The Premier League season approaches its midpoint and the busy festive period as two sides who should be happy with their respective first half-seasons go head to head on Friday night. Liverpool, the league leaders at this stage, travel to midlands to take on the Wolves at Molineux. In August, if Liverpool fans had been told at the start of the season, that their side would be just one win away from a guaranteed top-of-the-table Christmas, they would have gleefully accepted. Similarly, if Wolves’ fans had been told in August, that their newly-promoted side would be sitting in seventh, one point lower than Manchester United and a point above Everton at this stage, they too would have accepted it happily.
Wolves have been playing this season like they belong to the Premier League and justifiably so. After all, they spent (comparatively) a fortune in the Championship to secure this promotion and all their talent stayed with them. This season, they have already drawn against Manchester United (away), City (home), and Arsenal (away) and have beaten Chelsea at the Molineux. Only Tottenham (of the top six) have managed to beat them at home. Nuno Espirito Santo has his team playing attractive and fast football, that will test Liverpool, after the insipid opposition they faced from United in their last game.
Liverpool are the only still unbeaten side in the Premier League and are deservedly topping the table. Liverpool have won five games in the month of December in all competitions and are sitting pretty in both the Premier League as well as the Champions League – where they have been drawn against Bayern Munich in the round of last 16. In the Premier League, the difference between their expected points and the actual is 7.91 points, which again highlights their form. It seems that Jurgen Klopp was getting his team to conserve energy early on in the season and has now unleashed his heavy metal style completely as other teams are reeling under the pressure of fixture congestion. Whether by design or by chance, this effect should have a telling impact on the title race. But it is not as if Liverpool have no problems. They are operating with a make-shift defence, injuries have plagued the midfield too, and they are far more wasteful in attack than last season. But, after the last two games against Napoli and Manchester United, one cannot fault Klopp, his team, or the fans for being a bit confident on Friday night.
- Wolves have won only one Premier League game against Liverpool (D2 L5), winning 1-0 in December 2010 at Anfield. Wolves have also lost their last eleven top-flight games played on a Friday including both such games in the Premier League. Their last win in a top-flight game on Friday came against Sunderland in 1965 – since then their record reads P12, W0, D1, L11, F5, A26
- Liverpool, who are undefeated in 18 Premier League matches – going back to the penultimate game of the last season, are unbeaten in their last five trips to the Molineux (W2, D3). The 18-game unbeaten run is Liverpool’s longest ever run in the competition and longest in the top flight since November 1990 (23 games).
- If Liverpool win the match on Friday night, they are guaranteed to stay at the top of the table at Christmas. The last four sides to win the title were also at the top on Christmas day. The last side to top the table on Christmas but not win the title – Liverpool (2013-14).
- This will be Wolves’ 10th Premier League game against sides starting the day at the top of the table (W2 D1 L6). The last time they won such a game was in 2010 against Manchester United.
Raúl Jiménez loves playing against the big sides in the Premier League. He has already scored against Tottenham and Chelsea and assisted a goal against Arsenal. The Argentine forward is the top scorer (5 goals) as well as provider (4 assists) in Nuno Espirito Santo’s team. Jiménez’s xG90 and xA90 of 0.41 and 0.17 respectively are pretty good, indicating that if he gets 90 minutes on the pitch he will likely contribute a goal every second game.
Mohamed Salah has been involved in 10 goals in eight Premier League appearances against newly promoted sides for the Reds (5 goals, 5 assists). Those five scored goals have come in his last five such games. A few weeks ago, pundits and rival fans were calling him a “one-season wonder” and now the Egyptian is level at the top of the goal-scoring charts with Aubameyang with 10 goals scored. He has scored 4 goals and given an assist in last five appearances. His xG90 and xA90 are 0.64 and 0.34 respectively, so he is almost sure to be involved in a goal if he stays on the pitch for 90 minutes.
For Wolves, Diogo Jota is ruled out, so Helder Costa could start alongside Raul Jimenez in the attack. Jonny made his return from injury in the 2-0 win over Bournemouth last week and looks likely to keep his spot on the left after playing the full 90 minutes. Morgan Gibbs-White has impressed of late and is set to feature behind the front pair in a 3-4-1-2 setup.
For Liverpool, defense is the primary worry. Trent Alexander Arnold, Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip are injured, so Dejan Lovren should start alongside Virgil van Djik. Nathaniel Clyne should keep his starting position after his performance against United. Shaqiri’s two goals might get him a starting berth on Friday, which would mean a 4-2-3-1 formation from Klopp, with Salah leading the line.
Although Wolves will be confident after their run of three successive wins, Liverpool should be able to deal with their attacking style and possibly use it to their advantage. In any case, it seems likely that the Reds will top the table at Christmas.
Wolves 1 – 3 Liverpool