2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 Preview — Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)

2019 has gotten off to a rotten start for Liverpool.

Denied in a bid to run away with the Premier League race and sent tumbling out of the FA Cup, Jurgen Klopp’s side look to stop the rot Saturday with a tricky tie at the AMEX against a Brighton and Hove Albion side playing some of their best football of the season.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Liverpool (17-3-1) were thwarted in their chance to open a 10-point chasm on the reigning titleholders as they fell 2-1 at Manchester City on Jan. 3. The Reds were unfortunate not to go up a man just after the half-hour when Vincent Kompany was only booked for a harsh challenge on Mohamed Salah, but they were also chasing the match for most of the 90 minutes.

Roberto Firmino gave Liverpool hope for a point with an equaliser on 64 minutes to cancel out Sergio Aguero’s first-half goal, but Leroy Sane scored eight minutes later for the hosts, who clawed within four points of the top spot and overtook Tottenham Hotspur – another two points further adrift – for third.

The intensity of that clash led Klopp to overturning all but two of his starting XI for Monday’s third-round FA Cup tie at Wolverhampton. An omen of things to come came in the sixth minute when centre back Dejan Lovren – a position Liverpool are already thin at – was forced off with a hamstring injury on six minutes.

The teams traded goals around halftime, but Ruben Neves’ long-range strike on 55 minutes proved decisive in a 2-1 defeat to the promoted side, leaving Liverpool with “just” the Premier League and Champions League trophies to play for between now and June.

“We have to make sure we bounce back and look at where we can get better,” midfielder James Milner told the club’s official website. “You’re never going to go a full season without having blips. I think at the start of this season we weren’t playing our best but we were getting results. (It’s) back-to-back defeats now, which really isn’t good enough for us, but you have blips in a season. It’s about how you respond.

“I think you’ve seen the character in the squad in the last few years, and the players we have, to know we will bounce back. We have to show that, though. It’s easy saying it in an interview, we have to do it on the pitch at the weekend.”

How Klopp fills Lovren’s absence at centre back will be something to watch. The Croatia international was behind Joe Gomez on the pecking order of centre back partners with Virgil Van Dijk, who himself is questionable for this match due to an illness.

Gomez is out injured, and while the FA Cup was an opportune moment to blood 16-year-old Ki-Jana Hoever as an understudy there, the teen is not expected to be on a league team sheet any time soon. The most likely option for Klopp is to drop defensive midfielder Fabinho into a pairing with Van Dijk should he be available.

Whether this is indeed a “blip” as Milner says or something larger could rest on Liverpool’s attacking trio of Firmino, Salah and Sadio Mane. Firmino finally found his form with his hat trick versus Arsenal and followed that up with a well-done finish versus City.

Salah and Mane both scored against the Gunners, so they are not slumping, but whether the trio can re-ignite at last term’s pace to take the pressure off Van Dijk and the back line remains to be seen.

Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) have quietly put themselves in solid mid-table footing and are 13th on 26 points, 10 clear of the drop. The Seagulls are 2-2-0 in their last four matches in all competitions and avenged their most recent defeat Saturday with a 3-1 win at Bournemouth in a third-round FA Cup tie.

Anthony Knockaert’s first goal in 12 matches swung that match in Brighton’s favour minutes after Bournemouth should have taken the lead through Lys Mousset. Yves Bissouma added his first goal of the term three minutes after Knockaert struck, and Florian Andone completed Brighton’s first three-goal effort since early December with a header on a corner just after the hour.

“I’d certainly rather be going into the game in good form than in bad form,” manager Chris Hughton told the club’s official website. “At the moment, playing at home to Man City or Liverpool are the toughest games you can play. They will be big favourites, as everybody would imagine, and it will be us doing as well as we can on the day.

“In this game, people won’t expect us to get anything and anything we do get will be a bonus.”

Hughton was not exempt from injury woes for this match as left back Bernardo has been ruled out with a hamstring injury. Winger Jose Izquerido is also sidelined with a knee injury while attacking winger Ali Jahanbakhsh and first-choice keeper Mat Ryan are  representing Iran and Australia, respectively, at the Asian Cup.

The Seagulls showed plenty of fight in the reverse fixture, falling 1-0 at Anfield where Salah slotted home on 23 minutes. Brighton nearly nicked a point late, but Pascal Gross’ 88th-minute header was stopped by Alisson.

Liverpool have won all three top-flight matches since Brighton won promotion last season and rolled to a 5-1 victory at the Amex in 2017-18 behind a brace from Firmino.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Liverpool are solid 3/10 favourites to get back on track in league play and pick up a victory. There are 5/1 odds on a draw, and Brighton are 10/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline with a second-choice keeper and extend Liverpool’s recent misery.

There are 8/11 odds on the teams combining for more than 2.5 goals while there are 11/10 odds on the teams being under that threshold for the second time this season. Oddsmakers are also expecting another clean sheet in Liverpool’s favour, with 8/13 odds on one team being held off the scoreboard compared to 6/5 odds both teams will get a goal.

Salah leads the line for first-goal scorers at 11/4, heading a list of nine Liverpool players before finding the first Brighton option in Glenn Murray at 10/1. Firmino and Mane are both 9/2 picks to make a 0-1 scoreline, trailing Reds reserve strikers Daniel Sturridge (3/1) and Divock Origi (4/1). Shaqiri lurks as an 11/2 option to open the scoring.

For 90-minute goal-scorers, Salah (8/11) and Sturridge (5/6) are both better than even money to bag a goal, with Firmino offering 13/10 odds along with Mane. Shaqiri is a 13/8 pick, and even Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana at 3/1 rates above Murray (10/3) in terms of scoring during the match.

PREDICTION

This match would have been far more intriguing had first-choice Brighton keeper Mat Ryan not left for the Asian Cup to represent the Socceroos. The Seagulls have proven a tough out at home against the Big Six, knocking off Manchester United and drawing Arsenal. They also have a victory over Everton at home and will certainly be no pushovers as they sit back, try to absorb pressure, and hit on the counter.

But this match is about Liverpool. They have answered a challenge before in needing a result to advance in the Champions League, but they also had the luxury of playing that crunch match at home. This is a third consecutive match on the road for the Reds, essentially trying out a defensive midfielder in the centre back position in Fabinho, and Van Dijk may not be 100 percent due to illness.

The good news for Liverpool is Firmino is in form, and Salah has been in form for an extended period of time. This is one of those matches where a moment of magic on set-ball pieces from Shaqiri is what Klopp’s side need to make a difference in this contest. Brighton rarely beat themselves, though Trent Alexander-Arnold could alsomake a huge impact on the right as he takes on Bernardo’s expected replacement Gaetan Bong.

This one may not be settled till the final half-hour, but this is where the championship mettle of Liverpool delivers a needed result.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Brighton and Hove Albion 0, Liverpool 2.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)
Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)
Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

 

 

2018-19 EPL Match Day 21 Preview — Manchester City (15-2-3) vs. Liverpool (17-3-0)

Last season’s Manchester City side are considered one of the best all-time in English football history. Yet if the defending champions cannot at least draw current table-toppers Liverpool at the Etihad on Thursday, there is the very real chance they could be second to the Reds in history’s annals come May.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The first 100-point side in Premier League history, Manchester City (15-2-3) set a host of league records as they won the title by 19 points over eternal rivals Manchester United. Liverpool were a respectable fourth but gained plaudits by eliminating City over two legs in the Champions League quarterfinals en route to a runners-up finish to Real Madrid.

