Christmas football is back. For most, that is great news, but if you are an Albion fan, then it is probably safe to assume that any Christmas football will swiftly turn into Christmas misery.
Last Christmas saw Albion drop two points against Barnsley on Boxing Day; four days later, the Baggies lost 2-0 at home to Middlesbrough after a thoroughly turgid performance.
This year, Albion’s ‘Christmas’ match comes against Liverpool — they do not come much harder than that, do they?
Liverpool, unsurprisingly, sit at the top of the table and finally look to be rediscovering the form which saw them win their first league title in 30 years last season, as they come off the back of a resounding 7-0 victory at Crystal Palace. Red card or not, this is a Palace side that thumped us 5-1 just two weeks before. So it is pretty safe to assume that this is going to be a difficult fixture.
There is hope, though; indeed, Albion’s best performances have undoubtedly come against ‘big six’ sides: they drew 3-3 at home with Chelsea, were incredibly unfortunate to lose against Spurs and Manchester United, while Albion’s best performance and result of the season was the 1-1 draw against Manchester City. This ultimately proved to be Slaven Bilic’s last game in charge at The Hawthorns.
Despite Liverpool’s resounding win at Selhurst Park, it is also pretty safe to assume they have not been at their swash-buckling best in this Premier League season. There is of course the Aston Villa result, which saw the Champions lose 7-2 at Villa Park (though again, Villa did just lash Albion 3-0 at home).
That game shows Liverpool could be there for the taking — just two weeks ago, Fulham hung on for a 1-1 draw against Jurgen Klopp’s men.
And perhaps most superstitiously, the last time Liverpool lost in the Premier League was against Sam Allardyce’s Everton. So maybe, just maybe, the stars could align.
Albion appear to have no fresh injury concerns, but will be without skipper Jake Livermore once again following his sending off against Aston Villa. It has been a difficult return to the Premier League for the 31-year-old: he contracted COVID-19 at the start of November and took a while to get back to fitness, and now, his place as captain is under threat after Allardyce questioned his leadership credentials.
Sam Field is unlikely to be match-fit yet following his knee injury, since he is yet to feature in any significant reserve or U23 matches. Kyle Bartley, meanwhile, looks touch and go — Bilic claimed his return timeline was two weeks, and we have since approached that point. Conor Townsend is unlikely to be back until the New Year.
One man who is back, however, is Matheus Pereira, who has just completed his own three match-ban following his red card against Crystal Palace. It will be interesting to see whether Allardyce attempts to fit Pereira in and if so, where.
He can play on the right, of course, but he is clearly more effective through the middle. Can he be trusted defensively in a midfield three? It is likely that he would start on the right but Matt Phillips could provide more defensive solidity in that area of the pitch.
Allardyce spoke of getting back to basics following the Aston Villa result, so at least for now, it appears quality will be compromised for solidity.
This could see summer-signing Karlan Grant dropped to the bench. The former Huddersfield forward has not been able to make an impact this season beyond his goal at Brighton, and was very poor against Aston Villa. Charlie Austin is the more typical centre-forward, with more experience, while Callum Robinson off the left would surely bring more than the out-of-sorts Grady Diangana.
Predicted XI (4-5-1)
Liverpool’s defensive woes continue as Van Dijk and Joe Gomez remain long-term absentees. Klopp could play Joel Matip alongside the more experienced Fabihno but given the opposition and his form, academy product Neco Williams will likely retain his place at the heart of defence.
Klopp’s infamous rule for returning players is that they must complete at least two training sessions before being considered for selection. Recent absentee James Milner has been sighted in training, so it is possible he could feature, though Klopp confirmed longer-term absentee Thiago Alcantara is not yet ready to play.
Former Wolves striker Diogo Jota remains sidelined with a knee injury, as does Kostas Tsimikas and Xherdan Shariqi.
Beyond these doubts, it is not too difficult to predict how Liverpool will lineup: 4-3-3, attack.
Predicted XI (4-3-3)
The Game Plan
Albion will need to be at their very best if they are to get anything from this fixture. The result against Manchester City was phenomenal, but there is no hiding the fact that City’s recent form has been poor, especially in front of goal. Liverpool have also been inconsistent, but it does appear that they are hitting form again.
Allardyce will have used whatever precious time he’s had with the players to prepare for battle. Albion must defend for their lives, and do so in numbers. Big Sam will get men behind the ball at all times, whilst hoping and praying he can hit Liverpool on the counter, capitalise from a set-piece, or an error.
The Reds, on the other hand, will be told to go and win the game. Klopp does not use an outlandish, secret tactical formula to win games. Everyone knows how crucial full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are going forward, whilst the whole world knows how lethal Sadio Mane and Mo Salah can be. Roberto Firmino’s form had been iffy, but even he appears to be back to his best.
Albion may have to watch out for a few red-herrings too: last year’s signing Takumi Minamino looks to be finding his feet at Anfield, after having scored against Crystal Palace.
Ultimately, this task seems too much for Albion to handle, so Allardyce will likely be left waiting for his first result as the Baggies boss.
Score prediction: Liverpool 4-0 West Brom