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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Newcastle, 05.01.11

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Alan Pardew and Newcastle head to Anfield for Sunday's early kickoff.

And, thankfully, it's the final reunion narrative in a season that's been surprisingly packed with them. For my money the most dramatic was Joe Cole and the score sheet, but there's probably a shout for Fernando Torres and Roy Hodgson and all that.

It's nearly the end of days for the 2010-2011 season, and with Liverpool's improvement proving to be more the rule than the exception, Pepe Reina's recent comments about finishing in a European spot doesn't really seem so far-fetched anymore. With Chelsea and Spurs level at the time of writing, Liverpool have a chance to draw within a point of fifth, and while we're not typically in the habit of looking too far down the road (especially with the tough task of visiting Craven Cottage next weekend), there's plenty left to play for in that regard.

Tomorrow will be difficult in its own right, though, even if points have been tough to come by for Newcastle of late. The easy money was on them to struggle mightily after the departures of the well-liked Chris Hughton and Liverpool's new number nine, but despite only winning twice since February, they've managed to navigate themselves into a fairly comfortable midtable position. The 4-0 loss at Stoke aside, Pardew's squad haven't lost any matches by more than a goal in the new year and earned a handful of points away from St. James' Park.

Aside from those confirmed as unavailable (Stephen Ireland among them), the only doubt in terms of the players available will be captain Kevin Nolan, who's working his way back to fitness from a groin strain. That leaves Pardew with largely the same squad he's selected in each of Newcastle's last two matches, with Tim Krul in goal, and apparent Liverpol target Jose Enrique alongside Fabricio Coloccini, Michael Williamson, and Danny Simpson at the back. Renowned international thrill-seeking criminal Joey Barton will surely feature in central midfield, with Nolan, Cheik Tiote, and Jonas Gutierrez filling things out and Shola Ameobi and Peter Lovenkrands in attack.

For Liverpool:

1. Who will start for Liverpool?
2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?
3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

1. Who will start for Liverpool?

Reina
Flanagan Carragher Skrtel Robinson
Kuyt Lucas Spearing Meireles
Carroll Suarez

---Late decision for Andy Carroll apparently, but we do know that Steven Gerrard, Martin Kelly, Daniel Agger, Fabio Aurelio, and Glen Johnson will be missing. Getting closer to returns for Kelly and Johnson, but likely a week at the earliest.

---Even though it's in the midst of a personnel crisis, the back line in front of Pepe Reina has become the easiest part of the eleven to select. The impressive performances by John Flanagan and Jack Robinson have, at least for the time being, cemented them in the first team, and Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel have established an effective partnership over the last few weeks.

---Moving forward gets a little cloudier, and it's exacerbated by the questions about Andy Carroll's fitness. If he is fit, I think that pushes Maxi back out of the squad and Meireles left. I think there's an argument to be made for a three-man midfield that excludes Jay Spearing---Lucas in the deeper-lying role with Meireles and Maxi on either side---but I don't know that now is a time that Kenny Dalglish will shake things up too much. Jay Spearing has been as on-form as Jay Spearing will likely get, and he and Lucas have been tremendous recently.

---If Maxi's out of the squad and Carroll's in, it's Kuyt back on the flank and Luis Suarez alongside Carroll. It's been rocky so far, but as I've said in the past, this is as much about right now as it is about next season. Yes, there's still a chance for Liverpool to nab a European spot, but with so much of Liverpool's future invested in the newly-arrived forward men, it'd be nice to see them start to work effectively together.

2. What’s the most important factor for the Reds?

Two pretty obvious points here. First is that Liverpool are at Anfield, and that's meant that hopes for a more aggressive, attractive brand of football haven't gone wanting, especially under Kenny Dalglish. They've been a different team for most of the past three months, but they're something else entirely at home. It makes little difference that Newcastle are essentially the same team record-wise on the road as they are at home (5-7-5 at home, 5-4-8 away)---Liverpool have the upper hand against nearly anyone at Anfield.

The second is a rehash of the point that Noel made earlier in the week regarding Andy Carroll, in that if he makes the starting eleven Liverpool can't regress to an ineffectual, long ball style of play. There's not much more to add other than saying that we know they're capable of playing good football with him in the squad, but there's plenty of room left for improvement.

3. Who’s going to win and what’s going to be the scoreline?

Never again.

For those of us on the wrong side of the Atlantic, this one's a killer---4:00am kickoff in the Pacific time zone, which means your best best is to drink yourself through to kickoff. Which, funnily enough, I actually tried the last time I was out west and Liverpool played Newcastle. The good news was Liverpool won 5-1, the bad news was I didn't wake up until it was 4-1. So maybe don't do that, or do, just avoid lying to yourself that "lying down doesn't mean I'm tired." Anyhow, Fox Soccer Channel carries it stateside and ESPNUK has the coverage in England; links for streams will be in the matchday thread that goes up late tonight/early tomorrow, and team sheets will be added whenever I get out of bed.

Hope you all have a nice Saturday, and we'll see you bright and early tomorrow.