Liverpool (17-3-0) addressed their shortcomings in the offseason, most notably between the sticks with the acquisition of AS Roma keeper Alisson, and also added bargain-signing Xherdan Shaqiri as a change-of-pace offensive option. Midfield newcomers Fabinho and Naby Keita have teamed with towering centre back Virgil Van Dijk to transform Liverpool from a team who needed to outscore opponents to one who can suffocate them if needed.

“City is a game that we want to win,” Van Dijk told Liverpool’s official website. “It will be very hard, very tough, but for them as well. It’s going be a good match, but it is not a decisive game or something like that. We are not going to treat it different to any other.

“We will be prepared for a very tough game. Confidence is definitely here, but it can change over a couple of games. We won’t get carried away. We need to keep doing what we have been doing.”

Jurgen Klopp’s front-running side have conceded a league-low eight goals – eight fewer than joint-second City and Chelsea. They have recorded 12 clean sheets – already more than the 10 registered in their last serious title challenge under Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14.

Though people are quick to point out Liverpool are the only team leading at Christmas not to win the Premier League title the past nine seasons (2013-14 and 2008-09), Klopp insists his side are only focused on the singular task of winning this contest and not the reward of a seemingly insurmountable 10-point gap a victory would provide.

“We don’t think about the gap, not for a second. What we think about is 54 points – unbelievable, to be honest. That’s really strange and feels strange,” Klopp said, well aware his side are on pace to top 100 points like City did last term. “All we can do is keep going; recover first of all, that’s very important, and then prepare the next game.

“We all know, wow, Man City are a fantastic football team and an away game at City – who can go there and think ‘Probably we will win’? No team in the world, not even us. So we have to go there and try everything to get a result. That’s what we will try.”

Liverpool gained a measure of revenge against one of the three teams to hold them to a draw in the first go-round, swatting Arsenal aside 5-1 at Anfield on Saturday. After falling behind at home for the first time in league play – Liverpool have trailed at Anfield for all of seven minutes in all competitions – Roberto Firmino ended a goal drought that dated back to Dec. 5 with two goals three minutes apart. The second goal by the Brasil international was a slalom through a sea of weak Arsenal challenges before beating Bernd Leno.

Mohamed Salah set up a goal for Sadio Mane before converting a penalty in first-half stoppage time. The Egypt international then made a classy gesture early in the second half, stepping aside for another penalty attempt to let Firmino complete his hat trick. Having Firmino in form is an ominous sign for City considering the trio scored seven of Liverpool’s nine goals in the four matches between the teams last season.

Klopp will once again have to decide between using a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Fabinho and Keita have a good partnership as defensive midfielders, but the manager does not lack for options as he can also turn to James Milner and Giorginio Wijnaldum in a mix of potential midfield combinations.

Manchester City gained a semblance of their swagger back last time out with a 3-1 victory at Southampton on Sunday. The match swung late in the first half when an own goal by Saints’ James Ward-Prowse off a shot by Rahem Sterling snapped a tie late in the first half, and Sergio Aguero added a tally right before the halftime whistle in stoppage time.

But what gave City confidence for this match was the return of central midfielder Fernandinho, who was sorely missed in their losses to Leicester City and Crystal Palace. The Brasil international served as a disruptive force in repelling Southampton’s attacks, which in turn allowed City’s attack to pour forward with their usual menace as David Silva scored his first goal since returning from injury and his ninth in all competitions.

Aguero has been a pest to Liverpool, especially at the Etihad – the Argentina international has scored in all six home games versus the Reds for City. One goal shy of 250 for his career, Aguero is willing to give Liverpool their due but also wants his side to be true to themselves in this crunch clash.

“Liverpool’s growth as a team can be tracked from a few years back,” the striker noted to City’s official website. “Their showing in the Champions League was a testament of that, and they are performing very well this Premier League season.

“But our focus should be on our own game. We are confident in our playing style and we believe it’s the most effective to lead us to victory. There’s no denying it is a huge game for both clubs. Direct clashes between leading teams have a major impact towards the end of the season.”

City manager Pep Guardiola has some injury concerns, most notably with attacking midfielder Kevin De Bruyne as he was held out of Sunday’s match as a precaution with a knock. Tactically, Guardiola must figure out who he wants at left back with Fabian Delph serving the second of his three-match ban for a red card on Boxing Day.

Oleksandr Zinchenko looked out of his depth there versus Southampton, getting dispossessed on the play that led directly to Southampton’s goal. Guardiola could move Danilo from right back to left while restoring Kyle Walker to his usual spot at right back.

If De Bruyne cannot play, Bernardo Silva would likely be on the right of Fernandinho in City’s 4-3-3 set-up.

The teams played to a cagey scoreless draw at Anfield, though City let Liverpool off the hook on 86 minutes when Riyad Mahrez blasted his penalty into the crowd on the Anfield End. For all the offensive fireworks these clubs provide, both teams rarely pushed their wide backs forward as a means of neutralizing the pace of the other.

In addition to the Champions League quarterfinal sweep, Liverpool have been a bogey team for City and are 7-3-1 in the last 11 overall meetings between the clubs. The Citizens’ lone win was a 5-0 thrashing of 10-man Liverpool at home last term, with Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane bagging braces after Mane was given a straight red card on 37 minutes for a reckless challenge on City keeper Ederson.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Manchester City are even-money favourites to deal Liverpool their first loss, while the Reds are 12/5 underdogs to claim all three points and create a seemingly insurmountable 10-point gap between the sides. There are 11/4 odds on the teams splitting the points to maintain the status quo.

The scoreless draw in the reverse fixture has put no fear in oddsmakers expecting goals, with 8/15 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 6/4 odds for another such result under the threshold. There are 1/2 odds for both teams to score in this contest compared to 6/4 odds on one of them being held off the scoreboard for the second time this season.

Aguero leads the line for first goal-scorer options at 10/3, trailed by Jesus (9/2). Salah rounds out the top three at 5/1, with understudy Daniel Sturridge 11/2 and City attacking winger Sterling at 6/1. Mahrez and Divock Origi are both 7/1 options, with Liverpool attacking players Firmino and Mane are both at 15/2. City winger Sane is 8/1, and Shaqiri is a step back at 9/1.

Despite the top-draw defences of both sides, Aguero does rate better than even money to score over the course of 90 minutes with 4/5 odds, while Jesus is an 11/10 pick and Salah checks in at 5/4. Sturridge (7/5) and Sterling (8/5) round out the top five, while Origi and Mahrez are paired together at 15/8. Mane and Firmino also rate as equals at 2/1, with Sane (11/5) and Shaqiri (5/2) a step back. David Silva and De Bruyne are both 11/4 picks to bag a goal.

PREDICTION

Here is the £64,000 question: Is the scoreless draw in October between the two sides the anomaly of their last five matches or the expected outcome?

The 5-0 City rout in last season’s corresponding fixture has to be taken with an asterisk since Liverpool played nearly two-thirds of the match with 10 men and the score was only 1-0 when Mane was sent off. The reverse fixture at Anfield in 2017-18 was marked by a nine-minute thunderclap of three Liverpool goals in the second half before City frantically scrambled to get two back and nearly steal a point.

