Verdict: Mohamed Salah to score
Best odds: 7/10
Relegation battlers Sheffield United are set to welcome champions Liverpool to Bramall Lane on Sunday evening as the two teams take each other on in the 26th round of the 2020-21 season in the Premier League.
The Blades were a very pleasant surprise last season. Having earned promotion from the Championship, they played some very interesting football and produced some great results, eventually finishing in ninth place, just five points off a place in the Europa League.
This time around, however, things are very different. It took Chris Wilder’s team 18 matches to earn their first win of the campaign, when they managed to beat Newcastle at home on January 12th. They had only two points prior to that win over the Magpies, but things have started improving lately.
They are still at the bottom of the table with 11 points to their name and seem certain to return to the Championship in the summer. Newcastle are the lowest-placed team above the red zone at the moment, with 25 points. And while Fulham, with 22, still have a decent chance to stay in the league, it seems all Sheffield and West Bromwich Albion (14) will be fighting for is to avoid finishing last.
Be that as it may, the Blades won twice and lost four times in their last six matches in the league. They first stunned Manchester United at Old Trafford by beating them 1-2, then lost 0-1 at home to Manchester City, beat WBA at home by 2-1, lost to Chelsea at home by 1-2, lost 3-0 away to West Ham, and eventually 1-0 away to Fulham.
They managed to beat Bristol City in the fifth round of the FA Cup, though, and they’ll face Chelsea in the quarterfinals on March 21st.
Wilder won’t be able to rely on defenders Chris Basham, Jack O’Connell, John Egan, and Jayden Bogle. In the middle of the park, there will be no Sander Berge, once heavily linked with Liverpool, nor Jack Rodwell. Striker Lys Moussett will also be absent; all through various injuries. It’s certainly a large number of players, some fairly important ones as well.
Like Sheffield United, Liverpool are also going through a season they’ll want to forget after an absolutely superb one. Their title defence is in tatters; there’s not a single hope for it left even though there’s still a long way to go. In fact, it seems the Blades have more chance of avoiding relegation at this point than the Reds have of retaining the title. The 19-point gap between them and leaders Manchester City is simply too big, and given the form Pep Guardiola’s team are on at the moment, impossible to bridge.
Never mind the title, Liverpool will now be aiming to finish inside the top four and not miss out on Champions League qualification, and that seems like a challenge enough for Jurgen Klopp’s depleted squad. Injuries are, of course, the clear and obvious reason for their current predicament.
The Merseysiders are currently sixth with 40 points, the same as neighbours Everton in seventh. Looking up, Chelsea are three points ahead in fifth, West Ham five points ahead in fourth, and it’s an even 10-point gap to Leicester City and Manchester United in third and second, respectively.
Liverpool’s recent form is actually the same as that of Sheffield; they won twice in their last six matches and lost the last four. Even before that things looked rather worrying for Jurgen Klopp and his team, but the consecutive 1-3 wins away to Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham seemed to have arrested the drop for a while. But since then they’ve lost three home games – 0-1 against Brighton and Hove Albion, 1-4 against Manchester City, and last week 0-2 to Everton, with a 3-1 defeat away to Leicester taking place just before the Merseyside Derby.
The funny thing is, Liverpool haven’t been playing nearly as badly as these results suggest, but lack of focus upfront coupled with the same at the back in crucial moments appears to be troubling them severely; and it’s not to be wondered at.
The Champions League seems the only reason for optimism at the moment for Liverpool. They’ve beaten RB Leipzig in the first leg of the round of 16, officially registered as an away fixture, by 0-2. But their credentials to go very far in the competition are certainly questionable.
It’s not really news that there’ll be no Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez or Joel Matip, with all three centre-backs sidelined for the rest of the season. The same goes for captain Jordan Henderson, who occasionally stepped into the role and has undergone groin surgery. He’s expected to miss six to eight weeks of action. Midfielder Fabinho played most of the season in the heart of defence but has recently been absent through an injury of his own, and won’t play on Sunday either. It means Klopp will have to choose between newcomers Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, and youngsters Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams for this match. Kabak and Phillips seems the likeliest choice at the moment.
The midfield section will be missing James Milner, but the 35-year-old is set to return to training at the weekend along with Fabinho.
Meanwhile, midfielder Naby Keita and forward Diogo Jota are back in contention after long absences, though neither of them is likely to start.
All other things aside now, this is a game Liverpool simply must win. Quite apart from sitting at the bottom of the table, Sheffield United are as badly hit with injuries as the Reds are, if not as long-term, so there can be no excuses on that front for this particular match. And if they cannot take advantage of this moment, then there’s really not much cause to hope for anything for the remaining part of the season.
Mohamed Salah is the Premier League’s top goalscorer, and you’d expect him to turn up with the goods on Sunday again.
Verdict: Mohamed Salah to score
Best odds: 7/10
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