By Padraig O’Callaghan – @AGameOfTwoHalfz
Liverpool welcome ex-manager Rafael Benitez and his Newcastle side to Anfield on Boxing Day for the first of three games which could define the Reds’ league campaign.
The Reds sit top of the table after a remarkable turn of events last Saturday. Crystal Palace being unlikely victors at Manchester City gave Jurgen Klopp breathing space. Liverpool look unstoppable at the moment, winning every league game in December, quite a feat when we play on average every three days.
Newcastle have started recording victories recently and currently sit in 15th, five points clear of 17th placed Southampton. A recent 0-0 draw with Fulham dragged them back into the relegation battle. Salomon Rondon has been their start player this season scoring the winning goal in two of their last three victories.
Seven league wins on the bounce have placed Liverpool top of the Premier League, four points clear of second place. Rotation along with being solid at the back have not only seen Liverpool pass Manchester City but cut the goal difference between the clubs from 14 down to five.
Virgil van Dijk has been an absolute colossus at the back and is now getting is well earned praise for being the best centre back in the world. He and Alisson Becker have helped the Reds keep five clean sheets in their past seven games.
Liverpool struggled for goals at the start of the season, but now goals are coming from all corners of the pitch. Mo Salah looks like the player he was last season. Both Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino are becoming more consistent in their performances. Substitutions are having game-changing impacts off the bench and have won Liverpool seven points this season.
Newcastle’s recent form have seen them climb from the relegation zone to five points clear of it. Three of their wins this season have come in their last seven games. Impressive wins against Bournemouth and Watford kicked off their run of good form.
Wins against Huddersfield and Burnley followed, though a draw against Everton was sandwiched between defeats against West Ham and Wolves.
Rondon has been a key figure in their recent form but midfielder Ki Sung-yueng and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka’s performances have gone under the radar with both players especially the latter playing a large part in Newcastle’s good recent form.
Teams avoiding relegation will probably only need around 32 points to stay up, giving the lack of quality of the teams fighting relegation, Newcastle have just over half that, so they should see the season out comfortably barring any lengthy injuries.
After using many starting players over the past couple of weeks continuously, the starting XI against Newcastle could see many fringe players included. Changes at the back and the front line should be expected in preparation for the next two games, Arsenal and Man City.
With only two fit centre backs at the club both Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk should remain at the back. Trent Alexander-Arnold should return after a slight injury with Alberto Moreno replacing Andy Robertson in the opposite flank.
The midfield should remain robust considering out depth in that position. Georginio Wijnaldum should return and partner Fabinho. Adam Lallana had a bright cameo against Wolves and could find himself in the “10” role.
Xherdan Shaqiri is predicted to replace one of the front three, Salah being the most likely. That leaves two places up for grabs. Daniel Sturridge has an excellent scoring record against Newcastle, scoring seven in nine. Sadio Mané should keep his place and in an ideal world will be replaced after 60 minutes.
Rafa Benítez as always will look to sit deep away to a top six side. His record against said top six away from home isn’t great but can be deemed successful thanks to their goal difference. Newcastle are described as a Championship team performing miracles in the Premier League.
Yes, some players wouldn’t even make it into teams fighting for promotion, but they have excellent players in their team.
Slovakian International Martin Dubravka is an excellent goal keeper and has saved Newcastle many times in his short career with the Toon. Fabian Schar and Jamaal Lascelles are one of the better centre back parings outside the top six.
Salomon Rondon and Perez can be deadly when they are up to it. The only problem with these players is consistency, they don’t show up as much as their manager would want them to.
All 5 of the previously mentioned players should start at Anfield. Schar and Lascelles should be joined in defence by Paul Dummett and Deandre Yedlin. It is likely Rafa Benítez will utilise a 4-4-1-1 formation to limit the space for Liverpool players to thrive.
Matt Richie and Jacob Murphy will likely move back into defence to form a back six when out of possession. Mohamed Diame and Ki Sung-yueng will look to do the dirty work in midfield and disrupt play.
Danger man: Salomon Rondon
Salomon Rondon has been Newcastle’s saviour this season, without him they would be stuck rock bottom of the league and probably already preparing for life in the Championship. The Venezuelan striker was previously linked to Liverpool when he was playing for Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia.
He impressed for West Brom last season notching up seven goals in 36 games. Rafa Benitez was so impressed he swapped Dwight Gale who scored over 20 league goals in the Championship winning season two years ago.
The No.9 has repaid his managers faith, helping them single-handedly on numerous times this season. The 6′ 1″ striker is a real threat in the air whilst also possessing the ability to bring other players into the game thanks to his excellent hold up play.
Virgil has been largely comfortable with dealing with all types of attackers this season and Wednesday should be no different. One lapse of judgement or concentration could see the striker punish us as he is a very accomplished finisher.
Last five results
Premier League 03/03/2018 Liverpool 2-0 Newcastle
Premier League 01/10/2017 Newcastle 1-1 Liverpool
Premier League 23/04/2016 Liverpool 2-2 Newcastle
Premier League 06/12/2015 Newcastle 2-0 Liverpool
Premier League 13/04/2015 Liverpool 2-0 Newcastle
Anfield should be rocking on Wednesday, four points clear of second and playing excellent football at both ends of the pitch – the quest for the elusive Premier League title might just end come May 2019.
Yes, we should celebrate the fact that we are top at Christmas, but being top at Christmas and Liverpool does not bode well together. In the last 10 seasons the team top on Christmas day has gone on to win the league, except on two occasions (both Liverpool). Yet this Liverpool team is different, we have serial winners in the team and proper squad depth.
We have a real physiological edge over City – attack them and you have a good chance at scoring, attack us and we will regain possession which will lead to a dangerous counter attack. Man City’s next to games are away to Leicester and Southampton, both lengthy journeys, Liverpool are at home to Newcastle and Arsenal before both teams face each other at the Etihad.
I think Southampton can do a job against City, so if we win our next three the title race could well be out of reach for Pep Guardiola.
Wednesday’s match should be a largely comfortable, Newcastle won’t look to attack. They will sit back in numbers and try to scrape for a draw, failing that lose by as little margin as possible.
The Reds’ should continue their recent tactics, tire the opposition out and utilise the space left due to tired legs in the second half. I’m going for a 2-0 win.
Final score Liverpool 2 (Shaqiri, Mané) – 0 Newcastle