On Saturday, a fixture that has traditionally promised goals in gluts looks set to deliver once again. Crystal Palace entertain Liverpool at Selhurst Park in a game that hosts intriguing tactical duels and players taking on their former club.
Jurgen Klopp will enter his team into battle against an opponent spearheaded by the striker he sold this summer for circa £30 million: Christian Benteke. The Belgian was a poor fit for the German’s high-energy way of playing football, but he’s just perfect for Palace. There’s every chance he delivers a body blow to a budding Premier League title challenge.
Selhurst Park hasn’t always been too kind to the Reds—they’ve only won twice there in their last six visits—but crucially, the last two visits have resulted in three-point hauls. Home and away, these two teams have traded 23 goals between them in their last six meetings.
Expect goals at both ends, expect excitement and expect a stern examination of Liverpool’s established tactical weaknesses once again.
Alan Pardew has delivered mixed injury news ahead of this fixture, with Scott Dann finally available for selection again, but Jason Puncheon is a doubt. The former has missed the last four league games, while the latter was absent last week.
Dann, the captain of the club, will be parachuted in to help a creaking defensive line as soon as possible, but which of James Tomkins or Damien Delaney he replaces is a tough question to answer. Pardew has favoured the Dann-Delaney partnership of last season, but Tomkins, who cost £10 million this summer, is expected to break that mould soon.
One of the nicest surprises for Palace this season has been James McArthur’s excellence in a freer, more roaming role. Joe Ledley holds the fort while his Scottish colleague pushes on. Yohan Cabaye will likely play just ahead of them if Puncheon can’t make it, and the front three of Andros Townsend, Wilfried Zaha and Benteke seems untouchable—even if the former is disappointing a little in his performances.
Klopp made a slew of changes for Liverpool’s midweek victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the EFL Cup, and, for this game, he is expected to revert back to the XI that beat West Bromwich Albion last Sunday.
That will include goalkeeper Loris Karius, who is drawing concerned glances as he settles into Premier League life slowly; Emre Can, who has seemingly displaced Georginio Wijnaldum in the XI; and Roberto Firmino, who has a firm grasp on the starting striker’s spot despite Daniel Sturridge’s midweek goals.
The Can-Wijnaldum battle is really the only one of consequence leading up to this game. The German was a Klopp soldier last term but sat out the start of the season injured, allowing Wijnaldum to gain steam, but the 22-year-old has since reclaimed his place. His 90-minute performances are still a little up and down, though.
Pressure point 1: Liverpool’s right vs. Martin Kelly
Due to Pape Souare’s unfortunate injury last month, Palace are running with former Liverpool academy graduate Martin Kelly—a right-back by trade—on the left-hand side. There should be no love lost; it must be the area the Reds target in order to find success.
Kelly’s form leading into this game hasn’t been great; he has struggled visibly with the fact he’s wrong-footed for the position he finds himself in. Positionally he’s been unsure, on the ball he’s been iffy, and against both West Ham United and Leicester City, he represented the weakest link in a disappointing line.
Given that Palace will likely sit deep and pack numbers behind the ball—both a product of Liverpool’s expected dominance and of the fear Palace will have of Klopp’s men—it’s imperative Sadio Mane and Nathaniel Clyne combine well down the right side and work the space in, around and behind Kelly.
Mane has been seen dropping in too deep and too narrow at times in recent weeks, and that must at least partially stop. He never really tested Daley Blind when the Reds drew 0-0 with Manchester United earlier this month, and that perhaps will have been Klopp’s biggest regret when reviewing the tactical pattern of the game.
He needs to stay wide and run at Kelly; Clyne needs to overlap consistently, forcing Kelly to think twice about everything and drawing more Palace players over to help. Getting behind a deep-set defence is the key to cracking it (aside from a Philippe Coutinho thunderbolt), and Liverpool have the utensils to make it happen.
Pressure point 2: The Christian Benteke factor
The large majority of Liverpool’s squad are well aware of what they’re coming up against here. Benteke has won the largest average number of aerial duels per Premier League game this season (9.1), per WhoScored.com, besting the likes of Sam Vokes and Troy Deeney in this area.
He might be limited in a pass-and-move system, but boy is he a threat when the ball is airborne.
Benteke’s protracted transfer saga in leaving the Reds this summer means even both new recruits (and expected starters) Karius and Joel Matip will have some experience of training with him and therefore know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean they have the tools to stop him. Matip is very good in the air, but Benteke is among the world’s best.
Goals such as the one the Belgian scored against Everton in September—a phenomenal, looping header that he generated all the power on to guide into the corner—strike fear into the hearts of defenders. If you mistime your jump just once, you might well be culpable for a goal conceded.
At the beginning of October, the Metro's Coral Barry detailed that Liverpool had conceded 16 goals from set pieces since Klopp took over. Since then, the Reds have conceded from a corner to West Bromwich Albion and from the penalty spot to Spurs.
Even the most realistic Reds fan will expect serious trouble in this area once again—particularly with Karius’ nerves in coming for aerial balls at the moment and given the quality of delivery Puncheon (if he plays) and Cabaye can offer.