The last time Liverpool played Cardiff City, it was in the Capital One Cup final in 2012, when Kenny Dalglish’s side ran out winners in a thrilling penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw in extra time. This Saturday will mark the Reds’ first Premier League encounter with the Bluebirds.
From Cardiff’s point of view, there couldn’t be a worse time to face Liverpool, who have been in rampant form at Anfield this season—Brendan Rodgers’ side have scored 20 goals in their past five home games. Malky Mackay’s recent tension with his board, as reported by BBC Sport, can’t be a good distraction from their on-pitch duties.
As for Liverpool, Cardiff marks, on paper, a breather amid a tough December of fixtures. An away trip to White Hart Lane turned out surprisingly smooth for the Reds as they trounced Tottenham Hotspur 5-0, but trips to both Manchester City and Chelsea are on the horizon. A win against Cardiff would send them top of the Premier League, even if for only 48 hours.
But first, they must make sure they get all three points against Malky Mackay’s side, who are currently 15th in the table. Here is how Liverpool’s starting XI on Saturday might look like.
Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet
Aside from Luis Suarez, Simon Mignolet is probably one of only two truly untouchable fixtures in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI.
On to the defenders then.
Right-Back: Martin Kelly
Having made his return to competitive action for Liverpool as a substitute in their 4-1 home win over West Ham United two weekends ago, Martin Kelly has been working his way back to full fitness from a knee injury.
A first league start since a home defeat against Manchester United last September would do wonders for Kelly’s confidence and match fitness, and would allow Glen Johnson a break from his regular right-back duties ahead of the crucial matches at the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge.
With injuries having hampered his development and undoubted potential at Anfield, Kelly will be looking to impress for about an hour or so—hopefully with the game safe and secure by the time he is substituted as Brendan Rodgers eases him back into the setup.
Left-Back: Jon Flanagan
With Jose Enrique out with injury and on-loan Aly Cissokho putting in woeful performances as a stand-in, Academy graduate Jon Flanagan has made the left-back slot his own in recent weeks.
His work rate and tenacity have impressed his manager and teammates alike, and he even ventured forward to score his first ever goal for Liverpool—a sweetly struck half-volley into the top corner—last Sunday against Tottenham.
He deserves another run-out against Cardiff as rich reward for his journey back into the Reds’ starting line-up.
Centre-Back: Martin Skrtel
Martin Kelly is a change on the right, but we advocate a regular centre-back partnership to continue building on its impressive recent form, and for that reason, we’ve continued with Martin Skrtel on the right side.
Per Liverpool’s official club website, Brendan Rodgers has said publicly that he has been impressed with Skrtel’s recent form and that he should be considered as one of the best centre-halves in the Premier League.
More of the same then, Martin.
Centre-Back: Mamadou Sakho
Rodgers continues to rotate his centre-back partnership, presumably to keep his players fit and happy, and as a result vice-captain Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho have both enjoyed starting berths in recent weeks.
Sakho’s impressive display at White Hart Lane last Saturday, however, showed why Liverpool decided to shell out around £18 million on the ex-Paris Saint-Germain youngster in the summer. His physicality, positional awareness and technique all shone in a convincing and dominant display at the back.
For that reason, Agger should continue on the bench for another week as Sakho continues his rise as one of the Premier League’s best young defenders.
Defensive Midfielder: Joe Allen
Since his costly (and frankly quite unbelievable) horror miss against Everton a few weeks ago, Joe Allen has fully rebounded in form and has won over many a critic with a series of assured and assertive displays at the center of the Liverpool midfield.
His tidy passing, constant harrying of opponents and intelligent movement have caught the eye of manager and fans alike, and should continue to be a fixture in the starting XI, especially in the injury absence of captain Steven Gerrard.
Against Cardiff City, Lucas should be rested in preparation for the major clashes to come, and as a result Allen should move slightly back into the defensive midfield position.
Central Midfielder: Luis Alberto
And in Allen’s place in central midfield comes Luis Alberto, who would be making his first ever league start for Liverpool after impressing in brief cameos this season following a summer move from Sevilla.
Alberto has played in both a more withdrawn role and as an attacking midfielder in his previous appearances for the Reds, both in the league and during preseason, but he would be a perfect fit for the regista-type role Gerrard has adopted this season, and as such should fit into the central midfield alongside Allen.
Rodgers will hope that Alberto takes advantage of a rare league start and displays more of the intelligence that he showed against Tottenham, where he created Suarez’s second goal of the game.
Attacking Midfielder: Jordan Henderson
A swashbuckling performance from Jordan Henderson on Sunday has seen the youngster grab the headlines—including this by the Telegraph’s Alan Smith—for all the right reasons.
Intelligent with his movement, aggressive in his pressuring and forceful in his running, Henderson was rightly named the Barclays Man of the Match in Liverpool’s demolition job over Spurs, where he also notched his first league goal of the season.
With movement, interchangeability and constant pressure a hallmark of Rodgers’ ideal midfield, Henderson has established himself as a vital cog in the Reds machine and will look to sustain his impressive form against Cardiff.
Left Forward: Philippe Coutinho
Our front three remains unchanged, simply because it has worked well in the absence of Daniel Sturridge.
On the left is regular No. 10 Philippe Coutinho, who normally operates best in the hole, but caused the Spurs defence all kinds of trouble with his close control, deft flicks and tidy passing from the left flank.
Coutinho, along with his colleagues across the frontline, will be a handful for the Cardiff defence.
Right Forward: Raheem Sterling
With two goals in his last three league outings, Raheem Sterling seems to finally have recaptured his impressive form at the start of his debut campaign last year, where he burst onto the scene at Anfield and catapulted himself into the England senior team.
He has emerged as a genuine outlet on the right flank, capable of both cutting in and bombing down the sideline, while his work rate and defensive contributions are both mature and underrated. And he has added goals to his game.
With Liverpool also developing a deadly streak on the counterattack, Sterling’s intelligent and quick runs past the last defender will make him a nuisance against Cardiff.
Striker: Luis Suarez
Is there any player more important to the Reds cause at the moment than Luis Suarez?
With 17 goals in just 11 Premier League appearances this season, not only is Suarez probably the most in-form striker in Europe, but he is on course to smash the all-time league scoring record, which would cap a brilliant season that—lest we forget—started with a five-match suspension.
With Gerrard out injured, Agger on the bench and other skipper options in Lucas and Glen Johnson rested for this game, Suarez may take to the pitch wearing the captain’s armband for the second time in his Liverpool career.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.