Liverpool will welcome back one of their legendary former managers this weekend as Rafa Benitez returns to Merseyside with his struggling Newcastle United side. While his old club are looking a real force again under Jurgen Klopp, Benitez has his work cut out to keep Newcastle in the Premier League this season.
Liverpool go into the game in good shape, having scored nine goals in their last two games. Their forward line is arguably the finest in Europe, and the defence has shown signs of growth since the arrival of Virgil van Dijk.
Klopp has a fully fit squad to choose from so it will be interesting to see if he makes changes from the side that swept West Ham United aside 4-1 last weekend. The front three are automatic selections, but there has been considerable rotation in other areas.
Van Dijk has not had a regular partner in the centre of defence as Klopp has alternated between Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip. There has been some rotation at both full-back positions too, although Andrew Robertson’s form over the last few months has been such that he appears to have locked down one of those spots, meaning it’s now only the right side that looks up for grabs.
Trent Alexander-Arnold is in possession of the shirt currently, having seized his opportunity when Joe Gomez was sidelined through injury. The experienced Nathaniel Clyne is fit again now too and could be pushing for a recall over the coming weeks.
It’s in midfield where the competition is at it’s most fierce. Klopp has not had a settled unit there all season as he has mixed and matched depending on availability and the opposition.
If skipper Jordan Henderson comes back in, who will make way? Emre Can would be the logical one to sit out, but the German is a virtual ever-present this season and it’s rare that he doesn’t start.
Former Newcastle man Georginio Wijnaldum should be available again too after missing the West Ham game through illness. Adam Lallana is pushing hard for a start, but James Milner (another former Newcastle player) has been brilliant of late, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had one of his best games of the season last week.
Klopp has six senior players all in good form, fighting for just three spots in his midfield. That’s good for him of course, but not so good for the three who miss out. There is so little to choose between all three that — unlike in other positions — it’s difficult to predict from week to week who will start.
Benitez won’t be too concerned about who Klopp has in his midfield. If Newcastle are to stand any chance of avoiding defeat, then it is stopping Liverpool’s front three that will be the key.
Although the Geordies are struggling near the foot of the table, they have been competitive recently and are no pushovers. If Liverpool don’t score early, it could become a slog as it’s never easy breaking down a Benitez side that has become entrenched in its defensive shape.
Liverpool fans know better than anybody that Benitez is one of the finest defensive minds in football. If you needed a coach to come up with a plan to stifle superior opposition, he’d be near the top of anybody’s list.
Benitez sees football like a chess match, whereas for Klopp it’s more like 10-pin bowling. Klopp’s style is all about attacking and doing as much damage to the opponent as possible, whereas much of what Benitez does is based on preventing the opponent from doing what they are good at.
This was one of his greatest strengths when he was Liverpool manager, but also one of his biggest weaknesses. Under Benitez, Liverpool could go to the homes of the best teams in Europe and come away with a clean sheet, but they could also go to places like Portsmouth and not manage a single shot on target.
Benitez will arrive at Anfield this weekend firmly in the role of underdog. It’s in such situations that he is at his most dangerous and he will no doubt be relishing the opportunity to try to stifle Klopp’s free-flowing side.
Liverpool are scoring goals for fun and stopping them is difficult, but not impossible. If there is any manager out there (other than Jose Mourinho) capable of formulating a plan to frustrate Klopp’s team, it’s Benitez. One thing you can be sure of is that his plan will be a sound one. Whether his players are capable of carrying it out remains to be seen.
The problem Newcastle have is that when Liverpool get it right, even the best plan in the world won’t stop them. Swansea and West Brom pulled off unlikely victories over the Reds in recent weeks so it can be done, but two things need to happen for any struggling side to succeed against Liverpool.
Firstly, Liverpool need to have an off-day. Secondly, you need the rub of the green. If both of those things happen, then you have half a chance.
Liverpool should have too much for Newcastle but there are no guarantees in football, and the Geordies have already managed a draw with the Merseysiders this season.
Repeating the feat at Anfield will be far more difficult, particularly as there is so much at stake for Liverpool, who will want to travel to Manchester United next week with the opportunity to leapfrog them into second place.