By Christopher Boulay
With 10 matches left in Liverpool’s Premier League campaign, the club sits 10 points behind Chelsea for fourth place. The gap between the club and fifth place Arsenal is just five points, representing automatic qualification for the Europa League. The remaining schedule could be much worse than it is, with only three fixtures against sides placed higher than the Reds in the table. The first comes this weekend against Tottenham Hotspur. Every match is essentially a must-win, but stopping Gareth Bale and Co. at Anfield may be the most difficult task left on the schedule.
Aside from forward Luis Suarez, there may not be a hotter player in the Premier League right now than Bale. He’s the beating heart of the Tottenham attack, and to be honest, it seems he is also a vital part of just about every other aspect of Spurs’ style of play. He can play just about anywhere, and typically does.
Liverpool was unable to salvage points against Tottenham when the two sides played in late November. Bale scored twice in the match, though only one of them helped out Liverpool. He also had an assist on Aaron Lennon’s goal to open the scoring. The goal that counted in his club’s favor was the only successful hit against the Reds in the Welshman’s entire career.
That figure may be surprising, especially since he’s scored more than 50 goals in his professional career, dating back to his debut with Southampton in 2005. While he never played against Liverpool while at St. Mary’s, he has featured in eight matches while with Spurs, with the first appearance occurring in the 2007-08 season.
One goal in eight matches. Not exactly prolific, especially for a player so highly rated by most soccer fans.
Of course, to look solely at his goal record against Liverpool would be unfair. There is no doubt that he is one of the best players in the world, and his 16 goals in the Premier League this season make him a very real threat. He can play on the wing, in a “false nine”, as an attacking midfielder or even in defense.
In the past four Premier League matches – all Tottenham victories – Bale scored six times. He was in a central attacking position in a rough 4-2-3-1 in three of those victories. The one exception was against Newcastle, where he played on the left wing. He scored twice.
Liverpool’s defense is quickly approaching last year’s level of goals conceded in the Premier League. Already, the club has given up 34 goals. Last season, only 40 balls crossed the line. While the club may surpass last year’s total, the figure can be looked at in multiple ways. First, the club is on pace to put together a “worse” defensive performance in the league than last year. However, 34 goals conceded through 28 matches this season is still quite low. It’s tied for fifth-fewest this season, while last season’s result was tied for third-fewest.
The likely pairing of Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger will have their hands full with Bale’s relentless attacks up the middle. Whether or not Bale starts in the center of the pitch where he has a favored angle of attack, according to Squawka, he will try to exploit the middle. He has a tendency to fire on goal from the center of the box, or right at the top of it.
The defense has been solid, as of late, but it will need to continue its good run of form if Liverpool is going to get out of this match with three points. Between Bale and Lennon, as well as forwards Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor, goals could come from various areas and players.
Tottenham plays the first leg of its Europa League quarterfinal match against Inter Milan on Thursday. While Spurs will likely be able to field a competitive squad in that match, as well as at Anfield on Sunday, Liverpool fans may be hoping that Inter give Spurs an exhausting time. Perhaps one not much different from the famous 4-3 victory during the Champions League group stage in October 2010. Tottenham drew Everton 1-1 three days later. While Bale had a prolific hat trick in Europe, he was quiet on that day against that other Merseyside team.
Regardless of what Bale and Spurs do on Thursday, Liverpool’s defense must be at its best on Sunday to contain one of the planets hottest footballers.
Follow Chris Boulay on Twitter @chrismboulay