Reunions in Premier League are commonplace. But some reunions are a bit more special than others. This Sunday, we will witness one of these special reunions as Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle host his old club Liverpool. Of the Reds traveling to St. James’ Park, hardly one or two (Flanagan?) played under Rafa at the Merseyside club, but Rafa’s soft corner for Liverpool is well known. His unbeaten record against Liverpool must be an additional reason for him to like them.
Given the general pessimism that surrounds Mike Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle and the fact that they have just bounced back from the Championship, it is fair to say that Newcastle’s current standing in the Premier League table must be a bit satisfying for their fans. Three wins and three losses from six games are not exemplary but it is pretty good considering the lackluster transfer window they have gone through and the quality of opponents they have faced. However, last week’s loss against fellow promotees Brighton must rankle, as it dampened the momentum they had picked up with three wins in the previous three games. But still Newcastle must be hopeful, especially as their opponents are back from a long trip to Moscow during the midweek.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool started the campaign with far more optimism than their hosts but it seems that they are already recalibrating their targets. After the disappointing draw in Moscow, Jurgen Klopp was found hoping that they could still make it to the knockout stages of the Champions League. In the Premier League, Liverpool will be hoping to put behind a disappointing September – they won only 4 points out of a possible 9, scoring 4 league goals, while allowing 8. If a slew of errors at the back were not problematic enough, now the Reds’ star-studded attack is being accused of profligacy. His front four will be keen to put those accusations to an end this Sunday.
Newcastle can welcome back Aleksandar Mitrovic in the playing eleven, especially after the ineffective attacking performance last week. Paul Dummett and Massadio Haidara remain sidelined with their respective injuries. Although he has not featured in Benitez’s plans since his red card in the first match, Jonjo Shelvey might also see a return to the first team, as Newcastle will need a slightly multi-dimensional player in the midfield.
After taking flak for unnecessary rotation, it seemed that Klopp had stopped doing it – apart from the funny goalkeeper rotation between Premier League and Champions League. But on Sunday, he might be forced to rotate his full-backs, by bringing back Joe Gomez and Andy Robertson. It is also possible that he will revert to a central defensive pairing of Matip and Klavan. Of course, Mignolet will be back in the goal. But what will not change from Wednesday night is the attack, though Sturridge has been making a solid case for a starting slot. If he does get a start, it will be at Firmino’s expense. In the midfield, we can expect Coutinho to line up next to Henderson and Coutinho. Lallana and Clyne remain sidelined with injuries.
- Rafael Benitez has never lost a game against his old club. He has won two and drawn two so far. Against Jurgen Klopp, he has won one, drawn one, and lost one.
- James’ Park is not a happy hunting ground for the Reds. They have won only once in their last six visits to Newcastle, which was the 0-6 victory on the last day of the 2012-13 season (4L, 1D).
- Including those six goals in April 2013, Liverpool have scored only 9 goals in their last six visits to St. James’ Park, which includes two blanks in the last two visits. Their hosts have scored 10 in the last six home games.
- Overall of course, Liverpool hold sway, winning 24, drawing 9, and losing 11 in the previous 44 Premier League meetings.
Rafa Benitez does not have the riches upfront that his opponents on Sunday possess. His modest attack is also underperforming. At present, his best attacking threat comes from his captain and central defender Jamaal Lascelles. The 23-year old has scored two of his side’s six goals in the league so far. What makes him an even bigger threat on Sunday is his aerial prowess. Both the goals he has scored this season have come from headers from corners. Those last three words are the most dreaded among Liverpool’s defense. Lascelles will not find a better opportunity to increase his goal tally from his preferred method of scoring.
Before he kicked Ederson in the face, Sadio Mane was the most potent threat in Liverpool’s attack. His three-match suspension, now served, has not dampened his prowess by a lot as he showed in Moscow on Wednesday. Most players in Liverpool’s attack and midfield are capable of scoring but more often than not, Sadio Mane is involved in most of the attacks, if he is on the field. Sunday should be no different. With three goals and three key passes in four matches, Mane should prove to be a handful for Newcastle’s defense. Liverpool have lacked a ruthless edge in the past few games and their manager, as well as their fans, will be hoping that Mane can provide that edge in the attack.
With their recent troubles against defensively solid sides and their own defensive troubles, one might expect Liverpool to drop points at St. James’ Park on Sunday. But the fact is that Newcastle United are not sharp enough in attack to benefit from Liverpool’s errors and whatever solidity Rafa puts in the defense is sure to be breached at least a few times by that terrifying attack the Reds possess. Liverpool will have to toil hard and they will leak a goal or two, but they should head into this international break with a victory, just like they did in the last one.