The first half of the Premier League ends on Boxing Day and the league leaders Liverpool will host their beloved former manager Rafa Benitez’s current team – Newcastle United. As is usually the case in this league, it is a fixture that Liverpool can ill-afford to lose as Manchester City lurk just four points behind and for the Magpies, a point or three from Anfield would put more distance between them and the relegation turmoil.
At this stage, Liverpool would have been happy to be the league leaders by a point. But Crystal Palace sprung a surprise on Manchester City and gave the Reds a Christmas present of a four-point lead at the top. Having gained this lead, however, Jurgen Klopp’s biggest fear would be losing it – say by graciously returning the favour to City on Boxing Day. He has been urging his team to improve their game to ensure that they stay ahead. One area of slight concern, despite the record (joint-lowest) number of goals conceded at this stage, is defensive errors. In terms of defensive errors, Liverpool’s defence had been simply excellent until two games ago. They had committed only five defensive errors leading to chances in 15 games and conceded just one goal from them. In the last two games, Liverpool have committed 4 such errors and conceded one goal from them. Against Wolves, everyone from Keita to Robertson to Lovren managed to commit such errors, thankfully without any repercussions. At the front, Klopp will be worried about the load on the attack but there are signs that the trio of Salah, Mane and Firmino are coming back to some sort of form. In replacement, he has Shaqiri, who can hold his own in this attack if given an opportunity.
15th placed Newcastle United sit atop a similar lead (5 points) over the relegation zone, as Liverpool’s lead over the 2nd place. But it is far from safe times at Tyneside. A tough turn of fixtures can cause Rafa’s charges to slip back into the relegation fight. They will come to Anfield in good spirits though, as last few away games have been fruitful for them. They have beaten Huddersfield and Burnley and drew against Everton in their last three away Premier League games. Magpies’ fans and Rafa Benitez would return very happy from Anfield if Newcastle can repeat their last Merseyside result (1-1 draw against Everton) on Boxing Day.
- Liverpool are unbeaten in 22 home games in all competitions against Newcastle United (W18 D4), with their last such defeat coming in November 1995 in the League Cup. On the other hand, Newcastle have won just two out of their last ten Premier League games against Liverpool (D4 L4), both the wins being home victories for them.
- Liverpool have not lost a home league game on Boxing Day since 1986-87 (0-1 against Manchester United), winning eight and drawing three since then. OTOH, Rafa is winless at Anfield against his former team in three attempts (D2 L1).
- Liverpool remain the only unbeaten side in the League after 18 games this season. It is their third-longest unbeaten run in a top-flight campaign since 1987-88 (29 games, won the league) and 1949-50 (19 games, finished 8th).
- Newcastle have lost nine out of their last 10 Premier League games against sides starting the day at the top of the table. They, however, beat Chelsea 2-1 in December 2014, which ended the Blues unbeaten run of the season.
In most other teams, a player of Shaqiri’s calibre would be a starter. That he was on the bench against Wolves on Friday night, after scoring a match-winning brace against Manchester United in the previous match, seems bizarre. But, as this game comes close on the heels of the Wolves game, Klopp is likely to rotate a bit, especially in the midfield. Shaqiri’s stats, 5 goals scored and 2 assisted in 13 appearances (7 starts, 628 minutes total) are indeed superlative. The Swiss international’s xG90 and xA90 are 0.37 and 0.16 respectively, meaning that if he plays the full 90 minutes, he is likely to contribute a goal every second game. But more than all of that, against Newcastle United, he can have the most impact with his ability to unlock seemingly solid defences. He has done that to Mourinho’s defence, and he sure has the ability to do it to Rafa’s men.
Salomon Rondon is Newcastle United’s main goal threat. He has contributed to six (scored 4) of their 13 goals in the league. He also fancies playing Liverpool a bit, having scored two and assisted one goal against them in five appearances. His xG90 of 0.41 is quite good but xA90 of 0.09 indicates that he is the lone attacker rarely backed by others in the midfield. However, Newcastle will hope that Rondon can trouble Lovren and VVD a bit to try and give his team something to play with.
For Liverpool, there was good news on Monday as it was declared that Trent Alexander Arnold is fit again and could take the field on Wednesday. Gomez and Matip remain out due to their injuries, while Naby Keita is also unlikely to feature as he suffered some knocks against Wolves. Despite having one extra day of rest, Klopp is likely to rotate his squad a bit possibly bringing in Wijnaldum, Henderson, and Shaqiri.
For Newcastle United, Ki Sung-Yeung is unavailable now as he has gone off to the Asian Cup. Rafa Benitez will hope Jonjo Shelvey can recover in time to replace him at Anfield. Federico Fernandez and DeAndre Yedlin – both subs on Saturday against Fulham are likely to start against Liverpool.
In the seasons gone by, this kind of fixture would have been a banana skin for Liverpool. But this season, the general solidity at the back, and the return to form of Salah at the front, bode well for them. It should be an easy victory for the Reds on Boxing Day.