After a disappointing outing in enemy territory last weekend, Liverpool will be looking to get back on track when they welcome Watford to Anfield on Saturday evening.
The Reds will be desperate for the three points to get back on track after an impressive run of form was halted in an indifferent performance against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
The Hornets were humbled 3-0 at beleaguered Arsenal last week, with Troy Deeney missing a penalty to compound their woes. They have won only four games since the turn of the year, and there should really be no excuses for the Reds to not get the three points.
In the reverse fixture, the opening game of the season, Liverpool’s defensive woes were exemplified as an injury-time equaliser meant that the Reds had to share the points in a 3-3 draw.
It is safe to say Jurgen Klopp’s side are in a much better position right now than back then, but the Hornets have shown time and again this season, that they aren’t a side to be underestimated, particularly in a 4-1 thrashing of Chelsea.
Here are the key individual battles that could decide the outcome of the game.
MOHAMED SALAH v JOSE HOLEBAS
Salah had a poor game at Old Trafford last weekend, exemplified by his skied volley in injury time, that he really should have done better with. It was the first game in a long time that the Reds had to deal with when their Egyptian star had a total off day, but it is not something Klopp will be losing sleep over.
He has scored 32 goals this season, and a home tie against a side with virtually nothing to play for could give Salah the ideal platform to recover from a disappointing game and do what he has been doing all season – putting the ball in the back of the net.
For Holebas, it is no doubt going to be a stiff test. Can he do what Ashley Young did last week, and not allow Salah the room to do what he wants? The Reds will be hoping that the referee takes a stricter view than Craig Pawson did to all the holding and shoving that Young resorted to, which unsettled Salah.
Young really showed that being aggressive and not allowing Salah the room to manoeuvre is the way to go for defenders to stop the King of Egypt. But how much of that can you do within acceptable boundaries? To be fair to Young, he was clever and ensured he was subtle with his aggression, and when he wasn’t – like with the incident inside the box – the referee didn’t spot it.
For Salah though, things are no different at the moment. He has done the right things in most games this season and heading into the business end of the season, it is up to him to ensure there is no slacking off. He could easily end up with more than 40 goals this season – an outstanding return for someone who doesn’t play as the recognised striker.
With Harry Kane ruled out for a few weeks, there is also a golden opportunity for Salah to end up with the Premier League Golden Boot, and that is not an opportunity he would want to pass up.
JORDAN HENDERSON v ABDOULAYE DOUCOURE
Some watchers felt Liverpool missed Henderson against United. It was only expected that he wouldn’t start his third game in the space of a week, given his injury record, but the Reds could have done with what Henderson provides against United.
Liverpool, at times, rushed the play a little too much and tried to force openings where there aren’t any. The skipper brings about the ability to keep possession and the patience to try and work an opening instead of trying to destroy an unbreakable object.
In the last home league game against Newcastle, Henderson played very well. He ensured that whenever the Magpies counter-attacked or attempted to do so, he plugged the source, and he ensured that the Reds controlled the tempo of that game, at all points.
Watford, too, will set up similarly to Newcastle, albeit maybe not as conservatively. But it is only prudent to assume that they will not go toe-to-toe with the Reds and attempt to cut out space for the front three to work with.
Therefore, it is important that Henderson puts his stamp on the game, and brings about the authority in midfield that ensures those around him do not get flustered and try and do things out of the ordinary if things aren’t going to plan.
The Reds have shown enough that Plan A + Patience is a formula that has worked against the lower-ranked sides, and there is no reason to deviate from that plan just yet.
VIRGIL VAN DIJK v TROY DEENEY
Deeney will be low on confidence after missing a penalty last weekend – which was incidentally the first time Petr Cech saved a penalty in an Arsenal shirt. The reaction wouldn’t have been too easy to take either, as the Arsenal fans took a particular dislike to him after the now much-famed ‘cojones’ dig he had taken at them.
But Deeney will be an important player for Watford. United showed last week that the best way to play against Liverpool was to take the press away and pump the ball long at the earliest opportunity. So when the ball is played forward, it is important for Deeney to hold up the ball, and ensure he buys the Watford defence time, and also time for other players to join him in attack.
For van Dijk, it is important that he isn’t as passive as he was against United. It was a well-worked ploy by United to try and isolate Romelu Lukaku with Dejan Lovren, and at times, it seemed van Dijk was just happy to sit back and allow his partner to get bullied in the air.
That is not taking anything away from a shambles of a performance from the Croatian and Trent Alexander-Arnold, but the big Dutchman wasn’t at his best either – as best exemplified by the time he just allowed Juan Mata to run off him and almost make it 3-0 even before half-time.
Van Dijk was not alone in what was a poor display overall, but now, it is time to get back on track for the Reds and sail towards finishing in the top four of the Premier League – something they are still well placed to do, despite the blip last weekend.