Not so long ago, a crisis was being touted at Spurs, and Andre Villas-Boas’ job was rumored to have been in danger, according to ESPN. Two wins on the bounce see them climb back up to sixth in the league, just two points off fourth-placed Manchester City, but first they must welcome the visit of Anzhi Makhachkala in the Europa League on Thursday night.
Tottenham’s recently creaking defence will be coming up against a Liverpool attack firing on all cylinders: Brendan Rodgers’ side have scored 34 goals in 15 games—the second-highest tally in the league—and boast an in-form Luis Suarez spearheading their strikeforce.
As Arsenal travel to the Etihad Stadium, Chelsea take on Crystal Palace and Everton play Fulham this weekend, Tottenham-Liverpool may yet have wider ramifications on the top-four race—and the European credentials of either side.
As we look forward to an exciting match on Sunday, let’s preview six key battles that will be taking place on the White Hart Lane pitch that may just hold the key to all three points for either side.
Hugo Lloris vs. Simon Mignolet
If it weren’t for Tottenham’s six-goal thrashing at the hands of Manchester City a few weeks ago, they’d still have one of the meanest defensive records in the Premier League. As it stands, with 16 goals conceded, they have the fifth-best defence this season, two places ahead of Liverpool with 18 let in.
A large part of Spurs’ defensive record has been down to their impressive French No. 1, Hugo Lloris, while Liverpool are indebted to Belgian goalkeeper Simon Mignolet for pulling off the third most saves thus far this season (55 in comparison to Lloris’ 39) and helping them to second in the league.
So White Hart Lane will feature two of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers. Given Luis Suarez’s form and confidence, and Tottenham’s fondness for long-range shots—according to InfoStrada Sports, 55 percent of their shots are from outside the penalty area this season (via TheScore.com)—they’d do well to be on their best form on Sunday.
Lloris will be wary of repeating his blunder against Sunderland on Wednesday for sure.
Michael Dawson vs. Luis Suarez
From Tottenham’s point of view, Liverpool’s danger man will undoubtedly be Luis Suarez. Hardly a surprise, of course—he’s leading the Premier League goalscoring charts with 14 this season, despite missing the first five games of the campaign.
He’s improved on his conversion rate to an impressive 25 percent (via BassTunedToRed.com). He’s added the free-kick to his arsenal of tricks. He’s cleaned up his act and cut out the petty moaning and unsavory simulation from his game.
In short: He’ll be a handful for Michael Dawson, to say the least.
Spurs skipper Dawson has put in some steady performances this season, but the Tottenham back line have already capitulated once against quality opposition (Sergio Aguero of Manchester City) and will be on their toes to prevent the same thing from happening at the hands (or feet) of Suarez.
A lot will thus depend on the midfield.
Kyle Naughton vs. Raheem Sterling
Before we get to the midfield, though, we have a Liverpool wing to address, and on their right flank, Raheem Sterling will come up against Kyle Naughton in a clash between two hot young English prospects.
Villas-Boas’ stand-in left-back Naughton will likely start in place of the injured Jan Vertonghen, while Sterling should reprise his starting—and starring—role for Rodgers for his fourth game in a row.
In particular scrutiny will be AVB’s fondness for a high defensive line, especially at home: As Liverpool showed against West Ham United on Wednesday, they’re capable of building quick counterattacks that tear through opposition midfields. Sterling himself burst through the middle and went clear on goal on several occasions, only for his finish to let him down.
Just like Philippe Coutinho on the opposite flank, Sterling’s cutting infield will mean that Naughton will likely be dragged inside with him on multiple occasions, leaving Glen Johnson to storm down the Reds’ right flank as a dangerous attacking outlet.
Paulinho vs. Lucas
The midfield battle won’t just be Paulinho vs. Lucas, of course, but this particular matchup—where both protagonists are not your stereotypical Brazilian flair players—is very much symbolic of the respective midfields on show this Sunday.
Paulinho’s brand of physicality has been a hallmark of the Spurs midfield play this season. Whether he’s been supported by Mousa Dembele, Sandro or Etienne Capoue, his barnstorming style lacks the intricacies and deft touches of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela, yet Tottenham’s midfield domination over Swansea City at the beginning of the season provided a glimpse of the new Spurs.
By contrast, a Lucas-Steven Gerrard axis has more often than not been pedestrian and offered far less of a physical control in the middle of the park. Against sides with more robust midfields, such as Southampton, Liverpool have had their weaknesses exposed.
The injury absence of Gerrard—and Jordan Henderson’s fitness permitting—should see Joe Allen retain his spot alongside Henderson and Lucas slotting back in. The hope is that they will be able to offer the dynamism and relentless movement while Gerrard is out.
Villas-Boas has constantly rotated his midfield three this season, but whichever combination he puts out on Sunday, it will surely be a huge challenge for Lucas and Co.
Aaron Lennon vs. Jon Flanagan
Just as Sterling will prove a test for Naughton on Liverpool’s right flank, so Aaron Lennon will be a fearsome opponent for Jon Flanagan over on Tottenham’s right.
Martin Kelly’s return to fitness is a welcome boost for Brendan Rodgers, but he will likely keep his faith in young Flanagan, a right-back by trade, and reward him for a series of solid performances in an unfamiliar position with another start on Sunday.
That will suit Lennon down to the ground. In recent weeks, the Spurs No. 7 has regained his starting slot on the right wing at the expense of Andros Townsend, and his propensity to bomb down the touchline will take advantage of Flanagan’s weaker side. And there’s also his pace.
A Liverpool left flank of Flanagan and Coutinho may offer far too little in terms of physicality and defensive presence—the injured Jose Enrique will be fondly remembered—to rein in the likes of Lennon and right-back Kyle Walker.
Without a doubt, this will be a problem position for Liverpool.
Jermain Defoe vs. Mamadou Sakho
Prior to Tottenham’s last three matches, where they scored a total of four goals, they had scored just a solitary goal—from the penalty spot—in four games.
It would be unfair to heap the blame on four-goal, £26 million striker Roberto Soldado, but his replacement, Jermain Defoe, has seemingly won back his manager’s faith in recent fixtures.
It’s been well documented that an isolated lone striker has been at the root of Tottenham’s scoring problems this season. The lack of a Gareth Bale-like attacking midfielder capable of transitioning smoothly into the forward lines has been made clearer by the lack of mobility, and involvement in overall play, of both their strikers, who belong in the same “predator” category.
So while the Spurs midfield may well overwhelm Liverpool’s, the hosts’ strikeforce (if we can call it that) may not pose enough of a danger to a defence expected to be marshaled by the imposing and improving Mamadou Sakho.
Better for Sakho and Co. to focus on stopping the tidal wave coming in from the Tottenham midfield, then.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.