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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Newcastle, 12.30.11


Liverpool welcome Newcastle to Anfield in 2011's final match, with both squads barely on the outside looking in at the European places. Tomorrow's guests rode a hot start to the season to the top three, going unbeaten in their first eleven matches and surprising everyone after expectations were low entering the campaign. Liverpool have managed to nudge ahead in the past few weeks, but only one point separate the sides heading into tomorrow's meeting.

It's hard predicting what we'll see tomorrow given Liverpool's home struggles---there's been a collective lowering of expectations despite hoping for the club to break out of their Anfield slumber. We've waited and waited for the tide to turn at home, expecting that a thumping for visitors is just around the corner. While it's not entirely out of the question tomorrow, we're not really at the point where we can expect Liverpool to both dominate their guests and turn that dominance into three points.

And even though they haven't managed to maintain their early season form through a difficult November and December slate, Newcastle have proven that they can't be overlooked. Picked by many to struggle after losing Andy Carroll, Jose Enrique, Joey Barton, and Kevin Nolan over the past twelve months, the Tyneside club shocked everyone by heading in November still unbeaten.

Their results have dipped after the November break, partially due to the quality of the opposition. In two weeks they got their first two losses, first to Manchester City and, after a well-earned draw with Manchester United at St. James' Park, 0-3 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge home. The winless streak continued from there, including losses away to Norwich and at home to West Brom. They found their footing again on Boxing Day, though, shutting out Bolton at the DW Reebok and getting goals from Hatem Ben Arfa and Demba Ba.

Ba's been the star man this season, sitting on 14 goals behind only Robin van Persie in the Premier League scoring charts. He's almost solely responsible for Newcastle's goals on the campaign, with only Ryan Taylor (2) and Leon Best (3) scoring more than once. Alan Pardew's had to deal with a number of injuries that began around the time of their slide down the table, including the loss of defender Steven Taylor for the remainder of the season. Fabricio Coloccini should make his return to the squad, along with Davide Stanton and Dan Gosling, the latter of whom recently completed a three-match ban. Each of Jonas Guitierrez, Cheik Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, and Gabriel Obertan should start, Danny Simpson will feature in defense and Tim Krul will continue in goal.

For Liverpool:

Who starts for Liverpool?

Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Henderson Spearing Gerrard
Kuyt Carroll Bellamy

---Luis Suarez serves his one-match ban for giving Fulham fans one-thousandth of the abuse they sent his way on their trip to Craven Cottage, and Lucas, Fabio Aurelio, and Jack Robinson continue as the long-term injury concerns.

---There's little need to explain selection at the back, with another solid output against Blackburn despite the draw. That leaves most of the attention on the midfield, which now has a fit and (hopefully) match-ready Steven Gerrard to come in. It's nowhere near the depth that we thought Liverpool had in July and August, and the loss of Lucas is still rippling through, but Gerrard adds something that nobody else in the squad can, and if he's truly ready to go, he should be included.

---That leaves questions for how Liverpool actually line up, and while it's not necessarily likely, it'd be interesting to see a three-man midfield with Jordan Henderson, Jay Spearing, and Steven Gerrard. Back in August we thought the best lineup had Raul Meireles, Lucas, and Gerrard, and while two of those aren't around/available, there's a possibility that some of the same function we'd hoped for then could be served with current personnel. Obviously a gap in quality between Spearing and Lucas as well as, at least at the current moment, Meireles and Henderson, but it'd be an interesting combination to see, particularly with the workrate of the more "forward" midfielders that could be involved (e.g., Maxi, Kuyt, Bellamy). More likely is a continued run for the 4222/442 that's been selected so often, with any combination of Henderson, Gerrard, Spearing, and Charlie Adam possible.

---It's also tempting to have Stewart Downing and Maxi back in the mix after their positive displays against Blackburn on Boxing Day, but with Andy Carroll in need of a partner up front, I'm guessing that Craig Bellamy comes back into the eleven, with Dirk Kuyt and Carroll rounding out the attack. A start for Carroll seems inevitable, being that it's his former team and Suarez is out. I'll add my voice to the growing body of folks thinking that it could be beneficial both for the squad and Carroll to see some time without Suarez. Just not without some sort of support.

What's the most important factor for the Reds?

There's little that needs to be said other than the fact that Liverpool need to start turning home dates into wins. It's nice and all that they play so well and should be winning, and opposing goalkeepers are good and stuff, but there's nothing other than away form and help from others keeping Liverpool so close to the top four. Newcastle's proven to have more staying power than many of the sides that have earned a point at Anfield, making this one ostensibly more difficult. But finishing is finishing, and Liverpool need three points regardless of the opposition.

Tomorrow's match will be televised live on both Fox Soccer Channel in the US and Sky Sports 1 in England, making viewing easy enough for folks in those countries. Options on TV equates to more options on streams, which will be available in the matchday thread that'll run early tomorrow. Team sheets will be updated when they're released an hour before kickoff, and you can take part in discussion either in the comments section or over on Twitter. There's a chance I might not be around to watch, in which case Noel will be taking over both on the blog and the Twitter.

Whoever's around, hopefully we wrap things up with a little more positive feeling than Monday.

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