03 February 2017

Liverpool at Hull City 02.04.17

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
5-1 Liverpool (h) 09.24.16
0-1 Hull (a) 04.28.15
0-0 (h) 10.25.14
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.01.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-1 Chelsea (h); 1-2 Wolves (h); 0-1 Southampton (h)
Hull: 0-0 United (a); 1-4 Fulham (a); 2-1 United (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Mané 9; Firmino 8; Lallana 7; Milner 6; Coutinho 5; Origi 4; Can, Wijnaldum 3; Lovren, Sturridge 2; Henderson, Matip 1
Hull: Snodgrass 7; Dawson, Hernandez 3; Diomande 2; Livermore, Maloney, Mason, Meyler 1

Referee: Lee Mason

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Matip Lovren Milner
Lallana Henderson Can
Mané Firmino Coutinho

Is... is Liverpool actually able to play its best XI?

Liverpool have no new injuries, for a change. Mané's been back for a few days, and should be ready to start. Clyne's apparently over his rib injury. This will be Coutinho's fifth start since returning from a six-week absence – yet to play a full 90 minutes but getting closer.

This will be a full-strength Liverpool. And it's been far too long since we could say that.

My only question is whether "full-strength" means Can or Wijnaldum joining Lallana and Henderson in midfield.

If it's Wijnaldum, we've seen the above ten outfield players twice: 1-1 at Spurs in August and 2-1 at Swansea in October. If it's Can, we've seen them three times: 2-1 v West Brom in October, 0-0 at Southampton in November, and 2-0 v Sunderland in November until Coutinho went off injured in the first half.

Five games. Out of 32 in all competitions. Unbeaten in all five, but not entirely impressive in all five either. Whether it's Can or Wijnaldum, Liverpool haven't been able to play these ten outfield players anywhere near as much as we'd like. My guess for tomorrow is Can, for height on set plays at both ends and his dynamism and because he was actually Good Emre Can against Chelsea and because the Wijnaldum's Only Good At Home theory is basically an axiom at this point.

And whether it's Can or Wijnaldum, the most crucial factor is having Liverpool's front four all together from the start for the first time since Coutinho's injury against Sunderland, the match where Liverpool's attacking form began to nosedive back to earth. Mané, Firmino, Coutinho, and Lallana. When they play well, Liverpool do well. When they don't, or one or more isn't available, Liverpool don't usually do well.

And then there's Hull. Pay absolutely no attention to the 5-1 result back in September.

19th place also seems a bit misleading. Hull have been better lately, especially since Marco Silva was appointed manager a month ago. It hasn't helped that sides around them are also picking up points at a better pace, most notably Swansea with their new manager. Remember Swansea? Two weeks ago? At least this it's-kind-of-a-run has seem Hull off the foot of the table, getting closer to the six sides 15th and lower within five points of each other. And we know Liverpool don't have the best record against teams in the relegation zone (*waves at Swansea and Sunderland).

Hull have especially improved at home, where they're unbeaten in the last four: 2-2 Everton, 2-0 Swansea (FA Cup), 3-1 Bournemouth, 2-1 United (League Cup). They've yet to win away under their new manager – which obviously doesn't count for much tomorrow – but also just turned in their best away performance in holding United to a 0-0 draw, with Jakupovic the hero in goal and nearly stealing all three points when Lazar Markovic hit the woodwork in the 86th minute.

It's not easy to guess Hull's XI given all the changes over the last two weeks. A still-newish manager. Having sold nearly half their league goals in Snodgrass and Livermore. Adding seven new players in the January window: Markovic, ex-Evertonian Niasse, Evandro, and Elabdellaoui (right-back) earlier this month; and Kamil Grosicki (winger), Alfred N'Diaye (central midfield), and Ranocchia (center-back) on deadline day. The last three of those players are yet to start for the club, although Ranocchia came on as a substitute against United.

But Hull are also missing a lot of players. Mason, Davies, Henriksen, Odubajo, and Keane are injured, while Elmohamady's still at the African Cup of Nations.

My best guess at an XI is basically that which held United on Wednesday, but with Grosicki or Diomande replacing the ineligible Markovic. Jakupovic; Meyler, Maguire, Dawson, Robertson; Grosicki, Evandro, Huddlestone, Clucas, Tymon; Niasse. But Elabdellaoui could start at right-back, shifting Meyler back into midfield, most likely in place of Evandro, or N'Diaye could be the new midfielder. Mbokani, back from the African Cup of Nations, and Hernandez, more often a substitute lately, are other options up front.

Or, now that Ranocchia's joined, Hull could return to the three-at-the-back system we often saw under Mike Phelan, also used against both Bournemouth and Chelsea before Curtis Davies' injury. Something like Jakupovic; Maguire, Dawson, Ranocchia; Elabdellaoui, Evandro, Huddlestone, Clucas, Robertson; Diomande, Niasse. At least Liverpool had some practice playing against a deep three-at-the-back system on Tuesday.

And Liverpool will need all the help they can get. Again, forget the 5-1 win earlier this season. That was a much different, in-form Liverpool, and a much different Hull. Neither side's looked like that version for a month or two now.

And, while these were also very different sides, I can't help but mention that Liverpool haven't won at Hull in the last three trips. Not in 2014-15, when Hull were relegated and Liverpool often weren't good, an 0-1 loss in April when Liverpool had little to play for. Not in 2013-14, when Liverpool came so close to winning the league, a 1-3 loss arguably the season's most embarrassing result. And not in 2009-10, 0-0 on the last day of Rafa Benitez's troublesome last season.

This is where the campaign supposedly eases. The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad January's over. Liverpool have all of three matches this month. Liverpool have almost everyone back and available and ready to go.

Liverpool need to be Liverpool again. Liverpool need to be the side that demolished tomorrow's opponents' 5-1.

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