22 April 2016

Liverpool v Newcastle 04.23.16

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-2 Newcastle (a) 12.06.15
2-0 Liverpool (h) 04.13.15
0-1 Newcastle (a) 11.01.14
2-1 Liverpool (h) 05.11.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 4-0 Everton (h); 2-1 Bournemouth (a); 4-3 Dortmund (h)
Newcastle: 1-1 City (h); 3-0 Swansea (h); 1-3 Southampton (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Firmino 9; Coutinho 8; Benteke, Sturridge 7; Origi 5; Lallana 3; Henderson, Ings, Lallana 2; Allen, Can, Clyne, Moreno, Sakho, Skrtel, Toure 1
Newcastle: Wijnaldum 9; Mitrovic 8; Ayoze 6; Townsend 3; Cisse, Lascelles 2; Anita, Coloccini, Dummett, Sissoko 1

Referee: Martin Atkinson

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Milner Stewart
Ojo Lallana Coutinho

Even though Liverpool again had a midweek match – albeit one with fewer exertions than recent Europa League fixtures – I doubt we'll see the same highly-rotated side that featured against Stoke and Bournemouth.

Not only are there five days between this and Villarreal, compared to the usual four, but Liverpool's options are increasingly limited in both midfield and attack with Origi joining Henderson and Can on the casualty list and Benteke still a week or two away from returning (if Benteke even returns).

There will be changes, but not as many as we've come to expect.

As usual, the questions start up front. Can we trust consecutive starts for Sturridge, up front against both Newcastle and Villarreal after 40 minutes against Everton? I think we'll have to. Really, the only other option is reverting to Firmino as false nine, which we haven't seen since the 2-2 draw with Sunderland in early February. At the same time, Firmino's the only player to start the last four games. And he's looked it, failing to impress against either Bournemouth or Everton.

So, my guess is it comes down to just a couple of personnel questions in the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation. Will Milner or Allen partner Stewart or Lucas in midfield? I suspect Allen's more useful off the bench, while Milner's in outstanding form, and I remain skeptical of consecutive starts for Lucas, which would almost certainly lead to three starts in eight days at Villarreal. Will it be Ojo or Ibe in the attacking line of three to give Firmino a break? Ibe was much more impressive against Bournemouth, and also looked good in his short cameo against 10-men very-beaten Everton, but Ojo remains bags of potential and bags of fun, and more capable of playing on the right opposite Coutinho on the left. Maybe there's also a defensive change or two, whether Toure or Skrtel at center-back or Flanagan or Smith at full-back, but that seems less likely.

There's also the small matter of welcoming Rafa Benitez back to Anfield tomorrow, for the second time as an opposition manager. I will remain biased until the end of my days, and still can't help wishing Benitez well, still can't help getting angry at every media and opposition supporter dig. His previous return to Anfield with Chelsea in 2012-13 was, uhhhhh, interesting, with Liverpool twice equalizing after Chelsea goals, the second in injury-time from Luis Suarez after he'd already bitten Branislav Ivanovic.

And there's also the small matter of Newcastle actually playing a bit of decent football in their last two matches – a 3-0 win over Swansea and 1-1 draw against Manchester City – giving them a glimmer of hope in their attempt to avoid relegation. But they need more points, quickly. two points and -1 goal difference from 17th-place Norwich with just four games to play.

They're not yet a Rafa Benitez side, but they've had a few more moments of looking almost like a Rafa Benitez side if you squint hard enough. At least against Manchester City, where an organized side held City at bay for long stretches, equalizing soon after Agüero's very-offside early opener, with a disjointed second half ending as Newcastle the stronger, more-likely-to-win side. Newcastle had lost the last 12 (twelve!) league matches against Manchester City before Tuesday's draw. They'll play compact, deny the opposition space, battle for loose balls, work hard, ugly up the game, and counter-attack every so often. Which is, ideally for them, basically a better organized, more Rafa Benitez version of what we saw when these two sides met in December.

Because there's also the small matter of Newcastle embarrassing Liverpool in the reverse fixture, where absolutely nothing went right – one of those abysmal shooting performances, an own goal from Skrtel, a perfectly good goal from Moreno chalked off, a too-easy counter-attack Newcastle second in added time – which remains one of Liverpool's most disappointing performances and results under Klopp.

However, Newcastle still haven't taken any points away from home – not even a draw – since beating Tottenham (Tottenham!) on December 13. Since then, ten consecutive losses, at West Brom, Arsenal, Watford (FA Cup), Watford, Everton, Chelsea, Stoke, Leicester, Norwich, and Southampton. They've failed to score in six of the ten.

If Newcastle stick with the same XI we've seen in the last two matches, it'll be: Darlow; Anita, Mbemba, Lascelles, Dummett; Tiote, Colback; Townsend, Sissoko, Ayoze; Cisse. The only difference between the Swansea win and City draw was Ayoze Perez for Wijnaldum.

I wouldn't been surprised to see Wijnaldum return, but otherwise, Newcastle have few options. Shelvey's all but been excommunicated, Saivet's infrequently featured since joining from Bordeaux, and Mitrovic's been used as a substitute more often than as a starter. They still have massive injury problems in goal and defense, with the top two keepers (Krul and Elliott) out injured, as well as Coloccini, Steven Taylor, Haidara, and Janmaat.

I'm pleased to see Rafa back in the Premier League, and hope he wins every fixture but this one, even if that means Newcastle stay up. But this ain't a testimonial. It'll be a tough match against a side that desperately needs points to avoid relegation versus a side in surprisingly good form, especially at home, and wants to keep it that way. Liverpool need to keep winning, need to keep playing to the level they've hit over the last three weeks, even if there are again multiple changes to the XI. And, not for the first time, Liverpool owe Newcastle.

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