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Liverpool v Spurs - media view with Phil McNulty of the BBC

Posted on 9 February 2017  - 15:05

Phil McNulty has been BBC Sport's Chief Football Writer since July, 2000, covering Premier League, Champions League and England. In that time, he's reported from four World Cups and has been named in the UK Press Gazette's list of the top 50 UK sports journalists. Born in Liverpool, he also knows Merseyside football like the back of his hand...

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Phil McNulty
Chief Football Writer, BBC Sport

phil203What have you made of Liverpool’s form?
Phil: "You can draw a line across Liverpool’s form after they beat Manchester City at Anfield on New Year’s Eve and then split their season into two distinct parts.

"Liverpool went into 2017 in second place six points behind Chelsea, with Anfield awash with optimism about the possibility of winning their first title since 1990. Jurgen Klopp could seemingly do no wrong, leading the whole club with charisma and a passion that was really making a special connection with Liverpool’s supporters.

"This connection still exists and Liverpool still have an outstanding manager, but their season has gone into freefall with just one win in nine games since the turn of the year - a fairly unconvincing FA Cup third round replay win at League Two Plymouth Argyle - that have included going out the EFL Cup semi-final against Southampton, losing to Wolves from the Championship in the FA Cup Fourth Round and now dropping out of the top four after losing at Hull City.

"Lots of factors have been at work. The loss of leading scorer Sadio Mane to the Africa Cup Of Nations with Senegal robbed them of their biggest attacking threat. Philippe Coutinho, their most creative player, has not regained the spark he showed before a seven-week absence with an ankle injury and others who were so important in their superb early season form, such as Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana, have just had a dip in performance levels. There was even the curious case of defender Joel Matip, who was injured but then could not return when he was fit because of confusion over his eligibility to play for Liverpool after he declined to play for Cameroon at the Africa Cup Of Nations.

"Liverpool still have that threat and still have a real shot at a top four place, but suddenly the defensive frailties that were disguised by all their great attacking football are being exposed and they have looked a little one-dimensional. They have struggled against teams who are prepared to sit back against them, with a shortage of a Plan B on occasions. Klopp, however, is a firm believer they will come out of this patch and it could just take one moment and one match, especially at Anfield, for all the confidence and energy that characterised their performances in the first few months of the season to return."

Below: Sadio Mane

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How important is this game?
Phil: "One look at the Premier League will confirm just how vital this game is in the context of this season. Liverpool have now dropped out of the top four after losing at Hull City and with Manchester United gaining ground they simply cannot afford a defeat. In fact a draw would be a blow for them. If they win they can maintain pressure on the top four places and obviously also deliver a setback to Spurs, closing the gap on them in the process.

"If Spurs win, they will not only at least maintain some semblance of pressure on Chelsea and keep their own momentum going, it would further demoralise Liverpool and potentially push them even further out of the top four equation. This shows you what is riding on this one."

Below: Adam Lallana and Dele Alli in action in the 1-1 draw at the Lane in August

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Liverpool have a fine record against teams in the top six - do you expect them to raise their collective game again for this one?
Phil: "Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea at Anfield recently meant that in 15 Premier League games against their main rivals - Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Spurs - Jurgen Klopp has lost only once, a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United at Anfield last season. Klopp and his players have shown they can raise their game for the big league encounters, so Spurs will have to be wary of this, and of course the fact that Anfield can be an even more intimidating arena than usual when the team is backed into a corner, as it has been by recent results.

"Liverpool certainly possess quality in the shape of Coutinho, Lallana, Firmino and Mane – and this is just the sort of occasion that might suit them as they look to reboot their season.Spurs, however, should not be short of confidence. Liverpool are looking fragile at the moment and it may just be they are starting to pay the price for playing such intense, high-tempo football with a relatively small squad."

Below: Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp

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Looking at tactics, where do you think the key areas will be at Anfield?
Phil: "This will be a really interesting area because both Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp are advocates of a positive, intense, pressing style of play that can be very exciting and successful when it comes off. Liverpool have had problems recently against teams who have sat a little deeper, allowing them more possession and almost asking them to show them what they have got.

"Will both managers temper their natural instincts to negate the other? Or will we see a full-throttle encounter? Either way it has the makings of a thrilling game. If Spurs can subdue that attacking quarter of Lallana, Firmino, Mane and especially Coutinho, then they will go a long way towards getting the result they want. Liverpool, in turn, will be aiming to somehow stop the supply to Harry Kane while also curbing the goalscoring instincts and creation of Dele Alli that can so damage, as Chelsea can vouch for.

"The tactical set-up between two managers who share many similar values will be very intriguing and I think those are the really key areas."

Below: Philippe Coutinho

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You’ve seen plenty of Spurs live this season as well, what do you make of us at the moment?
Phil: "Spurs have produced arguably the two best team performances I have seen in the flesh this season, namely the 2-0 win at White Hart Lane that ended Pep Guardiola’s perfect Premier League start as Manchester City – achieved without the injured Harry Kane - in early October and the win by the same scoreline against Chelsea in January that ended their hopes of making history with a 14th successive top flight win.

"On those occasions Spurs looked the complete package right throughout the team, with quality and class in all the important areas. After a start when they were not quite at their best I think they have a great chance of achieving a top four place. There are one or two injuries that will test Spurs, such as the absences of Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose, but this is a very strong squad.

"I’d be lying to suggest I fancied them for the title because Chelsea look so strong and in such a powerful position at the moment, but Spurs are a very impressive team under a very impressive manager in Mauricio Pochettino.

"Spurs have lost fewer league games than anyone else, just two, which hints at the strength and resilience within the side as well as the flair provided by the likes of Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and of course the goals of Harry Kane. They are demonstrating last season was the start of Spurs being right in the mix every season in my opinion. They look a very fine side, not just for now but for the long-term future, given the young talent and the fact the club have wisely tied all their key players to long-term deals.

"I think Spurs and their fans to feel the future is very bright, irerespective of what happens in the rest of this season."

Below:Danny Rose fires home against Liverpool in August

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Last but not least - how do you think it will go on Saturday?
Phil: "Sorry to sound like I am sitting on the fence but no outcome would surprise me. A Liverpool win, a Spurs win or a high-quality draw, like it was at Anfield at the end of last season. I think it will be a very tight game in terms of the scoreline. I honestly think if it is not a draw there will only be one goal in it. And that is sitting on the fence isn’t it? Apologies!"