Tottenham’s post-Real Madrid meltdown has been so severe that certain Spurs fans have felt compelled to question Harry Redknapp’s future at the club. They have, after all, won just one of their last thirteen games – a run which has included home draws against Blackpool and West Brom, and, most recently, a defeat at Eastlands which ended their hopes of regaining a Champions League qualification spot. Redknapp has, in my opinion, done a decent job at Spurs on the whole, and doesn’t necessarily deserve too much criticism after two seasons which have been Tottenham’s most successful in recent history.
He has spent around £90m (less circa £20m in sales) since he took over from Juande Ramos, combining some astute signings – Gallas, Van der Vaart – with a few expensive mistakes (Robbie Keane being the most irrefutable example). It’s also worth remembering that he inherited a strong squad which included the likes of Gomes, Assou-Ekotto, Dawson, Huddlestone, Jenas, Modric, Bale, Lennon, and Pavlyuchenko. He should be credited with helping to bring on Bale as a top-class winger, and also with intelligently deploying Modric as a central midfield playmaker. Their wage bill is surprisingly low (the seventh highest in the league, according to the Swiss Ramble), so their fourth-place finish last season and subsequent European cup-run can be seen as an impressive overachievement in that sense, which would also imply that their current position of sixth is more-or-less their par for the season.
There is no disguising, however, that Tottenham’s squad is a big one, with plenty of talent (Tony Evans remarked on this week’s Game podcast that Alex Ferguson would’ve won the league with the players available to Harry Redknapp). As such, despite Redknapp’s suggestion that he might not be all that bothered if his side fail to qualify for the humble ol’ Europa League, he is still under a certain amount of pressure to prove that he is the man to take Tottenham forward next season.
Liverpool are in a comparatively optimistic mood, to put it mildly. Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke signed three-year contracts yesterday, and although I have nothing to add to what Paul Tomkins and Scott Murray wrote in their articles yesterday, the fact that Liverpool finally seem to have a good management structure, and to have the right people in the right positions at all levels of the team is something to celebrate.
It’s fairly difficult to predict who will start the game on Sunday. From Liverpool’s point of view, Andy Carroll and Raul Meireles have both been carrying knocks which kept them out of all or part of the game against Fulham, but I’d expect Carroll to start if fit, so it’s likely that Meireles will be rested/dropped to allow Maxi to continue his recent run of goalscoring form. Dalglish will probably line his team up in the fluid 4-4-2 which has been so successful for him in recent weeks.
Various Tottenham players are carrying injuries, but Redknapp still has an abundance of midfield and attacking players to choose from. He seems to like to give each of them a run-out every now and then, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Palacios started over Sandro (especially as Redknapp has looked frustrated with the latter’s lack of positional discipline in recent weeks, and will want someone to do a solid job of restricting the supply to Suarez), and it’s difficult to guess whether he’ll choose Crouch or Pavlyuchenko up front. I think he’s most likely to go for the line-up that faced Man City after Palacios’ 32nd minute injury, minus the injured Gallas, who will be replaced by Younes Kaboul (or Ledley King, who is apparently returning to 'fitness,' whatever that means):
The wing battles are likely to be key on Sunday. Young Danny Rose played fairly well at left-back against Blackpool and Man City, and not just in an attacking sense – he’s fast and technically gifted, but can deliver a well-timed tackle when he needs to. However, it’s possible that Redknapp will use the fit-again Sebastian Bassong at left-back for extra experience and defensive reliability, but it depends on whether he wants to adopt an adventurous or a conservative approach – Rose would be more likely to push Kuyt deeper with his overlapping runs, for example.
And Aaron Lennon caused Paul Konchesky some real problems back in November, but his pace is a test for any full-back, so Dalglish is likely to switch the more experienced Glen Johnson to left-back to deal with his threat. Johnson is naturally right-footed though, and Lennon likes to beat his man on the outside, get to the byline and deliver crosses, so a left-footed starter would be preferable. For that reason, it is possible that young Jack Robinson will get a recall at left-back at the expense of John Flanagan, with Johnson retaining the right-back role in which he has performed so well in recent weeks.
The importance of Luka Modric to Tottenham’s attacking play can hardly be overstated, so Liverpool will have to come up with a plan to deal with him. It’s likely that Spearing will be given the job of closing him down, limiting his supply to the strikers and wingers, but Lucas must sit deep and stay close to Van der Vaart who can become a peripheral figure if unable to find space in his preferred attacking midfield position. And if Liverpool don’t want to leave Tottenham’s third midfielder free, most likely Sandro, then Suarez will have to track back and close him down.
Spurs are likely to leave space between their midfield and defence for Suarez to exploit, but Liverpool’s recent attacking play has relied on precise direct passing from Lucas and Spearing, as well as constant energy and movement from the attacking players. If Tottenham maintain a narrow midfield, Liverpool might be more tempted to use the option of playing direct balls to Andy Carroll’s head, which can be effective if done well, but should only be a plan B while the resurgence of Liverpool's swift pass-and-move football is bearing excellent results.
On the whole, most signs (momentum, recent form, etc) point to a home win, but there's no denying that Tottenham have some quality which can cause Liverpool problems. How Dalglish and Clarke decide to deal with Lennon's threat may well be key.