What seems abundantly clear, however, is Klopp is in the head of the usually unflappable Guardiola. There is still the lament for Guardiola not staying true to his ethos in last season’s first-leg Champions League tie at Anfield in choosing Ilkay Gundogan over Sterling and paying the heaviest of prices with a goal deficit too large to overcome at the Etihad.

In October, Guardiola was content to defuse Liverpool. The result was a dour match in which there were 13 shots combined. To put that number in perspective, consider Klopp’s team alone have attempted 13 or more shots in 14 of their 20 league contests while City have unloaded 13 or more in all but three league contests.

This time, City cannot afford to sit back. Must it be an all-out attack from kickoff? No. But there is most certainly going to be an urgency to finding a goal first. To fall behind 0-1 in this contest early could very well be game over, title race over because Liverpool can carve open any team on the counter regardless of quality of opponent.

While the above projects Liverpool to the 4-2-3-1 set-up Klopp has veered to of late in league play, it would not be all that surprising to see him revert to the 4-3-3 for two reasons. One is another midfielder — most likely James Milner if 100 percent — to help check on David Silva and/or De Bruyne should the latter be available for selection or even a start.

The second, though, is that formation lets Salah be the person who tries to run City’s left back — most likely Danilo — into the ground as opposed to having the Egypt international lead the line with Shaqiri on the wing. It also lets Klopp keep some of his powder dry with Shaqiri being the first option off the bench in the event he has find an equaliser in the final 15-20 minutes.

Also in the spotlight to a degree for Liverpool will be right back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who watched the reverse fixture from the bench as Joe Gomez got the start. The 20-year-old has quietly evolved into a solid two-way player — though it also helps Liverpool often have overwhelming amounts of possession — after picking up three yellow cards in his first three matches.

This has the feel of a match where graft may be a higher premium than skill. While every player will display it in spades in this contest, it may also be one where Aguero finds yet another way to score against Liverpool — perhaps one that restores a proper Premier League title chase.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 2, Liverpool 1.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 21 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (11-5-4) vs. Fulham (3-5-12)
Chelsea (13-4-3) vs. Southampton (3-6-11)
Wolverhampton (8-5-7) vs. Crystal Palace (5-4-11)
Newcastle United (4-6-10) vs. Manchester United (10-5-5)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 20 Preview — Liverpool (16-3-0) vs. Arsenal (11-5-3)

The holiday fixtures have been the gifts that keep giving to Liverpool, who suddenly find themselves six points clear atop the Premier League at the halfway point of the season.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

They look to maintain that gap and continue their unbeaten ways Saturday at Anfield against an Arsenal side encountering that first prolonged stretch of patchy play under first-year manager Unai Emery.

While no one has coronated Liverpool (16-3-0) champions – especially since they are the only team over the past decade to fail to win the Premier League when atop the table at Christmas – some of the tension that came with overtaking Manchester City has ebbed as the reigning title-holders have lost back-to-back matches in the always-demanding holiday fixture run.

The upshot for Jurgen Klopp’s side is they are seven points clear of City as new challengers Tottenham Hotspur are their closest pursuers – but still six points back of the Reds. Liverpool maintained the status quo of their best Premier League start with a clinical 4-0 hiding of former manager Rafa Benitez and Newcastle United on Boxing Day.

Mohamed Salah broke open a close game shortly after halftime when he drew and converted a penalty on 47 minutes to make it 2-0. Liverpool added some gloss to the scoreline in the final quarter-hour as Xherdan Shaqiri and Fabinho added markers, with the latter netting his first goal since arriving from Monaco this summer.

“A pretty perfect day for us; not a perfect performance, but a really good performance,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website post-match. “Result-wise and a lot of parts of the performance, really good.”

It was Klopp’s 100th victory at Liverpool in all competitions, but the lopsided scoreline Wednesday also gave them an equal goal difference with City. The teams play each other at the Etihad on Jan. 3 in what could very well be a make-or-break match for Pep Guardiola’s side to repeat as Premier League champions, but the Reds boss refuses to make anything more of the match at the moment with a top-five Arsenal squad serving as a precursor to that showdown.

“It means nothing. We play Arsenal and City (in our next two games), so it’s good that we have six or seven points more than other teams. But that’s pretty much all,” Klopp said about the table at the moment. “What we wanted to do all the time (was) create a situation, a basis for the rest of the season and now the first part of the season is over.

“What we said as well is that we want to create our own history. We are the first Liverpool team in the Premier League to be unbeaten in 19 matches – a little history and a nice step. (We have) conceded seven goals – all really, really good numbers. A good situation, that’s clear, but 19 games to go.”

Trent Alexander-Arnold, who assisted on Shaqiri’s goal, made his return at right back after missing the previous two games with an ankle injury. The expectation is Klopp will retain his 4-2-3-1 set-up for this match, with Fabinho and Giorginio Wijnaldum his central midfielders as he has for the last two high-profile league matches versus Everton and Manchester United. They, along with centre back Virgil Van Dijk, have been key linchpins in helping Liverpool record seven clean sheets in nine league matches at Anfield (8-1-0) while outscoring opponent 22-2.

Though he has scored just two goals in his last 15 league matches, Klopp is expected to keep Roberto Firmino in the middle of his three across since his nous and movements off the ball give Salah, Shaqiri and Sadio Mane the space to operate throughout the final third.

Salah, on the other hand, has found a rich vein of form with six goals and two assists in his last five matches in all competitions. The Egypt international is tied with Tottenham’s Harry Kane for second with 12 goals in league play, trailing only Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (13).

Speaking of Aubameyang, he too is in splendid form as his seventh-minute goal Wednesday was his third in the last two games. Arsenal (11-5-3), however, failed to build on that early marker and was held to a 1-1 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion. It was a frustrating match all around for the Gunners, who are 1-1-2 since having their 22-match unbeaten run in all competitions end at relegation-threatened Southampton earlier this month.

“I think the key to the match today was the first 45 minutes, when we controlled the match as we wanted to,” Emery explained post-match. “We scored and we had the advantage, with another two good chances for Aubameyang to get the second. Their goalkeeper saved with two good actions and from then, they equalised.

“In the second half we tried again to control the match, to create the chances, but we didn’t do that. We had control with possession but not with creating chances against them. It wasn’t enough to win the game today.”

If there was good news for Arsenal in addition to the point gained, it was holding midfielder Lucas Torreira did not pick up a fifth yellow card that would have forced him to sit out this match. Emery is still mixing and matching personnel along his back line, with Said Kolasinac and Sokratis seemingly the only consistent fixtures at left back and centre back, respectively.

By the end of Wednesday’s match, Granit Xhaka was playing centre back after serving as the base of a midfield diamond in front of Arsenal’s back four the first 70 minutes.

Though midfielder Mesut Ozil made way for Alex Iwobi at halftime, Emery said that decision was more tactical than anything the former Germany international did or did not do on the pitch in the first 45 minutes. Still, much will be made if Emery sits Ozil against a high-profile opponent as he has for the two matches against Tottenham Hotspur.

