After scraping out a valuable point in their last road match against a Big Six side, Liverpool’s title run begins in earnest Wednesday with a tricky tie at Anfield against a Watford side looking for a fourth win on the bounce.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Liverpool (20-6-1) played their game in hand on Manchester City on Sunday before the reigning champions successfully repeated as Carabao Cup winners. The result was a scoreless draw at Old Trafford against Manchester United, which in some ways was a disappointment given United’s attacking options had been depleted by injuries both before and during the match.
Reds boss Jurgen Klopp had injury problems of his own to deal with as centre-forward Roberto Firmino was forced off just after the half-hour mark with an ankle injury, but the game was robbed of rhythm as both teams were forced to dip into their respective benches.
Alisson came up with a key save in the second half to preserve the deadlock, leaving Liverpool one point ahead of Manchester City with 11 matches to play while also having the advantages of its remaining games against Big Six opponents – Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea – at Anfield.
“The first half was OK, second half was a little bit less so it’s now a 0-0 and they had a big chance when Ali made a fantastic save. The rest were set-pieces from United,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website post-match.
“I would say they are pretty dangerous, so we had to be 100 per cent concentrated, we were 100 per cent concentrated. That’s good, we kept the high line so they were offside when they scored the offside goal and that’s all good, but of course we expect from ourselves to play better football.
“It looked like today would’ve been a day if we continue like we started then we could have won the match, 100 per cent, but we didn’t. Now we take that point, it’s one more than a lot of people probably expected. So now everything is equal games-wise, and now let’s play the rest of the season. All good.”
It was the second straight match Liverpool played to a 0-0 draw, having done so at home in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 clash with Bayern Munich. It is just the second time across the entire season the Reds have been held goalless in back-to-back matches, and if Firmino is lost for any extended period of time, it could pose major problems for a Liverpool side desperate to win their first Premier League title.
Klopp has two likely options at his disposal, the first moving Mohamed Salah into Firmino’s customary spot in the middle of a 4-3-3 while putting Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, or slotting Daniel Sturridge into that role. Another possibility is introducing both Shaqiri and Sturridge in a 4-2-3-1 set-up while moving Salah forward to lead the line.
Watford (11-7-9), meanwhile, are not only angling for their first top-half finish in the Premier League in club history but also are in a fight for seventh with Wolverhampton that could result in the better side entering Europa League in the qualifying rounds. The Hornets moved ahead of Wolves for seventh on goal difference following a 5-1 thrashing of Cardiff City on the road Friday.
Gerard Deulofeu scored three goals before Troy Deeney netted the final two as Watford successfully built on the momentum of reaching the FA Cup quarterfinals the previous weekend by winning at Queens Park Rangers. Deulofeu scored his final two goals and Deeney added the first of his brace in a dizzying 12-minute span for Watford, who set a single-game club record for goals in a Premier League match.
“It was a good game, scoring five goals and getting three points,” manager Javi Gracia told Watford’s official website. “It was the best moment for them (Cardiff) after winning two in a row, but it wasn’t an easy game just because we scored five and we won. It was demanding from the beginning. It was important for us to get that result.”
Gracia will again be without suspended left back Jose Holebas, who will complete his two-match ban after picking up his 10th yellow card of the season, with Adam Masina again expected to hold down the spot. It is possible Gracia will retain his starting XI for this match, with his midfield tandem of Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure vital in slowing down Liverpool to have a chance of winning.
Watford gave Liverpool all they could handle for a cagey hour in the reverse fixture at Vicarage Road before the Reds separated themselves with goals from Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Firmino in the final 23 minutes. Salah’s goal was one Watford keeper Ben Foster should have stopped, but it instead opened up the match as Alexander-Arnold crushed a free kick from 25 yards in the 76th minute and Firmino poached a late third on a rebound after Liverpool had been reduced to 10 men following Jordan Henderson’s second booking.
Liverpool are unbeaten in their last six (5-1-0) against Watford and have smashed 11 by the Hornets with only one in reply in the last two matches at Anfield. Salah, still sitting on 49 Premier League goals, had four in last season’s 5-0 hiding of the Hornets at Liverpool.
At some point in every season, a champion must suffer while getting results. For Liverpool, that time appears to have very likely arrived with this match, as there are many things going against the Premier League front-runners.
For starters, there is the matter of Watford having two days’ extra rest, an enormous advantage on a mid-week turnaround. There is also the matter of the quality of opposition from the previous match, with the Hornets running riot on Cardiff City in their first five-goal haul in the top flight in 33 years in contrast to Liverpool having to claw out a point at Old Trafford against a resurgent Manchester United.
Watford are as close to fully healthy as any team can be this late in the season, though the suspended Holebas will be sorely missed at left back. Liverpool will be without a top attacker in Firmino and must also keep an eye on Alexander-Arnold at right back. Things are also still dicey in central defence as Liverpool wait on Joe Gomez and/or Dejan Lovren to resume partnerships with Van Dijk.
And lastly is Watford’s recent form, which has seen the Hornets go from comfortable mid-table status to seventh with better goal difference and this match in hand against fellow surprise package Wolverhampton in the race for a potential Europa League spot. Watford are also in the FA Cup quarterfinals trying to claim that spot for themselves, and after the star turns of both Deeney and Deulofeu versus Cardiff, Gracia’s team cannot be taken lightly.
There is always Anfield to fall back on for Liverpool, still one of the most imposing venues in all of football. The Reds have been near-invincible at home in league play — they have taken 35 of a possible 39 points while outscoring opponents 35-7 this term — and unbeaten in 34 there (24-10-0) in the top flight since a 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on April 23, 2017.
Firmino’s absence could be a blessing in disguise for Liverpool, who can run their offence through Shaqiri on the right wing and let Robertson bomb down the left to limit the impact of Watford’s midfield destroyer tandem of Doucoure and Etienne Capoue. Alexander-Arnold also has more than enough quality to give Masina a torrid time as the Hornets left back is expected to make just his sixth league start.
And of course, there is Salah, denied in his first bid at 50 Premier League goals in his 63rd league match by United but still on course to be the fastest to that milestone marker in league history. He has a glorious track record against Watford after dismantling them in last season’s fixture and has six in the three previous meetings.
Watford were quality for an hour in the reverse fixture at Vicarage Road, and there are plenty of reasons to believe they can extend that for the final 30 minutes in this case given their form leading into Anfield. With the Merseyside derby looming Sunday, this has all the makings of a trap game — one Liverpool likely will need serious graft to extricate themselves from.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 2, Watford 1.