callum McManaman could come in on the flanks, or attacking midfield if Pulis switches to 4-2-3-1. Brown Ideye could start up front rather than Anichebe. Regardless, it'll be a very Tony Pulis side, and Liverpool haven't had the best results against Tony Pulis sides. In fact, Liverpool have never beaten a Tony Pulis side in the league away from Anfield (three draws, three losses).

Liverpool arguably played its worse match of the campaign – if you discount the attacking failure against Chelsea or the collapse at Palace – on this ground last season. A completely insipid 1-1 draw: a brilliant opening goal from Sturridge followed by absolutely nothing good, culminating in a mind-boggling error from Toure for Anichebe's equalizer. The fewest shots on-target in a match where both Sturridge and Suarez played, Liverpool's second-worst final third passing accuracy since Rodgers became manager. Not only did West Brom soak up almost everything Liverpool did in attack, West Brom competed on an equal footing in both passing and possession.

This is, admittedly, a fairly different West Brom side, featuring at most five who started in last season's draw as well as a different manager. But it's also a very different Liverpool: out of form, low on confidence, and completely lacking in goals. If West Brom play as they did last week – disciplined and tight in defense, capable of punishing mistakes in attack – Liverpool probably will not win. Especially if Liverpool play as they did last week.

Expect West Brom to follow Aston Villa's template. Intermittent pressing, Anichebe and Berahino attempting to disrupt Liverpool as Benteke did, getting control in midfield and getting midfield runners in behind. It'll be up to Liverpool to prove that they've learned from their mistakes, to match the opposition's tempo, to take the game to their opponents rather than reacting, and to maybe, hopefully put the ball in the net a couple of times.

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