Iwobi, though, did set up Lacazette’s equaliser on 82 minutes in the reverse fixture at the Emirates in November when Emery opted to attack for the point by sending in Iwobi, Aaron Ramsey and since-injured Danny Welbeck to play with Ozil, Lacazette, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan over the final 22 minutes of that 1-1 draw.

James Milner had given Liverpool the lead just after the hour at the Emirates prior to Lacazette’s match-tying marker.

Liverpool are unbeaten in their last seven league matches (3-4-0) versus Arsenal since a 4-1 loss in 2015. The Gunners are winless in their last five trips to Anfield (0-2-3) since a 2-0 win in the 2012-13 season and are 6-8-13 there in all competitions in the Premier League era.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Liverpool are commanding 1/2 favourites to continue their winning ways with another three points, with Arsenal’s form of late consigning them to 6/1 underdogs at Anfield. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 15/4.

Oddsmakers are expecting a substantial goal haul, with 8/15 odds the teams will clear the 2.5 goal threshold unlike the reverse fixture at Emirates, and 6/4 odds for a second such low-scoring result. There are also 8/13 odds on both teams scoring in this match, with 6/5 odds on at least one team posting a clean sheet.

Salah’s form has made him the first goal-scorer favourite with 3/1 odds, followed by Daniel Sturridge (7/2). Fellow Liverpool substitute Divock Origi completes the top three at 9/2, while Mane and Firmino are 5/1 options to give the Reds a 1-0 lead. Aubameyang is the top pick of the Gunners at 11/2, closely followed by Shaqiri (6/1). Arsenal striker Lacazaette is a few notches back at 8/1.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the Egypt international offers a 4/6 return on a goal, while Sturridge is also better than even money at 5/6. Origi is just off that standard at 11/10, and both Firmino and Mane are again joined together at 5/4. Aubameyang, the Premier League’s leading scorer, is a 7/5 pick to continue his goal-scoring exploits, edging out Shaqiri at 6/4. Lacazette lurks further back at 21/10, while the much-discussed and mercurial Ozil offers a 4/1 return for a goal.

PREDICTION

There are certain things about both lineups that are in a state of flux. While Fabinho and Wijnaldum have been the defensive midfield axis for Liverpool, it would not be surprising to see Jordan Henderson replace either of them in the first XI as Klopp ponders his options.

Arsenal’s four-man back for this match could wind up morphing into a five as Xhaka could sit deeper in the midfield to help Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis with the added benefit of shielding right back Stephan Lichtsteiner from the meancing pace of Mane. Since Liverpool do not have a No. 10 who can spray passes to their attacking four — the Reds are more of a possession and carry team offensively — how Wijnaldum and Fabinho deal with Guendouzi and Torreira nipping at their heels will likely shape how this match plays out.

Something else to watch will be what Klopp’s patience level with Firmino is. No one argues the Brasil international is tactically astute and the consummate teammate for all his selflessness up front. But at some point, the goals have to come. If the match is tied at halftime, would Klopp introduce Sturridge? It’s something worth pondering considering Firmino’s form.

Aubameyang and Lacazette will prove a handful for Van Dijk, who has answered almost every challenge thrown at him in the year since he made the move from Southampton. The Dutch international has comfortably combined with Dejan Lovren in central defence like he has done with injured predecessors Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, and keeping Aubameyang from finding any half-chance will be important.

For all the talk about whether or not Ozil plays, it is hard to see where Ramsey is going to impact the game aside from his tireless two-way play. If Emery is going to use all three of his defensive midfielders, it is essentially conceding the hope for a draw in which Arsenal are going to play deep and try to hit on the counter. Injuries have limited Emery’s flexibility to a great degree, but it also feels counterproductive to not have Lacazette serve as a solo striker and play more narrow to give Aubameyang and Ramsey chances to operate in the final third.

Arsenal showed plenty of bravery in taking the fight to Liverpool late in the reverse fixture, but this match appears a bridge too far for the Gunners as they become the latest team to fall to the Jurgen Klopp juggernaut.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LIVERPOOL 3, Arsenal 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 20 PREVIEWS:

Watford (8-3-8) vs. Newcastle United (4-5-10)
Tottenham Hotspur (15-0-4) vs. Wolverhampton (7-5-7)
Southampton (3-6-10) vs. Manchester City (14-2-3)
Manchester United (9-5-5) vs. Bournemouth (8-2-9)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 19 Preview — Liverpool (15-3-0) vs. Newcastle United (4-5-9)

There will always be a fondness for Rafa Benitez for the Miracle at Istanbul that resulted in Liverpool’s fifth and most recent European title.

But with current manager Jurgen Klopp actively on the prowl for No. 6 as well as a long-awaited first Premier League title, sentimentality will give way to the business of getting points on Boxing Day as the table-topping Reds welcome their former manager and Newcastle United to Anfield.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

“I have known him for a long time,” Klopp said regarding Benitez during Monday’s pre-match press conference. “I knew him before I came to Liverpool and he always did a brilliant job. He was very successful, he was outstanding at Napoli, and won different things. That makes him a special person.

“I don’t know too much about Newcastle; from time to time I read a little bit and I heard nobody was really happy with the amount of money they had to sign players. But Rafa is too experienced to carry that through a full season.”

Liverpool (15-3-0) are enjoying their best start in Premier League history and are atop the table at Christmas for the first time since their last legitimate title challenge in 2013-14. That side, however, are the only one of the past nine to lead at the holiday and not see the job through.

Though that run ended with the Reds second-best to Chelsea due to Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip in the loss to the Blues and their 3-3 draw the following match at Crystal Palace, there is hope for better things this time around.

Palace, in fact, gave Liverpool a boost by beating reigning champions Manchester City on Saturday, a result that left the Reds four points clear as they had won 2-0 at Wolverhampton the night before. Mohamed Salah scored in the first half and set up a goal for defender Virgil Van Dijk in the second as the Reds were not at their best but still found enough to see out the match against the best promoted side of the three.

“Obviously scoring a goal is a bonus and obviously a very proud moment and hopefully there’s more to come, but I’m more focused on winning games,” Van Dijk told Liverpool’s official website after scoring his first league goal and his first with the club since scoring against Everton on his debut in last season’s FA Cup.

“We are very happy and at the end I am happy with the win. In the first half we were a bit sloppy at times, but second half we did it well and we are very happy that we won.”

With squad rotation a key part of the holiday fixture list, Klopp is hopeful right back Trent Alexander-Arnold will be available after missing the last two matches with an ankle injury. Midfielder Naby Keita picked up knocks to his rib and foot in the win over Wolves but is at least expected to be available for selection.

Klopp has used midfielder James Milner at right back in place of Alexander-Arnold, but in all likelihood, the manager will wind up using his 11th different midfield combination in 19 league contests as he has plenty of options at his disposal in Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana, Giorginio Wijnaldum, and Fabinho.

Benitez could only dream of such depth and quality as he again toils in a bid to scrap his way through to keep Newcastle (4-5-9) in the top flight. The Magpies were held to a scoreless draw Saturday versus Fulham, making them the first team to fail to score against the Cottagers in league play this term.

It also continued a run of little reward at St James’ Park, where Newcastle have taken just seven of a possible 30 points. Newcastle did not register a shot on target against the last-place club, drawing the ire of the home supporters, and with a daunting fixture list that includes both Manchester clubs and Chelsea among their next six matches starting with this contest, the Spaniard is already in a survive and advance mode.

