Rodgers with options ahead of Newcastle trip

Posted by David Usher

Whenever Liverpool make the trip up the North East to face Newcastle, it usually ends one of two ways: a narrow loss or a big win. There's rarely anything in between. The past 15 meetings between the sides at St James Park have seen the home side win six, the away side seven, with just two games drawn. Of those victories for the Reds, several have been of the thumping variety that have the home fans heading for the exits long before the full-time whistle blows.

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Last season was the most recent example, as the shell-shocked Geordies were literally, as well as metaphorically, hit for six by a rampant Liverpool side. That was a result few saw coming as the Reds had been rocked in the buildup to the game with the news that Luis Suarez had been handed a whopping 10-match suspension after his, shall we say, "incident" with Branislav Ivanovic. It appeared to be the ideal time to face Brendan Rodgers' men, yet the Geordies ended up on the wrong end of a six-goal hammering as Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho ensured the feisty Uruguayan's absence was merely a footnote to what was a wonderful attacking performance.

Liverpool exploited the wide-open spaces of St James' and the home side's perennially high defensive line to perfection, with Sturridge and Jordan Henderson rampaging through at will and Coutinho providing the ammunition for them to fire. Liverpool's excellence on the day was beyond question, but without wanting to take anything away from the men in red, it has to be acknowledged that Newcastle were a disorganised, undisciplined mess and that contributed just as much to the unusual scoreline.

There have been other big wins for the Merseysiders at St James' too. In 2009 a Steven Gerrard-inspired Liverpool triumphed 5-1, while the previous year also saw a comfortable win for the Anfield side, as goals by Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel secured a 3-0 victory. Going back even further, who can forget the day when a teenage Michael Owen ran riot and scored a sensational hat trick in a 4-1 win over Ruud Gullit's side in 1998?

There have been several losses too of course, most recently when Pepe Reina was sent off as Kenny Dalglish's side crashed to a hugely disappointing 2-0 defeat in 2012. Another one that sticks in my mind was an absolute horror show on New Year's Day in 2003. Salif Diao was dismissed as a Laurent Robert free kick gave the home side the points. Liverpool were wretched that day and the result meant that Gerard Houllier's men had failed to win in 10 successive Premier League games (that run would reach 11 before a 1-0 win at Southampton stopped the rot). For the most part though, Liverpool tend to play well at Newcastle and hopefully that will be the case this weekend.

It certainly won't be easy, however, and it surely won't be a repeat of last year's demolition job. The Geordies will be keen to avenge that result and no doubt they will present a much sterner test this time than they did back in April. A lot will depend on which Newcastle turns up. This current "Toon" side always look to me like they should be much better than they actually are. In Hatem Ben Arfa, Moussa Sissoko, Yohan Cabaye and Loic Remy, they have four players who would grace most Premier League teams, while they also have numerous international players scattered around the pitch. And yet the results rarely reflect the quality they have in their side and they often look very ill-disciplined, as witnessed during that 6-0 loss when right-back Mathieu Debuchy's petulance and lack of self-control earned him a needless red card. Cheikh Tiote was also fortunate not to see red that day as well.

When they click going forward though, Pardew's side can be very dangerous and if that happens, then Liverpool will have to be on their game to come away with maximum points. The barren spell of Papiss Cisse is not just a concern for Newcastle fans, it should worry Liverpool's followers too. The Senagalese frontman has failed to score in any of his past 13 Premier League games, but those kind of runs have to come to an end sooner or later and Cisse is clearly due a change of luck in front of goal. Hopefully that doesn't come this weekend, but it would surprise no one if it did as he is always a threat and gets into great positions.

That being said, I suspect it will be what happens at the other end of the field that will decide this game. Will Newcastle's suspect defence be able to contain the dynamic duo of Suarez and Sturridge? It would be a surprise if they did, so Liverpool have to fancy their chances of getting the three points from this game, especially having been boosted with the return to fitness of Joe Allen, Aly Cissokho and -- crucially -- Glen Johnson. The England right-back has been a big loss and Liverpool have tried four different players in his position while he has been sidelined.

"The strongest squad I've had all season," declared Rodgers in his prematch news conference. Very true, and it's close to becoming even stronger as Coutinho isn't far away from a comeback now either. Given what he did in this fixture last year, Newcastle will be relieved that this game has come a week or two too early for the little Brazilian. That was the day he really announced himself on the Premier League stage; he was simply irresistible that afternoon.

Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty ImagesBrendan Rodgers will have his 'strongest side of the season' when Liverpool face Newcastle.

The increased numbers available mean that for perhaps the first time this season Rodgers has some difficult selection decisions to make. It's not just at centre-back where he has to choose between players now. Presumably, if he's physically up to it, Johnson will come straight back into the side, but does Lucas regain his place after missing the Crystal Palace game through suspension? Henderson did a fine job in his absence and was many people's man of the match. He deserves to keep his place, especially given the impact he had on this fixture last season. As a Sunderland lad, he'll be desperate to feature in this one.

Assuming Rodgers persists with the 3-4-1-2 formation, if Lucas does return it could be at the expense of Victor Moses with Henderson playing in that advanced role. That would make sense; the middle of the park has been an area of some concern so bolstering it with an extra, more natural midfield player rather than the attack-minded Moses would be an understandable move. But I could see Moses having a lot of joy if he starts and my gut feeling is that he's ready for a breakout game as he's been showing signs that he's getting to grips with this new position he's been asked to play. Newcastle's style of play at home means they'll always be vulnerable to counterattacks and this game could be set up for Moses to have a real impact.

Elsewhere, Daniel Agger will be hoping for a recall to the side after scoring twice for his country in midweek (both were penalties, but they all count!), but given that the three centre-backs that currently have possession of the shirts have done nothing to warrant losing them, Agger may well have to wait a while longer to get back in.

Managers always say these are the kind of problems they want to have, so presumably Rodgers is a happy man right now. He'll be a lot happier if his side can repeat what they did on their last visit to Tyneside, but realistically any win will do.


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