Liverpool vs. Watford
Venue: Anfield Stadium
Kick off: 1:30PM
Nigel Pearson could not have wished for a tougher start to life in the Watford dugout as his basement-dwelling side visit runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool at Anfield today at lunchtime.
The Reds will be looking to move 11 points clear of Leicester City in what is their final league game before Christmas, whereas Watford remain rooted to the foot of the table with six points now separating them from safety.
The glitz and glamour of the Club World Cup in Qatar awaits Liverpool next week in addition to an EFL Cup quarter-final, but first they must pass their final league test before Christmas.
On paper, it looks like the most straightforward one possible for the Reds, who have won 24 of their last 25 top-flight outings including 15 of 16 this term to storm into an eight-point lead over Leicester and a whopping 14-point advantage over champions Manchester City.
Last weekend’s 3-0 cruise at Bournemouth ensured that Liverpool will be top on Christmas Day despite the chasing pack having the chance to catch up while the leaders are in Qatar, although the Merseysiders are responsible for the last three occasions that a team has topped the table at Christmas but failed to go on and win the title.
All the signs so far point to this season being different to those of the past, but should Jurgen Klopp’s side suffer an unlikely slip-up this weekend and Leicester keep their winning run going then the Foxes would suddenly have the chance to leapfrog Liverpool at the top of the table when they face off in a huge Boxing Day clash.
Such a situation contains a number of improbable hypotheticals, though, not least Liverpool seeing their 33-match unbeaten Premier League run and 15-match league winning streak at Anfield coming to an end at the hands of the division’s basement club.
Indeed, Liverpool have not lost a league game at Anfield since April 2017, a run of 48 matches, the most recent of which saw them brush Everton aside with a 5-2 Merseyside derby win despite resting the likes of Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino.
All of the front three have had rests so far in December, in fact, and the performances of fringe players in those games were another example of Liverpool’s title credentials with the likes of Divock Origi, Naby Keita, Xherdan Shaqiri and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all getting on the scoresheet.
Klopp’s side have so far made light work of a packed festive schedule and could rest players again for this one with one eye on being crowned the best football team in the world for the first time next week.
The Reds will no doubt be wary of the ‘new manager boost’ which so often catches teams out, and it will not be lost on them that Pearson was the man to lay many of the foundations at Leicester which have enabled the Foxes to become their closest title challengers this term.
It is a big ask for a manager whose last job saw him sacked by Belgian second tier side Oud-Heverlee Leuven to suddenly turn this Watford team into giant-killers within eight days of his appointment, though, and the stats firmly point towards a comfortable home win.
Only four times in Premier League history has the bottom club beaten the league leaders, while Watford themselves have lost all of their last 12 top-flight matches against teams starting the day top of the table – a run which stretches back to 1986.
Liverpool may also be confident of keeping their first home clean sheet of the season at the 13th attempt considering that Watford have failed to score in a league-high nine of their 16 games so far. Liverpool themselves are the only team to have scored in all 16, incidentally.
Klopp’s side go into the match having kept successive clean sheets too, including a 2-0 triumph over free-scoring Red Bull Salzburg in midweek which sealed their place in the last 16 of the Champions League.
The likes of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid or Borussia Dortmund could await in the next round, whereas Watford on their current trajectory are heading for the distinctly less glamorous destination of the Championship.
The Hornets have had more managers than wins approaching the midway point of the season, with Javi Gracia, Quique Sanchez Flores and interim boss Hayden Mullins combining for just the solitary success between them so far.
Whether Pearson is the man to turn a sinking ship around remains to be seen, but Watford certainly seem to have the players to escape their current situation, with the likes of Gerard Deulofeu, Troy Deeney and Abdoulaye Doucoure at their disposal.
Those players have simply not done the job so far, though; a tally of one win and nine points from 16 league games is only ever going to leave a club rock bottom of the table, while their measly tally of nine goals is fewer than Liverpool have managed from headers alone this season.
Watford make the trip to Anfield having only won two of their last 13 away games in the league, losing nine of those in a run which began on their last visit to Anfield in February.
Few will be expecting that record to improve this weekend, nor indeed next weekend at home to Manchester United, so it will take a fairly major upset for Pearson to avoid seeing the six-point gap to safety grow even bigger in the early days of his tenure.
The new boss will at least have his side well-drilled and fired up for the difficult double-header, though, and should they get the first goal against a Liverpool side shipping them regularly at Anfield this season then belief will grow that they could get the type of result which would surely kickstart their campaign.
Liverpool possible XI: Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Van Dijk, Robertson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Milner, Shaqiri, Keita, Mane,Origi.
Watford possible XI: Foster, Femenia, Kabasele, Cathcart, Masina, Doucoure, Capoue, Sarr, Pereyra, Deulofeu; Deeney.