21 Feb 2015

LFC lineup vs. Southampton: 'Big blow' for Liverpool? £50m-trio out? Surprise start for Balotelli?

Last summer, when Southampton lost one of the best young managers in the game, and four of the club's best players, many observers expected the South Coast club to quickly plummet down the table into Premier League obscurity. Rather surprisingly, the complete opposite has happened, and Liverpool's influence on the Saints' impressive rise up the table continues to be one of the most amusing ironies of the season. Southampton are currently sitting pretty in the top four, and they deserve to be there, and if LFC are to crash the Champions League party this year, victory at St. Mary's on Sunday is an absolute necessity.

There's no getting away from it: With the £50m splurged on Lovren, Lallana, and Lambert, Liverpool have basically financed Southampton's push for the top four, and if Ronald Koeman's team finish above LFC at the end of the season, it can legitimately be argued that Brendan Rodgers' transfer business literally sabotaged Liverpool's Champions League chances (!)

There's still time to rectify the situation, though, and that means beating Southampton this weekend. Team news:

* Gerrard, Lucas, Flanagan, and Enrique will all miss the game through injury.
* Markovic will return to the squad after his Europa League exclusion.
* Sterling is fit again, and will almost certainly make the squad.

It shouldn't be the case, but after the ridiculous Besiktas penalty furore (exacerbated by Steven Gerrard's public criticism), the focus is once again on Mario Balotelli, and whether he'll start Sunday's game.

After 3 goals/assists in three games, Balotelli possibly deserves to start, but I doubt that'll happen, and it has nothing to do with Besiktas. Rodgers is keeping a fairly settled team at the moment, and to include him means changing a system that's working just to accommodate one player.

The other issue to consider is whether Sterling comes straight back into the starting XI. After his man-of-the-match performance against Besiktas, I don't see how Rodgers can leave out Jordon Ibe, but the good news is that both player can easily be accommodated. As such, I expect to see the following line-up:

------------------- Mignolet

-------- Can ------ Skrtel ----- Sakho

Ibe ---------- Hendo ---- Allen ----- Moreno

------------- Coutinho - Sterling

------------------ Sturridge

* There's a chance that Coutinho may be rested, in which case, the following is a possibility:

------------------- Mignolet

-------- Can ------ Skrtel ----- Sakho

Ibe ---------- Hendo ---- Allen ----- Moreno

------------- Lallana - Sterling

------------------ Sturridge

* If Rodgers leaves out Ibe (to protect him from playing too many games, for example) Markovic can come in at RWB.

* If Lallana misses the cut, Ibe could play alongside Sterling, giving the Reds an extremely enticing front-three.

*Lambert and Lovren almost certainly won't make the cut, and after a muted performance against Besiktas, Lallana's place is under threat, which means Liverpool could start the game with all three of the ex-Southampton players on the bench.

Southampton have lost only one of the last nine league games (5 clean sheets), and conceded only 4 goals along the way. Clearly, this is going to be an extremely tough game, and Liverpool legend Mark Lawrenson is pessimistic about the result. Predicting a 2-1 victory for the Saints, he noted:

"This is a real test [and] Ronald Koeman can use this game as a way of getting his side's focus back. I fancy Saints to edge it, which would be a big boost to their hopes of making the top four and a big blow to Liverpool".

If Liverpool are to finish in the top four then it's imperative to get three points out of important games like this. Victory over Southampton will be a real statement of intent, but like Lawro, I can't see it happening, especially with possible negative impact of Thursday night football.

My prediction: 2-1 to Southampton.



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