Liverpool must beat Hull to keep up chase for top four spot
After Saturday's frustrating 0-0 draw at West Brom when Liverpool came up against a home side set up with the sole intent of avoiding defeat, Brendan Rodgers' men should be gearing up for more of the same as they travel to struggling Hull City on Tuesday night.
Currently in 16th place, one point off the drop zone, Hull need points even more desperately than West Brom did so perhaps they'll show a little more ambition and go for all three rather than just one, but it's more than likely that they'll look to emulate Tony Pulis' men by frustrating Liverpool, defending in numbers and hoping to nick something on the break or from a set-piece.
Pulis has a reputation for making his teams resolute and difficult to play against, but the lack of any kind of attacking ambition on Saturday was right out of the Jose Mourinho handbook. He's entitled to set his team up however he sees fit of course, but are Liverpool really worthy of that kind of respect at the moment? This isn't the destructive attacking force of a year ago.
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It's easy to criticise Brendan Rodgers and his players for failing to win at the Hawthorns but it's tough when you're the only team actually trying to play. West Brom had all 11 players behind the ball for most of the game. There was nothing clever about it, which is why it rankles to hear talk of Pulis "out-coaching Rodgers." Tim Sherwood out-coached Rodgers when Villa beat the Reds in the FA Cup semifinal; Pulis did not. He just went out and played for a goalless draw at home against a side struggling for form.
Villa outplayed Liverpool by adopting a front foot approach and taking the game to Rodgers' side. Perhaps if West Brom had done the same they would have been celebrating three points instead of one but, with a seven-point cushion between themselves and the bottom three, a point was deemed good enough.
Liverpool are far from unbeatable, but the higher percentage play against them is to sit deep and frustrate as they simply don't have the firepower to break down that kind of set up. Is a point enough for Hull though? For then, every point is priceless, but three could be the difference between staying up or going down. Bruce must decide whether to stick or twist.
Liverpool had close to 75 percent possession at the Hawthorns, yet that translated to just two genuinely clear cut goal-scoring opportunities. That's the same as West Brom had despite being camped on the edge of their own box for almost the entire game.
Bruce may feel that keeping a clean sheet is the most important thing as Hull will almost certainly get chances. Indeed, if West Brom had two great opportunities despite showing no attacking intent whatsoever, then Hull can expect similar.
As for Liverpool, for all the doom and gloom they actually go into this game having closed the gap on fourth placed Manchester United to seven points (with a game in hand) at the weekend. Wins against Hull and QPR would see that gap reduced to just one point by the time United play again. The great frustration is that they'd have had the opportunity to leapfrog United in the table next Saturday if they'd beaten West Brom.
Liverpool's failure to win this weekend may prove very costly when the points are tallied up in May, but the real damage was done in that loss to United at Anfield. The fans had looked at United's upcoming fixtures and felt that gave the Reds the advantage in the race for the top four should they avoid defeat against Louis van Gaal's men. They were right too, United have lost their last two and that would have opened the door had Liverpool taken care of their own business. The loss to United saw a "six point swing" but also killed all of Liverpool's momentum. They've not looked the same since.
There's every chance United will drop more points over their remaining games -- City too for that matter -- but unfortunately there is little to suggest that Liverpool have what it takes to capitalise on it. They simply must beat Hull if they are to apply any pressure at all.
The main worry is over where the goals are going to come from? Rodgers has returned to using Mario Balotelli as a lone striker, but that well ran dry a long time ago and the Northern Irishman appears to be the only person unable to see it. The Italian does have something to offer -- he actually showed some flashes here and there at the Hawthorns -- but he needs support. Replacing him with Fabio Borini was utterly pointless, surely it would have made more sense to give Balotelli a partner rather than take him off?
And what of Rickie Lambert? A player signed to provide a "Plan B" from the bench for games such as the infamous Chelsea one at the end of last season. That day Rodgers was reduced to sending on Iago Aspas whose only contribution was to take one of the worst corners in the history of football. Lambert was brought in for games exactly like that and the one at the Hawthorns, yet he was left on the bench as Borini got the call. Baffling.
The Reds may be completely unsuited to breaking down a packed defence but they do have players that can be dangerous in space, so getting the first goal is vital. If Liverpool can get their noses in front early the game may open up which will allow Raheem Sterling, Jordon Ibe and Jordan Henderson in particular to exploit the space. If Hull keep things tight and defend deep, it could be another long evening for Rodgers' men.
Liverpool may have given themselves too much to do to secure a top four spot, but they at least have to make a fight of it and be in position to capitalise on any slip ups from those above them.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.