24 December 2015

Liverpool v Leicester 12.26.15

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

Last four head-to-head:
2-2 (h) 01.01.15
3-1 Liverpool (a) 12.02.14
0-0 (a) 03.28.04
2-1 Liverpool (h) 09.20.03

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-3 Watford (a); 2-2 West Brom (h), 0-0 Sion (a)
Leicester: 3-2 Everton (a); 2-1 Chelsea (h); 3-0 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Coutinho 5; Benteke 4; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Firmino, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
Leicester: Vardy 15; Mahrez 13; Okazaki 3; Albrighton, de Laet Dyer, Kante, Schlupp, Ulloa 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Henderson Lucas Can
Lallana Coutinho

Ugh, Liverpool.

Injuries remain a massive issue: Skrtel joins Milner, Rossiter, Sturridge, Flanagan, Ings, and Gomez on the sidelines, although Mignolet and Lovren should return to the side.

Liverpool still don't know what its best XI or best formation is. We're probably further away from figuring that out than we were a month ago.

Liverpool still struggle to create chances and still struggle to score, and Klopp's once-revived defense has devolved back to familiar individual errors and set play calamities.

Liverpool are winless in the last four matches. Liverpool are coming off a humiliating 0-3 loss at promoted Watford. Liverpool have won just one (1) of the four league matches at Anfield since Klopp became manager, against a woeful team that just fired its manager, and needed a fortuitous penalty to do so.

So it's a great time to play host to the league leaders.

Your guess at Liverpool's XI is probably as good as mine. Depending on Mignolet and Lovren's fitness, the defense is easy to predict. Clyne, Sakho, and Moreno have to start, and if Mignolet and Lovren aren't available, it'll be Bogdan and Toure. Maybe Can or Lucas is again used at center-back, but I very much doubt it.

The front six is much harder to gauge.

You'd think Lucas would be crucial, attacking extra protection in front of a vulnerable back line, needed to double up on one of Leicester's dangerous strikers, but that extra protection didn't help against Watford's two strikers, Lucas embarrassed by Troy Deeney before moving to center-back.

Henderson, Can, Coutinho, and probably Lallana will start, but in what arrangement? Henderson and Can at the base of a 4-2-3-1 or bracketing Lucas? Coutinho and Lallana ostensibly wide players behind Benteke or Origi in a 4-3-2-1 or in a line of three with Jordon Ibe? Coutinho deeper in midfield as part of a 4-3-3 with Lallana and Ibe flanking a lone striker? A 4-Diamond-2 formation with Lucas; Henderson, Can; Coutinho or Lallana behind Origi and Benteke?

I honestly do not know.

And then there's still the question of what to do with Benteke. He hasn't impressed, hasn't truly adapted, and leads Liverpool to often attempt too many crosses, which is something Liverpool simply do not thrive upon. But Liverpool somehow looked even worse up front without the Belgian last week. However, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth are exactly the type of center-backs who are happy to play against Benteke, eagerly awaiting 90 minutes of jostling, wrestling, elbows, and aerial duels, happy to get muddy as long as you get muddier.

Maybe that means Liverpool will go with Origi, incredibly raw and probably not ready, but more of a total package when he's able to put it all together. Maybe that means Origi and Benteke, a 4-4-2 diamond at the start as against Southampton in the League Cup. It almost certainly doesn't mean Firmino, who was absolutely dire at Watford.

I honestly do not know, so the above guess is basically the most familiar XI given form and fitness. Not that the most familiar XI is a reassuring thing.

All I do know is that Liverpool can't be the Liverpool we've seen in the last four matches. There have been different formations and different personnel in the matches against Newcastle, Sion, West Brom, and Watford, but the pattern of play, especially up front, has been all too similar. And as against those four sides (especially Watford) Liverpool won't have much opportunity to press the opposition into turnovers in their half, because Leicester won't keep the ball in their half for any length of time.

Leicester have more than a bit of 2013-14 Liverpool about them. The surprising league leaders at Christmas. Led by firepower, merciless on the counter-attack, the work ethic of the strikers trickling down through the entire side. "You score first? Fine, we'll score two. We'll just score more than you." It's a style that leads to a lot of supporters and a lot of plaudits and a lot of fun. Unless you're facing it.

At the same time, most things that Watford do well, Leicester do better. A 4-4-2 formation: diligent, hard-working defensive and midfield lines to recover possession, quickly getting the ball up the flanks and to the strikers, disrupting the opposition and then attacking at pace. Leicester aren't as defensively secure as Watford – they've kept just three clean sheets this season – but they're also infinitely more dangerous going forward: faster, better dribblers, better crossers, more potent finishers.

Leicester haven't lost a league match since September 26, a 2-5 defeat to Arsenal, their lone loss of the campaign. Three months ago. 11 matches ago. Since then, eight wins and two draws. I doubt I need remind that over the same stretch, Liverpool have won three, drawn four, and lost three, and fired a manager.

After 17 matches, Leicester are 14 points ahead of Liverpool. Leicester, the division's top scorers, have scored 17 more league goals than Liverpool. Combined, Vardy and Mahrez have scored 28 of those goals. Liverpool have scored 20 in total. Mahrez against Moreno, exploiting acres of space in behind, with Sakho sprinting over to try to cover? Terrifying. Vardy against Lovren, in any situation? Terrifying.

Like Watford, Leicester's XI is usually easy to predict, their form helped by a mostly injury-free season. Danny Drinkwater and Jeff Schlupp are out with hamstring problems, while Vardy limped out of last week's match at Everton in the final few minutes, but Ranieri said it's not serious.

I'd be very surprised if the XI weren't Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez, King, Kante, Albrighton; Okazaki, Vardy.

As long as Vardy's available, there are only two questions about Leicester's XI. In Drinkwater's absence, Ranieri could prefer the more defensive Gohkan Inler to the more versatile King. Neither have Drinkwater's quick passing, metronomic qualities, but King is closer to that style. Ulloa could start instead of Okazaki: a more aerial presence to unsettle Liverpool's defenders, leading to an even more direct style from Leicester. But Ozakazi is better at hassling the opposition midfield and defense, and Ozazaki's link-up play is better. You know, just like Troy Deeney did.

So, there's no hope for Liverpool, we all might as well just pack up and go home. Well, not quite. Make no mistake, this will be a very tough fixture, and would be even if Liverpool were firing at full capacity. Leicester's qualities are qualities which unsettle Liverpool at the best of times, and this certainly isn't the best of times.

But Liverpool have been better against better opposition – although, admittedly, most of those matches have taken place away from home – upping their game against Tottenham, Chelsea, City, and Southampton (in both the league and league cup, despite the result in the former). Liverpool's last match at Anfield erupted in celebration at the final whistle, despite the result, a cauldron of noise as the players somehow fought back to 2-2 in the dying seconds, a necessary step in rebuilding Fortress Anfield. This is another step, and could be a much-needed step.

Anyone can beat anyone in this season's Premier League. Why not little Liverpool against the mighty Leicester?

Unbeaten at home on Boxing Day since 1986 (6W-3D), Anfield will certainly be up for Saturday's match. Can Liverpool be?

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