Liverpool’s depth along the back line will be severely tested once more Saturday at Anfield versus Crystal Palace as they must make do without right back Trent Alexander-Arnold.
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
The Premier League leaders already are without defenders Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren through injury, which has resulted in defensive midfielder Fabinho pairing with Virgil Van Dijk in central defence for the Reds (18-3-1). Alexander-Arnold joined the list of the walking wounded with an ankle injury that is expected to sideline him at least one month.
The 20-year-old suffered the injury in the warm-ups prior to Liverpool’s 1-0 victory at Brighton and Hove Albion but played the full 90 minutes. He is expected to be back in time for the Merseyside club’s first-leg round of 16 Champions League tie versus Bayern Munich in February.
The timing of the injury, however, is sub-optimal. The decision to loan out right back Nathaniel Clyne to Bournemouth is now under scrutiny, and while Joel Matip may be available for selection at centre back in this game, it would appear more likely midfielder James Milner will be deputising for Alexander-Arnold.
“We have not a massive squad at the moment in training, but they are not out for long,” gaffer Jurgen Klopp told the Evening Standard recently. “It’s not cool in this moment but in probably two weeks it looks completely different and I cannot make a decision for today and then in two weeks I created a problem with my decision today. We are fine.”
Of course, things are much easier when having Mo Salah as a potential eraser to all those defensive concerns on the other end of the pitch. The Egypt international’s earned penalty and subsequent conversion on 50 minutes separated Liverpool from Brighton and was his ninth-match winner of the season.
More importantly, Liverpool maintained their four-point lead atop the table over reigning champions Manchester City, who dealt Klopp’s side their only defeat to date.
“In my mind and all of the lads’ minds is just: ‘Take it game by game,'” captain Jordan Henderson told the team’s official website. “That’s all we can do and is what we have been doing up to this point – so why change it?
“The next game is the biggest game of the season, that’s how we look at it, and it’s a tough one again next week. We will keep taking it game by game and come the end of the season, let’s see where we are.”
Henderson may have a new partner in defensive midfield with Giorginio Winaldum battling a knock of his own. With Fabinho likely on the back four, Naby Keita is the most likely swap for Klopp there, though James Milner is also a potential replacement.
Salah has scored eight goals in his last nine matches in all competitions, his blistering form an omen for a Crystal Palace team expected to start third-choice keeper Julian Speroni in this match. The 39-year-old Speroni has not appeared in a league match since a 3-2 loss to Arsenal on Dec. 28, 2017, and has not won a Premier League match since a 3-0 win at Leicester City 12 days before that.
Vincent Guaita was forced off at halftime due to injury, and Wayne Hennessey – still under fire for an alleged Nazi salute that was caught on camera and spread on social media – was decisively subpar on goals allowed seven minutes apart in the second half of a 2-1 home loss to Watford.
“He didn’t have a lot to do, did he? It’s difficult to assess a goalkeeper’s performance when, really, he didn’t actually make any saves. So he did OK,” Hodgson told The Times before backing the Wales international regarding his social media flap.
“He’s made it perfectly clear it was an innocent gesture, it was nothing to do with what people are trying to link it to,” the Palace boss added. “We are more than happy to accept that, particularly knowing the man as he is and knowing he is totally incapable of any racist or inflammatory gestures. You’re asking me, can I turn back the tide of social media and your media and erase that? No, I can’t erase it but the fact is I’ve never given it more than a few seconds’ thought.”
Palace (6-4-12) scored courtesy an own goal by Watford defender Craig Cathcart as they were denied a third win on the bounce in all competitions. Jordan Ayew had scored in the previous two matches before last weekend’s loss, but Wilfried Zaha’s goal drought has reached 15 matches in league play. Five of Luka Milivojevic’s team-best six goals in league play have come from the spot.
The Eagles have been a far better outfit on the road than at home, claiming 13 of their 22 points while going 4-1-6 and matching their road win total for all of last term. They are seeking their first three-match road winning streak in Premier League play since victories at Burnley, Leicester City and West Ham United in 2014-15.
Liverpool have won three on the trot over Palace and posted a workmanlike 2-0 win at Selhurst Park in the reverse fixture. Milner converted a penalty right before halftime and Sadio Mane secured the win in second-half stoppage time.
The Eagles, though, have enjoyed success recently at Anfield. They had won their three prior visits before last season’s 1-0 defeat.
Per Bet365, Liverpool are 2/11 favourites to open a provisional seven-point lead atop the table with a victory while Crystal Palace are 16/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline and continue their recent run of success at Anfield. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 7/1.
Oddsmakers are expecting a glut of goals in this one, with 8/15 odds on clearing the 2.5-goal threshold compared to 6/4 for another 2-0 scoreline or lower. There are 8/13 odds on there being a clean sheet in this match, likely by Liverpool, compared to a 6/5 offering on both teams scoring a goal.
Salah leads a lengthy list of Liverpool players for first-goal odds, checking in at 13/5. The understudys — Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi — are 3/1 and 4/1, respectively, while Sadio Mane and Firmino are both 4/1 options. Xherdan Shaqiri is a 5/1 pick to make it 1-0 for the hosts while Milner gets some play at 10/1. Ex-Liverpool striker Christian Benteke is Palace’s top option at 16/1 for the opening goal, joined by Zaha.
Salah is a 4/7 choice to score over the course of the match, with Sturridge lurking close at 4/6. Origi, Mane and Firmino are all better than even money at 20/21, and Shaqiri is just off that standard at 5/4. Benteke and Zaha are 9/2 choices, while Palace penalty-taker Milivojevic is a 15/2 option.
While Liverpool are heavy favourites for this game, one only has to go back to their last legitimate title challenge five years ago to have nightmares about Crystal Palace. Chasing Manchester City and needing to overcome goal difference, Liverpool went for broke up 3-0 at Selhurst Park to try and cut into that gap.
Instead, it ended in tears for Luis Suarez as Palace took full advantage of a suddenly frenetic end-to-end match, scoring three goals after the 79th minute from Damien Delaney and Dwight Gayle — who had a brace — to salvage a draw and effectively ending Liverpool’s hopes for a first title since 1990.
This time around, dropped points will not directly result in such a drastic outcome, but with City breathing down their necks, every game is a referendum on the state of Liverpool as squeaky bum time draws closer and closer. The Reds have done themselves no favours by loaning out Clyne giving their spate of injuries at the back, but since Milner has played right back on a few occasions this term, Klopp has far worse options than his converted midfielder at the moment.
Benteke’s expected return to Palace’s starting XI brings some intrigue to the match as a washout from his days at Liverpool, where he totaled 10 goals in 42 matches across all competitions in 2015-16 and never lived up to the lofty expectations he created after a three-season run at Aston Villa produced 42 league goals.
When healthy and on his game, Benteke can be menacing — he scored 15 goals for Palace in 2016-17. He was anything but that last term, totaling three in 31 and failing to find the back of the net in five league matches this season before getting hurt.
The keys will be the interplay Benteke has with Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend, as well as the service Milivojevic can provide through the middle. Palace did not play all that badly against Liverpool in the reverse fixture at Selhurst Park, with the breakdowns that led to Liverpool’s goals coming at the end of each half.
Still, Anfield is an entirely different animal, even if Palace have been a surprising bogey team for Liverpool there. Every week the challenge remains for Liverpool: Are they different than Premier League title contenders of years past? For this week, at least, expect that answer to be yes.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 3, Crystal Palace 0.