“I know what is coming and I know where we are,” Benitez ominously told The Times as his team enters this match five points clear of the drop. “You can see the team is trying a lot of things but still it is not enough. A game like that is a confirmation of what I know. Even if we strengthen in January, it will be a miracle if we stay up.”

Benitez’s modus operandi when playing against the Big Six is to use a five-man backline and try to hit on the counter. It has succeeded in the sense Newcastle have done an excellent job in limiting the damage against these clubs – the Magpies suffered only a minus-5 goal difference in those games – but it also has created a stunning amount of agony among supporters.

Newcastle have been tied 1-1 in three of those matches only to lose two of them with goals on 83 minutes and later. They were also two to the good at Manchester United before contriving a way to lose all of those matches along with a 2-1 reverse at Arsenal.

It is possible Benitez restores DeAndre Yedlin at right back after the American came off the bench versus Fulham, and Yoshinori Muto could be in line for a start after not playing Saturday.

Liverpool ran out 2-0 winners in last term’s corresponding fixture as Salah and Sadio Mane scored in a 15-minute span bridging halftime. Anfield has been a house of horrors for Newcastle, who are 0-4-18 in their last 22 visits – all in league play – since a 2-0 victory in their first Premier League match there in 1994.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Liverpool are staggering 1/6 favourites to run their domestic winning streak to eight matches and at least retain their four-point advantage atop the table. Newcastle United are 18/1 underdogs to pull off a shock scoreline, and there are 15/2 odds on the Magpies stealing a point from Anfield for just the fifth time in 23 trips.

Despite what will obviously be a defensive-oriented Newcastle lineup, oddsmakers do not seem all that convinced goals will not be scored. There are 4/9 odds on there being more than 2.5 goals compared to 7/4 for not reaching that threshold. There is also an expectation Liverpool will record a 12th domestic clean sheet, with 4/7 odds on one team not scoring compared to 5/4 odds for both teams to score.

All told, there are 14 Liverpool players who have better odds of scoring the match’s first goal than the top Newcastle option of Rondon at 18/1, and the Venezuela international shares those odds with Liverpool’s Fabinho, Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson. Salah leads the line at 13/5 to open the scoring for a second straight contest, with Daniel Sturridge second at 3/1.

A trio of Reds — Mane, Bobby Firmino and Divock Origi — are all 4/1, while Xherdan Shaqiri lurks another step back at 5/1.

For any-time goal-scorers, Salah and Sturridge are heavy favourites to get one past Dubravka at 4/7 and 4/6, respectively, while Mane, Firmino and Origi are also better than even money options at 20/21. Shaqiri is just off that standard at 6/5, and Rondon and Joselu lead Newcastle’s list at 6/5 to score over the course of 90 minutes.

PREDICTION

The Chrismtas miracle is not that Liverpool are atop the table, but rather that they actually have a one-match margin of error. If Klopp’s side can hold that ahead of their Jan. 3 showdown at the Etihad, the pressure will be to simply gain a point like City did at Anfield as opposed to hunt out a victory.

The holiday fixtures begin what will be a scrutinised rotation for Liverpool, whose midfield will continue to be fluid from match to match over the next few weeks. In this match, however, patience will be the watchword as Liverpool could end up with 80 percent possession as they look to unlock what will be a stubborn two lines of Newcastle players while making sure Rondon does not get free for a moment of magic.

In attack for the Reds, it would not be surprising to see Firmino dropped to the bench for this contest given his struggling form. Again, Klopp does not lack for options as Sturridge would be the most likely replacement if Liverpool stay in a 4-3-3. Another possibility is to have Shaqiri in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 with Salah either to his right or leading the line depending on where he lines up Sturridge.

For Newcastle, this has all the feel of “Groundhog Day” in which they will be difficult to break down and hold out for an hour before the wheels come off. Not having Ki could prove problematic as Isaac Hayden will likely be preferred to Jonjo Shelvey, but this is another case where Benitez will set up to limit the damage — though it may not be as successful as in the first five matches against the Big Six.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 2, Newcastle United 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 19 PREVIEWS:

Burnley (3-3-12) vs. Everton (6-6-6)
Tottenham Hotspur (14-0-4) vs. Bournemouth (8-2-8)
Leicester City (7-4-7) vs. Manchester City (14-2-2)
Southampton (3-6-9) vs. West Ham United (7-3-8)

Champions League Match Day 3 Preview — Liverpool (1-0-1, 3, 0) vs. Red Star Belgrade (0-1-1, 1, -5)

Liverpool look to strengthen their chances of progressing to the knockout round of the Champions League for the second straight year as they host Red Star Belgrade at Anfield on Wednesday night in a Group D clash.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Reds are currently in second in the group, one point behind Napoli after splitting their first two group matches. Liverpool’s last Champions League contest earlier this month was arguably the worst match they played all season, a listless affair in Napoli that ended with a 1-0 defeat on a goal by Lorenzo Insigne in the 90th minute.

That loss was part of a brutal four-match gauntlet in which Liverpool played a pair of high-quality matches against Chelsea, getting dumped out of the Carabao Cup and salvaging a draw in league play, and a high-pressured scoreless draw at home versus reigning champions Manchester City.

The Merseysiders looked sluggish coming out of the international break, recording a 1-0 victory at Huddersfield Town on Saturday to stay level with City on points, albeit with an inferior goal difference, and central defender Virgil Van Dijk knows his side must improve to stay in the thick of things in Group D.

“We need to win every game. There is basically no other mindset,” the Dutch international told the club’s official website. “It’s another Champions League night at Anfield and I’m sure we will recover from Huddersfield and make sure we are ready.

“You are not going to dominate every game and play well every game but considering how we played it was a great result to keep a clean sheet. That’s all good but we could have done a bit better, perhaps made it easier for ourselves.”

Mohamed Salah accounted for the offence with a first-half goal, giving Liverpool supporters one less thing to worry about after ending a four-match scoreless drought with his first tally since Sept. 22. The Egypt international, though, is still a long ways off last season’s blistering pace in which he racked up 44 in all competitions. Salah has four goals thus far, all coming in league play.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will be re-jiggering his midfield for this match since he will be without talisman Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita through injuries. That has allowed Fabinho to make his long-awaited first start for the Reds in this game, as the £40 million summer signing from Monaco has been brought along slowly — he made his first Liverpool appearance in the final minutes of their win over PSG in their Champions League opener, then his first start in the Carabao Cup loss to Chelsea, and then his Premier League debut Saturday versus Huddersfield Town as a substitute.

“He has all the qualities; hard challenges, good offensively, good defensively, quick, good shooter, fantastic set-pieces, good header – all these things,” Klopp said of Fabinho while saying the Brasil international can follow the same path left back Andy Robertson took in becoming an integral part of Liverpool.

“Strategic too, he is good strategically in the right moment. But it’s been a different system. We just play different and that always needs time. He’s just a fantastic addition and can improve us from a specific moment on.”

