The last time Liverpool played Hull City, Steve Bruce’s side ran out 3-1 winners at the KC Stadium in an off-day for Brendan Rodgers’ team. New Year’s Day this Wednesday will be a chance for the Reds to put their recent losses behind them and get their 2014 off to a good start at Anfield.
A busy December had presented a good opportunity for the home side to confirm their credentials as top-four—even title—challengers. Despite enjoying three impressive home wins between their disappointment against Hull and their scintillating destruction of Tottenham Hotspur, they succumbed to two controversial losses to Manchester City and Chelsea in quick succession.
From top spot on Christmas Day to fifth place on New Year’s Eve, Liverpool’s recent fortunes have shown just how tight the Premier League is this season.
Regarded as early-season favorites for the drop, Hull are now in a healthy position of 10th place with 23 points on the board. A run of three draws preceded a narrow defeat to Manchester United, and the Tigers produced their best performance of the current campaign with a six-goal rout of Fulham on Saturday.
Liverpool, ravaged recently by injuries, will look to sustain their strong home form and get their title race back on track with a win over Hull this Wednesday. Here is what their starting XI might look like.
Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet
Simon Mignolet has made costly mistakes in the past two matches against City and Chelsea, but barring any significant injury he will continue to man the Anfield posts, for lack of a serious challenger to the No. 1 spot at Liverpool.
Right-Back: Martin Kelly
Glen Johnson has been a mainstay in the Liverpool side this season, but his form has dipped significantly in recent weeks: He’s seemed to have lost his previously silky first touch and ball control, while his defensive positioning and lack of concentration has made him a liability in the Liverpool defence.
So it’s to the bench Johnson goes, as Rodgers may well be looking at giving the right-back a rest to regain his form and confidence.
In his place will be Martin Kelly, who came off the bench to replace the injured Jon Flanagan in the 3-1 win over Cardiff City.
It’s been a tough few seasons for Kelly, who has had to spend lots of time in the treatment room and on the bench in his fight back to full fitness. Judging from his recent appearances, Kelly is still some way short of full match fitness, but Hull will give him a good opportunity to regain his place in Rodgers’ starting XI.
Left-Back: Aly Cissokho
In Jose Enrique’s absence, Jon Flanagan had taken advantage of Aly Cissokho’s poor form to make the left-back spot his own, but unfortunately he had to limp off injured in the Cardiff game.
On-loan Cissokho stepped in for the trip to the Etihad Stadium, and while Daniel Agger deputized on the flank in the loss at Stamford Bridge, we expect Cissokho to return to the starting XI out on the left against Hull.
Liverpool have been imperious at home this season and will look to pin Hull back with their brand of relentless passing play. However, the visitors may decide to sit back and limit space for the home side to attack, so flexibility and interchangeability will be crucial for Brendan Rodgers’ side.
Cissokho, while unsteady defensively, offers an outlet on the flank going forward and will provide extra width for the Reds’ left flank, especially given Philippe Coutinho’s tendency to cut inside.
Centre-Back: Kolo Toure
Martin Skrtel has come in for some public praise from his manager in recent months—as evidenced from this article from the Liverpool Echo—but a hesitant recent few matches in the heart of the defence leads us to suggest a complete change in the Reds’ back four, injury or not.
Skrtel’s shirt-pulling in the box has become a target for ire among Reds supporters and will surely present a headache for Rodgers as well as a potential target for referees in the coming matches if his antics don’t stop soon.
An early goal from a free-kick against Chelsea was a sign of his improvement in front of goal from set pieces, but recent defensive mistakes have contributed to just two clean sheets in Liverpool’s last 16 games.
Perhaps it’s time for a return to the starting XI for Kolo Toure, who provided experience, strength and leadership in the opening weeks of the season—when Liverpool kept three successive clean sheets.
Centre-Back: Daniel Agger
Mamadou Sakho limping out with a hamstring injury late into the Chelsea loss will have been a concern for Rodgers and Co., as it will be for Liverpool fans, who have seen the young Frenchman develop into an impressive centre-back in Daniel Agger’s place.
