Tonight feels like the beginning of the rest of the season. While many were nervously anticipating the United and Chelsea games, matches that brutally exposed our every weakness, Liverpool are a completely different proposition. While their abilities cannot be discounted, especially given their improved form, they have neither the winning mentality of United or a forward who strikes fear into the hearts of our defence as much as Drogba.
More importantly, they are less suited to exploiting our current issues – they are neither as physical as Chelsea, a trait that made our susceptibility at set pieces a continual problem, or as swift in the counter attack as either of the top two. Without Torres, they rely on the workmanlike, in defence and going forward.
That is not to say they can be discounted – four consecutive clean sheets suggests that they are not easy to break down. But against United and Chelsea, overcommitting cost us dear, whereas Liverpool hold no such threat. They have not scored more than twice in any game since September – we can afford to go chasing goals in the knowledge that they will not punish us as efficiently as others have.
The biggest danger is conceding the first goal – Liverpool are dogged in defence, and while their main weakness stems from zonal marking at set pieces, we are hardly best equipped to make the most of that. So we need to break them down in open play, and be relatively patient about it. Given his history against them, they will fear Arshavin, which will give Cesc more room than he is used to, but I feel the crucial player could be Diaby – if he starts, he will likely be regarded as a lesser threat than both, but as he showed in the Champions League against them a couple of years ago, he can be a game changer. If he can make the most of the space he is afforded, this could be his night.
I spoke about the remaining fixtures yesterday, and made the point that tonight is possibly the toughest game we have left. Yet Liverpool have not left Highbury or the Grove with three points in a decade, and there is no reason why a long unbeaten run cannot begin here.
Liverpool may grab a goal, but they should not be able to contain us when our threats come from all angles. They do not have the defensive discipline of Chelsea, and with Lucas and Insua in their side they have weaknesses that can be exposed. So I’m tipping a tight 2-1 victory tonight as the bet of the day, with Sportingbet offering a healthy 8/1 on that outcome.
My second bet goes on Cesc to score the opening goal – he has managed it on a number of occasions this season, and Liverpool’s obsession with Arshavin may give him the space he needs. You can get 7/1 on that, again at Sportingbet.
A win tonight would put us eight points clear of Liverpool, silencing those who believe we are in danger of slipping out of the top four, and with United and Chelsea facing tough away games, we can begin to close the gap at the top. More importantly, three points would give us the springboard we need to finish the season strongly.
Time for the run in to begin. Enjoy the game, wherever you are.