While Fabinho replaces Keita in the left side of the midfield in Klopp’s 4-3-3, James Milner will occupy Henderson’s spot in the middle of the park. One other expected change to Klopp’s first-choice XI is the introduction of Xherdan Shaqiri at right wing as Sadio Mane has just returned to practice after suffering a broken thumb on international duty. Putting Shaqiri — who assisted on Salah’s goal versus Huddersfield — on his preferred right side has moved Salah to the middle, and Roberto Firmino is likely to be on the left wing.

Liverpool have shipped only eight goals in their 12 matches in all competitions this season, but three have come in their two Champions League contests. They are unbeaten in their last nine Champions League contests at Anfield (6-3-0) and 17 overall in European play (12-5-0) since a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid in 2014.

Red Star Belgrade are the perceived weak link in Group D with Paris-Saint Germain and Napoli the other clubs in the group, and while they are in last place with one point, much of the non-pleasing aesthetics can be attributed to their 6-1 hammering at the hands of PSG in their last match earlier this month.

That heavy defeat prompted an inquiry into allegations of match-fixing, with reports originating from France newspaper L’Equipe that a Red Star official placed an $8 million bet for his side to lose by five goals. The club angrily hit out at the accusations when they were announced, releasing a statement that read: “Scandalised and disgusted, Red Star Belgrade rejects suspicions concerning the PSG-Red Star game and the implication of anyone from the club in any untoward dealings.”

The club, which won the 1992 European Cup and is making its first Champions League group stage appearance since winning that title in Bari, has not addressed the matter any further in their trip to Anfield, but it has clearly hit a nerve throughout Serbia, with even President Aleksander Vucic weighing in on the situation.

“I think that the greatest part of what they are talking about is not true,” he told reporters according to the Straits Times. The Serbian leader vowed to “examine every possibility of whether anyone and in any way could have tarnished the name of our club and our country.”

On the pitch, Red Star have won four on the bounce since their drubbing by PSG and are coming off a 3-1 victory over Rad Beograd in their first home match of October on Saturday. Richmond Bokaye had a brace on either side of halftime around a marker by Marko Gobeljic. The Serbian side have a stranglehold on the Super Liga, dropping just two points from their first 12 matches and are seven points clear.

Bokaye has a team-high five goals for Red Star, but there is balance throughout the squad as 11 players have scored at least two goals. Gobeljic, Mohamed Ben El Fardou, and Milan Pavkov have all chipped in three goals.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are the heavy choice to get their Champions League progra back on track with three points as they are 1/16 favourites. Even a draw would be considered a substanial upset at 14/1 odds, while Red Star are 45/1 longshots to pull off the shock scoreline and claim three points.

Equally impressive is the oddsmakers’ confidence in Liverpool to regain their bearings offensively as they have 2/7 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals scored in the match. A 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline has 4/1 odds, while a 0-0 or 1-1 scoreline returns 16/1 odds. Putting down a fiver on Belgrade on any type of victory for laughs would see an incredible return — Red Star have 80/1 odds on a win with more than 2.5 goals and 100/1 odds for a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. A draw of 2-2 or higher also has an impressive 45/1 listing.

Salah’s goal against Huddersfield Town over the weekend carried some favour with the oddsmakers, who made him the 21/10 favourite to open the scoring. Daniel Sturridge is at 3/1 odds, part of a staggering 13-deep lineup of Liverpool players who have better odds to give the hosts a 1-0 lead before finding Boakye on the toteboard at 20/1 for Belgrade, which puts him level with Van Dijk.

The any-time goal-scorers also feature a lengthy list of Liverpool players expected to score in this contest as six are listed better than even money: Salah (1/3), Sturridge (4/7), Firmino and Mane (4/5), and Divock Origi and Dominick Solanke (10/11). Shaqiri just misses out at 11/10, as does Adam Lallana (11/8). Boakye is again Red Star’s top option, this time at 9/2 to find the back of the net.

PREDICTION

Klopp made an interesting analogy about the evolution of his side from high-powered offensive juggernaut to a more mature side that has sacrificed the glitz of an impressive scoreline on occasion to make sure they post a clean sheet.

“Last year our big strength was high pressing and when there were moments when they didn’t play football, it was like ‘sorry’,” said Klopp. “It’s like a dog – if you don’t give him his favourite toy and you throw something else he thinks: ‘No, I don’t want that, I want the other one.'”

Nowhere was that evolution more apparent than in their scoreless draw at home versus Manchester City. Yes, Liverpool were lef off the hook when Riyad Mahrez sent an 86th-minute penalty into orbit that could have also landed at Everton’s Goodison Park, but the Reds have taken multiple steps forward in shutting down opponents as opposed to simply outscoring them. There is a Plan B for the Reds when the gegenpress doesn’t create the desired results, and that continues to be the biggest takeaway from last summer’s loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

That and a much higher calibre keeper between the sticks in Alisson.

It may take some time for Liverpool to work through their gears in this contest with the new-look midfield pairing of Milner and Fabinho. Despite his limited minutes, his lone start came in the Carabao Cup match versus Chelsea, which was a contest played with a high degree of intensity considering it was an early round matchup in England’s third-tier cup tournament.

Also if interest is Salah playing through the middle. It got a dry run versus Huddersfield and was successful to a degree — after all, it was Shaqiri who sent Salah through for his goal. But this also has the look of a formation that can shift to a 4-4-2 given the Swiss star’s like of cutting in from the wing on the right. Firmino and Salah usually play narrow when Mane is on the pitch with them; Shaqiri’s preference to be on the wing will give both strikers the space to operate, but they must also find a balance in spacing when Shaqiri does go forward.

With all due respect to Red Star, this is a far cry from the 1973 squad that came to Liverpool and eliminated them from the European Cup with 2-1 victories in both legs. Their quality of play in those matches so exquisite that supporters in the Kop end applauded the visitors as they left the pitch. It was those chastening defeats that led to the resignation of Bill Shankly and an organisational re-boot for Liverpool that has led to the current ethos of the club, which includes playing the ball out of the back in central defence as opposed to those players simply shutting down the opponent.

There may be some flashes of that for Red Star, but they will likely see it thrown back at them more times than not through Liverpool’s spine of Alisson, Van Dijk and either Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren depending on who Klopp opts to partner with his imposing Dutchman.

This should be a straightforward win for Liverpool, who likely will look to push the attack to make up some of the goal difference they currently have compared to PSG.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LIVERPOOL 4, Red Star Belgrade 0.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Manchester United (1-1-0) vs. Juventus (2-0-0)
Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-0) vs. Manchester City (1-0-1)
PSV Eindhoven (0-0-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (0-0-2)

Champions League Match Day 2 Preview — Napoli (0-1-0, 0, 0-0) vs. Liverpool (1-0-0, +1, 3-2)

Liverpool learned they were not perfect in a pair of matches against Chelsea last week, and they look to apply those lessons to maintain a 100 percent record in Champions League play Wednesday when they face Napoli at Stadio San Paolo.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Liverpool’s run of seven wins in as many matches that included a wild 3-2 win over Paris-St. Germain to open their Champions League campaign came to an end with a pulsating 2-1 loss at home to Chelsea in the Carabao Cup despite the teams playing largely overturned sides. The match was decided on a moment of individual brilliance by Eden Hazard late in the contest in which he danced through half of Liverpool’s defence.