But while Agger deputized on the left against the Blues, he will likely be drafted back in the middle—his favored position—in the injury absence of Sakho, where he will reprise Liverpool’s successful defensive partnership with Kolo Toure at the start of the current campaign.
He will be looking to impress in his favored role as he tries to regain his form, and the Dane will also likely take to the field with the captain’s armband in Steven Gerrard’s absence.
Defensive Midfielder: Lucas
Along with Sakho, another player to limp off injured against Chelsea was Joe Allen, and as such Lucas will remain the only realistic candidate to start as Liverpool’s defensive midfielder at Anfield on New Year’s Day.
Involved in a late fracas with Oscar, Lucas will need to regain his composure against Hull: He’s already served a one-match suspension for having been booked five times this season, and he is well on his way to the 10-yellow milestone.
Central Midfielder: Luis Alberto
Despite recent suggestions that Steven Gerrard could make an early return from injury and might even be fit to take on Hull, as reported by the Guardian, given the recent personnel shortage, Brendan Rodgers may well prefer to keep his captain under wraps and at best only bring him on as a substitute.
So if Liverpool are, as expected, without Joe Allen for Wednesday’s match, Rodgers may hand a first Premier League start to Luis Alberto, who arrived at Anfield in the summer and has shown glimpses of his quality off the bench.
Having played in both the attacking midfield and “regista” roles in his appearances over preseason and during the current campaign, Alberto may look to take Gerrard’s deep-lying playmaking role in the Liverpool midfield.
He will be tasked with prompting from deep, dictating the tempo and slowing down the overall play as necessary—something the Reds, for all their youthful exuberance and relentless energy, have lacked in recent matches.
Attacking Midfielder: Jordan Henderson
“Jordan Henderson is fine. He’s still sore, but he’s a real soldier and should be fine.” So said Brendan Rodgers on the day after he sustained a knock against Chelsea, according to the official Liverpool website.
As Joe Allen misses out, Henderson will likely reprise his attacking midfield role against Hull, a position he’s relished and impressed in in recent weeks, despite a quiet showing at Stamford Bridge.
His pressing from the front has become integral to the Reds’ approach play from the midfield, and hopefully Rodgers will be able to get a good 70 minutes or so of energy and pace before withdrawing him—perhaps for Steven Gerrard—with the result in the bag.
Right Forward: Raheem Sterling
It’s been a whirlwind year for Raheem Sterling, with several controversies off the field and, possibly as a consequence, a dip in form for most of the calendar year, which has been a disappointment considering how well he started his debut season last year.
But in recent weeks, Sterling has stormed back into form with a couple of goals and a few excellent performances on the right flank for Liverpool. A scintillating display against Tottenham continued against Cardiff and Manchester City, and it shows that Sterling has found a new level of maturity and end product to his game.
There’s still much to come from the young winger, who only turned 19 this December, not least in terms of decision making and the final ball, but with Daniel Sturridge still on his way back from injury, Sterling will get another chance to continue his remarkable improvement.
Maynor Figueroa, watch out.
Left Forward: Philippe Coutinho
It’s fair to say that Philippe Coutinho this season hasn’t hit the heights of his initial six months in a Liverpool shirt, when he hit the ground running after arriving at Anfield in late January.
As he approaches a full year in English football, Coutinho will look to regain his all-conquering form but will likely continue out on the left in Daniel Sturridge’s continued absence from the first team.
He hasn’t quite been able to quite impose himself and his brand of exciting, inventive football as regularly this season, but a goal to round off a brilliant team move against Manchester City will have been massive encouragement for the No. 10 to start the New Year off the right way.
Better, surely, than starting the hapless Victor Moses anyway.
Striker: Luis Suarez
A breathtaking start to December saw Luis Suarez break the Premier League record of most goals scored in a single calendar month with 10, but the goals have dried up since his double against Cardiff.
Hence the statistic that he’s only scored three of his 19 league goals this campaign against the top 13 teams in the league and the sudden accusation that Suarez is merely a flat-track bully and not a big-game player.
Here’s another statistic: Out of his 57 Premier League goals for Liverpool, only 11 of them have come against Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham.
Unfortunately for Steve Bruce and Co., Hull City do not belong in this category.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.