This Sunday, Anfield hosts one of the most exciting matches in the final three months of the 2012-13 English Premier League season, as Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool welcome Andre Villas-Boas’ Tottenham Hotspur.
That this has become a great competition in recent years is a testament to the rise of Spurs towards the upper echelons of English football—shown no less than in last Sunday’s impressive 2-1 North London derby win over Arsenal—and also to the decline of Liverpool as a Premier League force, currently chasing a place in Europe for next season.
But regardless of Tottenham’s result against Internazionale in the Europa League on Thursday, Sunday’s clash pits two in-form and goalscoring teams, and two of the most promising coaches in England, up against each other.
In the build-up to this match, let’s take a look at six key battles we’re looking forward to watching on Sunday.
Our first is between two supposedly fading forces who have shown encouraging form in recent weeks.
Jamie Carragher has taken full advantage of Martin Skrtel’s drop in form and recent injury to regain his status as first-choice at Liverpool, while after an underwhelming few months, Emmanuel Adebayor has been preferred as Andre Villas-Boas’ lone striker in recent weeks to the more lightweight Jermain Defoe.
This particular matchup will likely have plenty of influence on the outcome.
Given Liverpool’s defensive weaknesses against powerful frontmen, Adebayor’s physical style and finishing has the potential to cause the Reds back line plenty of problems, just as Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke and Oldham Athletic’s Matt Smith—to name but two—have this season.
An aging Carragher, with less pace and agility, will have to rely even more on his experience and positioning against a potent Tottenham attack.
Next up is the matchup that everyone is looking forward to: the clash between two of the league’s most threatening wide players, Glen Johnson and Gareth Bale.
The similarities don’t end there, of course: Bale started out as a full-back himself before turning into one of the most dangerous attacking players in European football.
His goalscoring form in recent weeks has been unstoppable, and with his all-round blend of physicality, athleticism, pace, dribbling and finishing, he will be Tottenham’s key player in attack.
But he’s got to go through Glen Johnson first. Liverpool’s right-back has developed the underrated defensive side of his game and has become one of the league’s best full-backs this term.
That he also influences much of Liverpool’s attacking approach from the back means that, besides a direct defensive responsibility on Bale, he will also be someone Spurs will need to look out for.
Brendan Rodgers has gone on record saying that defensive midfielder Lucas still has “a bit to go” before getting back to his best form after a long injury layoff (via ESPN), but he will be desperately hoping that Lucas can hold off the threat posed by Mousa Dembele.
Dembele arrived from Fulham last summer with a glittering reputation as one of the Premier League’s most gifted midfield playmakers, and while his performances for Tottenham haven’t exactly set the league on fire just yet, he retains a potent creative threat and a handy goalscoring touch to augment the Spurs attack and midfield.
Against a Tottenham midfield full of attacking talent, Lucas will have his hands full trying to shackle any combination of Lewis Holtby, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey and Dembele while supporting his Liverpool colleagues with his precise distribution.
Also featuring in midfield will be a battle between Liverpool and Tottenham’s respective No. 8’s, midfield generals Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker.
The swashbuckling Steven Gerrard of old, storming forward from midfield, would have seen a direct confrontation with Parker, who would have been charged with stopping his runs.
The deeper-lying Gerrard now, however, retains the same attacking threat, albeit from a more withdrawn position, pulling the strings instead of going at it himself.
Perhaps it’s also a matter of age that Parker himself has lost some of his dynamism that belatedly won him the appreciation he deserved as a midfield destroyer, but as the principal defensive outlet in the Spurs midfield, he will need to ensure that Gerrard doesn’t get time on the ball to set off Liverpool’s own potent attack.
It’s taken the addition of Daniel Sturridge to make this Liverpool attack potent, but with him in the side and leading the line, the Reds suddenly look a lot more dangerous than they did just a few months ago.
Sturridge has added a blend of attacking attributes to the Liverpool front line, and he has already scored four league goals in just five games, linking well with Luis Suarez.
While he faced a recent spell on the sidelines, he will likely return from injury on Sunday (via Liverpool Echo). Whether he starts the game or comes on as a substite, he will come up against Michael Dawson.
Dawson has bounced back from being made available for transfer to QPR last summer (via Daily Mail) to win a place in Andre Villas-Boas’ starting lineup, and he will have to be his best against a Reds attack that can’t seem to stop scoring right now.
His positioning and strength are well-known, but Sturridge and Co. will be looking to exploit Dawson’s relative lack of pace on Sunday.
If Liverpool’s attack is on form, then Luis Suarez is on fire. A hat-trick against Wigan Athletic last week has shot him to first place on the Premier League goalscoring charts, with 21 this season.
With Daniel Sturridge back in the team against Spurs, it’s not only the Liverpool defence who have to worry about an opposing attack.
The key for Liverpool is to get their defensive organization and shape right to prevent costly mistakes. A confident Reds defence can provide the perfect platform for the attackers to do their jobs, and Suarez is currently the focal point of Brendan Rodgers’ attacking setup.
Jan Vertonghen has been impressive for Tottenham both in the center and filling in on the left, but he will have his work cut out facing the Premier League’s most lethal forward at the moment.
The good news is that he has Hugo Lloris behind him for further support; the bad news is that there’s also Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Stewart Downing to deal with.
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