After the lull of the international break, Liverpool are back in action at the business end of the season. It begins with a trip to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace, who are in desperate need of points to move away from relegation trouble.
The Reds have won their last two matches at the Eagles’ home, and there will be no better way to head into the big European game in the week, than with a win over the Eagles to further strengthen Liverpool’s hold on a Champions League spot for next season.
There are a couple of concerns for the Reds, with Joe Gomez definitely ruled out after suffering an injury on England duty. Andy Robertson is doubtful, as well, after he suffered a dead leg in Scotland’s friendly against Hungary.
The Reds had a bonus thrown at them when neither Roberto Firmino nor Mohamed Salah took any part in their respective nations’ friendlies in the week.
The Eagles have their own concerns with important players such as Wilfried Zaha, James Tomkins and Alexander Sorloth facing a race against time to be fit for the early kickoff on Saturday.
Here are some key individual battles ahead of the big clash.
MAMADOU SAKHO v ROBERTO FIRMINO
The big Frenchman will come up against the Reds for the first time since his move to Palace, and will be keen to prove a point to Jurgen Klopp, who had sidelined him for disciplinary issues ahead of the 2016-17 season.
Sakho will face among the most in-form strikers in the league, in the Bobby Dazzler. The presence of Firmino is as important to the Reds as the goals that Salah has provided.
During his time at Liverpool, Sakho often oscillated between the two extremes – brilliant on one day and diabolical on another day.
He cannot afford the latter on Saturday, because there is a conviction in the Reds’ attacking play, and any lapses will be preyed upon.
Sakho might be awkward on the ball, but he generally doesn’t misplace too many passes. Firmino will prey on Sakho and his awkwardness to extract mistakes out of him.
Palace’s home game against Chelsea earlier this season summed up Sakho. He had a stellar game at the back, before playing an inexplicable back-heel in his own box deep in injury time. Luckily for him, Chelsea did not take advantage of that error.
It is those lapses in concentration that have hindered Sakho’s growth as a centre-back. Hopefully for the Reds, those lapses will be on display in front of what is sure to be a raucous South London crowd.
PATRICK VAN AANHOLT v MOHAMED SALAH
During the international break, the King of Egypt was bursting through posters, getting Liverpool school kids bowing at his feet, asking for Firmino instead of him. Oh, he also scored a goal. Of course he did. It was a well-taken goal – a left-footed striker into the bottom corner – for his country against Portugal.
The gravity of the challenge that faces Palace’s Dutch left-back on Saturday is unenviable. If you ask anyone which Premier League player they wouldn’t want to be this weekend, van Aanholt’s name is likely to come out of quite a few mouths.
Salah has 36 goals in all competitions, and got himself back on track with a four-goal display against Watford, after a disappointing outing on enemy territory against Manchester United.
Salah’s development within this season has been astounding. In the early part of the season, it seemed like he could only score a particular type of goal – using his pace run in behind the defense, and use that wand of a left foot to put the ball beyond the goalkeeper.
But the last game was a proper football clinic for the Watford defenders. He left them in a trance, as they danced to the tunes that were playing at his feet.
His dribbling ability will cause trouble to van Aanholt, whose defensive play isn’t known to be his biggest asset. The Dutchman is someone who enjoys bombing forward and contributing to his team’s attacking play, but it is safe to say that Roy Hodgson will not take kindly to him, should he show such buccaneering spirit against Salah.
Defend. Defend more. Defend a little more. And then pray. That should be van Aanholt’s mantra for Saturday.
CHRISTIAN BENTEKE v VIRGIL VAN DIJK
In the reverse fixture at Anfield earlier this season, Benteke missed a golden opportunity to put Palace in the lead when he skied a chance that looked easier to score than miss.
That was in the middle of a wretched start to the season for Palace, which led to Frank de Boer losing his job after just four games.
The rest of the season hasn’t really been much better for Benteke, who has blown hot and cold for the entirety of it, more often cold than hot.
He will face a Liverpool defense that is a little bit more stubborn than it was when he came to Anfield in August.
There can be debates about the extent of it, but there is little doubt that van Dijk has improved the Reds at the back.
He has brought calmness and has been the leader that the Reds so craved. Also he isn’t too shabby in the air, so Benteke is going to have his task cut out.
After the joy of being named his country’s captain and scoring his maiden international goal for them, van Dijk comes back to Liverpool in good spirits, and the Reds need the big Dutchman at his best as the season heads into its most important part.