The international break came at a perfect time for Liverpool, who resume their chase of Manchester City on Saturday with a tricky contest at Vicarage Road against Watford.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Reds (9-3-0) are two points back of the reigning champions and kick off a tense eight-day stretch that has a crunch encounter against Paris-St. Germain midweek in Champions League before the first Merseyside derby next Sunday at home versus Everton.
By the time the international break rolled out, injuries had wreaked havoc on Liverpool’s midfield, which had been thinned to the point Jurgen Klopp had shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation out of his 4-3-3. But the week off gave everyone a chance to heal, and as a result, only Adam Lallana is unavailable for this game.
“In past seasons, I think it’s been a really defining period in the season for us,” defender Joe Gomez said of the upcoming stretch in which Liverpool will play 11 matches in the next 40 days. “So we know how important it is and how tough it’s going to be with the amount of games in a short period of time, but we’re ready.
“All the teams in the Premier League face this same task and we’ve just got to be ready for it and try to get as many points as we can.”
Liverpool also locked up a key component of their attack during the break, signing striker Sadio Mane to a new contract through 2023. The Senegal international, who joined Liverpool on a £34 million move from Southampton back in 2016, has 40 goals in 89 matches across all competitions for the Reds, including seven this term.
“This is a big boost for everyone and another demonstration of how the players we have at this club are committed, not just to our present but our future also,” Klopp told the club’s official website. “I can’t think of a single club anywhere in Europe that wouldn’t want a player like Sadio available to them, so the fact he wants to remain with us says something about where we are currently.”
It was also revealed that Liverpool worked a clause into Philippe Coutinho’s contract that Barcelona would have to pay £100 million on top of any transfer fee to pry any player from Anfield until the end of next season. The Catalans infuriated Liverpool with their relentless pursuit of the Brasil international, who left Merseyside in the January window for £142 million.
Watford’s entire starting XI might not cost £142 million, but the Hornets have punched above their weight class thus far and enter this contest in seventh place. The Hornets (6-2-4) were somewhat fortunate to escape St Mary’s with a 1-1 draw against Southampton before the break, with Jose Holebas scoring eight minutes from time for an equaliser that came after a Saints goal was incorrectly chalked off for offsides.
Javi Gracia’s team are 1-0-2 against Big Six sides thus far, having beaten Tottenham Hotspur and perhaps deserving of a point in their loss at Arsenal. The mood at Vicarage Road has been one of not-so-quiet confidence, with Watford players insistent they are going to take the match to Liverpool and not have any specific changes for this match.
“We’re going to approach this game as we would any other,” right back Kiko Femenia told the club’s official website. “We have great players who can damage their defence and we’re going to try and keep possession of the ball. This will be our way of attacking Liverpool.”
“We will not modify our style,” echoed Gracia. “We will be loyal to our style and play the way we usually do, but knowing we have to be careful with their players because they are very, very good.
“It’s a good challenge for us. We are working hard to live this experience and enjoy the games. Playing at home we feel we are able to win all the games we play. I am sure playing home with the support of our fans it will be a different game.”
The Hornets will have close to a full roster available – defensive midfielder Etienne Capoue is eligible to return after serving a one-match ban for yellow card accumulation. The only injury concern is right wing Wil Hughes, who was forced off in the first half versus Southampton. Troy Deeney came off the bench and turned the match in the Hornets favour, and Gracia must chose among him, Andre Gray, Gerard Delofeu and Isaac Success for his two forwards.
Liverpool’s slack defending on set pieces allowed Watford to steal a point in a wild 3-3 draw last season at Vicarage Road as Miguel Brito grabbed the equaliser in stoppage time. Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah scored Liverpool’s goals, twice erasing deficits created on goals by Watford’s Stefano Okaka and Abdoulaye Doucoure.
The Reds are unbeaten in their last five (4-1-0) versus Watford and 7-1-2 against the Hornets in the Premier League era.
Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are solid 4/7 favourites to win and keep the heat on Manchester City, while a draw returns 3-1 odds. For those who think Watford can make a breakthrough for what could be a season-defining win, there are 9/2 odds.
The Reds have 13/10 odds for a win with more than 2.5 goals, and there are 10/3 odds on a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. A draw with zero or two goals has 9/2 odds, while a Watford win over 2.5 goals has 15/2 odds. A 2-2 draw or higher or a Watford win by a 1-0 or 2-0 count offer the same 11/1 odds.
As one would expect, Liverpool players lead the toteboard for first-goal scorers as first-choice attackers Salah (3/1), Mane (9/2) and Firmino (5/1) all are in the first four, with Daniel Sturridge a surprise second choice at 4/1. Two more Liverpool reserves — Divock Origi and Dominic Solanke are 11/2, and Xherdan Shaqiri is an 8/1 pick to make it 0-1 before the first Watford option of Deeney at 17/2.
Salah is a better than even money pick to score during the match with 19/20 odds, followed again by Sturridge (13/10) and Mane (7/5), though Firmino’s patchy form sees him drop off to 17/10. Deeney again leads the list of Hornets choices at 11/4, edging out Gray (3/1).
There is something to be said for the brave talk coming from Watford about how they will play their style and not cower into a bunker mentality against Liverpool. Of course, how those words translate to actions is something that will not be determined until kickoff, but it is still nice to see.
The Hornets, though, have acquitted themselves well against the big boys — they have already beaten Tottenham in league play, perhaps should have beaten them again in the Carabao Cup, and were 0-0 at Chelsea inside the final 20 minutes before losing 2-0. The only time they looked out of place was in the opening 45 minutes versus Manchester United and they were the better club in the second 45 of that defeat.
Getting Capoue back for this match is huge, because he and Doucoure must put in massive shifts if Watford are going to take one point from this match, let alone three. The left side of Gracia’s team — from Jose Holebas to Roberto Pereyra to whoever lines up on that half as forward — will be vital to keeping pressure on Trent Alexander-Arnold to prevent him from bombing up the right side.
The break came at a good and bad time for Liverpool in the sense they needed the time off to get their midfield recharged and regain some of the depth that was rocked by injuries. It was bad in the sense you can sense Salah picking up the form that made him so lethal last season. The question Klopp must wrestle with going forward is 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3? It’s obvious Shaqiri makes a huge impact on that right wing position when he can roam freely, something he cannot do as the right midfielder in a 4-3-3.
The only issue with that is Liverpool have so many good midfielders that Klopp would arguably be leaving one of his best 11 players off the pitch to play that formation regardless of which two midfielders he puts in front of the back four. It also seems unlikely he would go to a three-man back given he has two highly competent fullbacks in Alexandr-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, so it would not be surprising to see him oscillate back and forth between these two formations.
The key for this match, however, is not looking ahead to the mid-week clash with PSG in Paris. It’s still only 13 matches into the season, but Liverpool can not afford to drop three points at any point, and even dropping two via a draw as Man City barnstorm England creates consternation. If Watford stay true to their word, this could be an entertaining tilt, but one that Liverpool should win in the end.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Watford 1, Liverpool 3.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 13 PREVIEWS:
West Ham United (3-3-6) vs. Manchester City (10-2-0)
Tottenham Hotspur (9-0-3) vs. Chelsea (8-4-0)
Fulham (1-2-9) vs. Southampton (1-5-6)
Bournemouth (6-2-4) vs. Arsenal (7-3-2)