The return encounter at Stamford Bridge, played with their full first-choice lineups, was of high calibre play throughout the pitch. Like the previous match, it turned on a moment of individual brilliance, but it belonged to a Liverpool player as substitute Daniel Sturridge belted a world-class left-footed goal from 25 yards that found the absolute perfect spot of space beyond the reach of Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and the upper right corner on 89 minutes to give the Merseysiders a 1-1 draw to remain level with Premier League leaders Manchester City on points.

Since Liverpool play the reigning champions Sunday — the first match between the sides since the Reds swept City aside in two legs of the Champions League quarterfinals last term — manager Jurgen Klopp considered making some changes, but he also has no injury concerns heading into this contest.

“It’s no problem. It’s really difficult to think about anything other than the next game – we only think about the next game, but not the next game after the next game! It is always like this,” Klopp explained to Liverpoolfc.com during the team flight. “In the moment it is all fine and we have to use it. We will see, maybe we will make one or two changes or whatever – maybe more – but it’s all about this game. It’s the only way I understand it.

“We are in good shape, we have good rhythm and that’s something we have to use so let’s try our best. It’s not that you can say, ‘OK, Champions League in Naples, I will make five or six changes’ and then for City you make six changes again, then who are the other six because the six that played already, they cannot play on Sunday… it’s difficult really. We will think about this game and then we will see who we can use for City.”

One of the few potential changes that Klopp could make is to give Dejan Lovren his second start of the season after the Croatia international made his debut in the Carabao Cup loss to Chelsea. He was allowed to rehab a muscle injury conservatively following the World Cup as Joe Gomez — the centre back he would conceivably replace in such a swap — formed a solid partnership with Virgil van Dijk.

While Sturridge will not displace the trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, he likely has moved ahead of Xherdan Shaqiri in the pecking order as first-choice substitute with three goals in his last four matches.

“I don’t know what he did in his pre-season but he was quite fit, and during the season he just showed he is really important for us, not only because of his goals but also the way he is playing,” Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Against Paris Saint-Germain, we saw Sturridge playing in a way we didn’t see before, defending, [and] he switched positions with one of the front three and did their job. He is really, really good in shape, fit, in form and I think he deserves to be in the England squad.”

While Liverpool have mainly found success, Napoli are still transitioning to life under well-traveled manager Carlo Ancelotti, who replaced Maurizio Sarri after he departed for Chelsea and is no stranger to the pressure-cooker of Champions League life.

The Little Donkeys again are emerging as the primary threat to Juventus’ hegemony in Serie A, trailing the hard-charging and perfect Biaconeri by six points through the first seven matches. The teams had their first meeting in Turin on Saturday, and after Dries Mertens staked Napoli to an early lead in the 10th minute, Cristiano Ronaldo had his biggest impact in domestic play since signing from Real Madrid in the offseason, assisting on a pair of goals as Mario Mandzukic had a brace and consigned Napoli to a 3-1 defeat.

The loss ended a four-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, including a 0-0 draw at Red Star Belgrade a fortnight ago that opened their Champions League adventure, but Ancelotti insisted a failure to get a result here would not doom his side despite the obvious quality in opposition looming as they play PSG in their next two continental matches.

“It’s an important game, but not decisive,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference. “It would be massive for us to get the three points because we weren’t able to get them against Red Star. It’s always nice to play in these games – football is about these exciting matches. We need to be focused but also maintain a level of calm so that we can showcase our qualities.”

“We need to improve the way we handle periods when we’re under pressure. We needed to do that better against Juventus and we hope to improve on that tomorrow.”

The Little Donkeys will have their full attacking contingent at the ready with Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne leading the line, backed by talented midfielders Marek Hamsik and Piotr Zielinski on the left. Insigne has a team-high five goals, while Arkadiusz Milik will serve as supersub with three markers of his own.

Liverpool will be shooting at a familiar face in goal for Napoli as former Arsenal No. 2 David Ospina will be between the sticks as the Colombia international was sent out on loan after the Gunners acquired Bernd Leno in the summer.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are solid favourites to return to England with three points at 11/10 odds, with hosts Napoli checking in at 23/10. The odds of the teams splitting the points are slightly longer at 5/2.

A Reds win with more than 2.5 goals is the top option for punters with 21/10 odds, while Napoli’s odds for a win over that mark rank second at 4/1. Liverpool, who have shown themselves capable of defending well, are also 9/2 favourites to win a 1-0 or 2-0 match, and a 0-0 or 1-1 draw returns 9/5 odds. A win by the Little Donkeys of either 1-0 or 2-0 is a 7/1 longshot, while a 2-2 draw or higher is 9/1.

Salah is the unsurprising leader for first goal-scorer options at 7/2, with Sturridge’s recent purple patch vaulting him into second at 5/1 to make it 1-0. Firmino is right behind him at 11/2, while Napoli’s pair of Mertens and Milik are 6/1 along with Mane. Insigne is another half-step back at 13/2 to give the hosts a 1-0 advantage.

The Egypt international is nearly even money to find the back of the net during this contest at 6/5, again leading the line, while Sturridge (13/8) and Firmino (15/8) round out the top three. The three M’s — Mertens, Milik and Mane — are all 2/1 picks to get on the scoresheet, with Hamsik a sleeper option for Napoli at 13/5.

PREDICTION

It’s not often that a Champions League tie can be referred to as a “trap game,” yet many can look at this match as exactly that given what is at stake this weekend for Liverpool as they host Manchester City in a top-of-the-table clash Sunday. This is a result Klopp “would like” to have. It’s not a must-win, but a road point is a nice consolation prize ahead of back-to-back matches against Red Star, who are considered the weakest link of this group.

The only point of contention for Liverpool is what to do with Lovren, who while close to 100 percent, is probably not quite there with only two weeks of full-time practice under his belt. He made the trip to Naples, but until Gomez does something so awful it warrants a benching — unlikely considering he has yet to be on the losing side of a continental match through nine appearances — the Croatian may be waiting a little longer.

Napoli have a tough bounce-back challenge on their hands after their loss to Juventus. Ancelotti is right in the sense a loss would not end their hopes of getting out of the group, but it would be far better to scrape out a point in this match and then take their chances in the home-and-away versus PSG.

Insigne has thrived in his new role underneath Mertens, but Napoli’s defence will be under scrutiny, especially on the left side with Mario Rui and Kalidou Koulabily, the former of whom was sent off before the hour with the outcome still up for grabs after a second booking. Rui is available for this contest, but if Salah is in the mood, he could give the left back a torrid time.

Ospina is also an X-factor who cannot be ignored, though it is for the wrong reasons. He has a lifetime record of 5-3-6 in Champions League play and has let in 28 goals in 15 matches. He recorded only his fourth shutout in the draw versus Red Star and has conceded two or more goals in eight of those 15 contests. Ospina has faced Liverpool just once in his career, allowing a meaningless penalty to Jordan Henderson in a 4-1 Arsenal victory in the 2014/15 season.

Of the 12 players who wore a Liverpool shirt in that match only Henderson and Sturridge are on the current side.

If Napoli can find an early goal and make Liverpool chase the match, they should be able to grab at least one point from this contest. But after a trying week versus Chelsea, it would not be surprising to see Klopp’s team open the throttle and try to run the Little Donkeys off the pitch.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Napoli 0, LIVERPOOL 2.

OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 2 PREVIEWS:

Tottenham Hotspur (0-0-1) vs. Barcelona (1-0-0)

Champions League Match Day 1 preview — Liverpool vs. Paris-Saint Germain

It is not about who scores the goals for Liverpool and Paris-Saint Germain in their Champions League opener at Anfield on Tuesday, but rather, which side will be able to stop the other from scoring that will determine who gets an early foothold in Group C.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

No one is questioning the credentials of either club’s offence. Liverpool have amassed the maximum 15 points through their first five Premier League matches, trailing Chelsea on the slimmest of goal difference after bagging 11 goals through those contests.

Last season’s Champions League runners-up boast a potent trident strike force in Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, and the trio have accounted for eight of those goals. Firmino scored in both of Liverpool’s last two contests, though he was an injury concern after suffering an eye injury in an awkward clash with Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen in their 2-1 victory last time out.

Manager Jurgen Klopp is eager to use that win as a springboard into this contest given it was Liverpool’s first match against one of the elites in the Premier League, and the higher tempo and quality served as a reminder of the demands of European football.

“It was different to all the other games obviously, because Tottenham is a different team so we had to do that, but that was actually always one of our biggest strengths so we did pretty well.” Klopp said at Monday’s news conference. “If we could do better that would be really cool, because probably we need to.

“But the Champions League is there to face teams like that. … Everyone knows where Paris is, obviously, and everyone knows about their power on the pitch so it’s a challenge – but I’m really looking forward to it.”

While Liverpool fortified themselves in the offseason with the additions of Alisson between the sticks, Naby Keita’s long-awaited arrival from Leipzig and Xherdan Shaqiri’s depth in attack beyond the trio, midfielder Fabinho continues to be the odd man out. The £39 million signing from Monaco has yet to appear in a match for the Reds and was among the reserves just twice in their first five contests.

Of the three midfielders Klopp is expected to start among Keita, Jordan Henderson and James Milner, Henderson may be the most likely of the three to be subbed out at some point given he is still recovering from England’s run to the World Cup semifinals. Still, he is eager to start the journey back to the Champions League final and take that last step to lift “Old Big Ears.”

“I think last season was obviously a good step in the right direction, but at the end of the day we didn’t win anything,” he told the club’s official website.

“So there’s a lot of room for improvement and this season we want to make that step closer and try and get some silverware because ultimately that’s what we’re here to try to do: be the best team in England and in Europe as well. We’ve got to keep winning games.”

But while it is go, go, go on offence for Liverpool, Alisson has made an immediate impact at the back. The Reds have conceded just two goals in their five matches, with Alisson directly responsible for one with a howler of a dribbling move. Virgil van Dijk has been massive in central defence, surprisingly augmented there by Joe Gomez while Dejan Lovren continues to recover from an abdominal injury and his run to the World Cup final with Croatia.

Yet they are in for a stern challenge in Paris-Saint Germain, who boast a wealth of attacking options themselves in burgeoning superstar and World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe along with Brasil ace Neymar and fellow South Americans Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria.

The quartet have taken well to new manager Thomas Tuchel, with Les Parisiens also sporting the maximum 15 points through their first five matches in domestic play. PSG have racked up an impressive 17 goals, 13 through their four-man attack force in the German’s 4-2-3-1 set-up.

This match also serves as an early referendum on Klopp’s successor at Borussia Dortmund. Tuchel took over PSG after a one-season coaching sabbatical, replacing Unai Emery after he failed to get beyond the Champions League quarterfinals in each of his two seasons in Paris. Domestic domination with Le Rouge-et-Bleu is a given as they have done the treble four consecutive seasons running, the mandate is European success come hell or high water.

“Paris have gone very close to making the quarter-finals in the last two years,” Tuchel noted in his Monday news conference. “Sometimes people say a lot of things to try to explain and find reasons for every single little event and everything that happens… but maybe sometimes you just need a special win to get the confidence to go a long way in a competition.

“In my opinion, if you want to go a long way, you have to have the experience that you can do something special. It makes our challenge even bigger. Liverpool have won the Champions League five times, they have that experience, this stadium has that experience.”

One player whose experience would be welcome in this game but is unavailable is goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. The old lion is serving a three-match ban for his comments following his loss to Real Madrid in last spring’s semifinal loss while with Juventus. PSG central midfielder Marco Verratti is also out for this match after being sent off in their round of 16 loss to Real last season.

PSG keeper Alphonse Areola turned in his first clean sheet in domestic play last weekend in their 4-0 romp past Saint-Etienne, continuing his fine play for France as he deputised for the injured Hugo Lloris in Nations League play. Areola posted a shutout in a draw against Germany and conceded once in a victory over the Netherlands during the international break.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are solid 21/20 favourites to open group play with a victory, while PSG are 11/5 underdogs to take all three points back across the channel. The odds of the team’s splitting points are 27/10.

For those who expect a goal-fest, or at least three or more, a Liverpool win over 2.5 goals is getting 7/4 odds, while one for PSG returns 10/3. A 2-2 draw would bring back a 7/1 return on such an investment. For those thinking the defence and keepers will step to the forefront, a draw under 2.5 goals is the oddsmakers choice at 24/5, followed by a Liverpool win (11/2) and a PSG victory (17/2).

For first goal-scorers, Salah is a clear favourite at 16/5, surprisingly followed by Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge at 5/1. Cavani lurks just behind the England international as Les Parisiens’ top option at 11/2, with Mbappe and Firmino returning 6/1 odds if they make it 1-0.

Salah is the only striker with better than even money odds to score during the match at 10/11, with both Cavani and Neymar checking in at 17/10. Just behind the PSG duo are Mbappe and Liverpool counterpart Mane at 9/5.

PREDICTION

One of the things that stands out about this match is the contrast in attack. Liverpool likely will go through the middle of the pitch with Milner and Keita to challenge Andre Rabiot and Lassana Diarra while exploiting Verratti’s absence, while PSG will look to unleash Mbappe down the right side of the pitch to pin back Robertson.

On the other flank, Di Maria can use his wiles against Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is still learning his way on the job against higher-end competition and also has accrued three yellow cards in his first five Premier League matches.

To a degree, Alisson will be in the spotlight for Liverpool as the focal point of compare and contrast given how last season’s Champions League ended with Loris Karius’ nightmarish final. The Brasil international definitely has a swagger to him, and for Liverpool fans, they can only hope he sticks to shot-stopping first and dribbling second.

Areola presents an intriguing counterpart given PSG brought Buffon on board to be one of the players who get them over the hump in Champions League. This is PSG’s seventh consecutive appearance, with the previous six ending in the quarterfinals or round of 16. The offensive talent is unquestionably there, it’s whether the defence and the goalkeeping can shine equally.

Possession and pace will be keys in this game. If Liverpool can force turnovers in the middle of the park and PSG’s half of the pitch, they will create scoring opportunities. If Rabiot and Diarra can link to Neymar on quick passes through the middle to set up runs by Mbappe and Di Maria, the Ligue 1 side will find success.

Cavani can also be a difference maker with his nous in the box, and Gomez will have to be up the challenge on a quick turnaround after helping van Dijk do a solid job in containing another world-class striker in Harry Kane in their most recent game.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 3, Paris-Saint Germain 2.