Liverpool's final away game in 2013/14 is a Monday night trip to Crystal Palace, where Tony Pulis' side have been in excellent form. Michael Cox and Alan Thompson both believe the hosts will give the Reds a tough test...
"Crystal Palace stick two banks of four behind the ball, and defend extremely deep."
Crystal Palace v Liverpool
Monday 20:00, Sky Sports 1
Match Odds: Crystal Palace 9.417/2, Liverpool 1.422/5, The Draw 5.24/1
They might be in very different situations, but many believe Brendan Rodgers and Tony Pulis are the two favourites for the LMA's Manager of the Year award based upon their performance this season - and Monday night's meeting puts them head-to-head.
If Pulis wants to win the award, his best chance is probably by defeating Rodgers, denying Liverpool the title, and therefore encouraging voters to select him instead.
Pulis won't care too much about personal recognition, however, and will be keener to ensure his Crystal Palace side continues their brilliant march up the table. Pulis' defensive-minded, counter-attacking approach generally works well against big sides, and Palace might turn this into an extremely difficult evening for Liverpool.
Palace's approach is relatively simple. They stick two banks of four behind the ball, and defend extremely deep. While their defensive record is excellent, it's not simply the back four that deserves credit - the midfield quartet work extremely hard as a unit, shuffling across the pitch together to close down opponents, and preventing any passes being played through them.
The only downside is that Palace are always dominated in terms of possession - but then Pulis has never been interested in ball retention.
This approach could cause Liverpool problems. The Reds' inability to break down a parked bus in the 2-0 home defeat to Chelsea was obvious, and while the solution in that game might have been to attack with fewer players and accept a 0-0 draw, that won't be an option against Palace. Liverpool will have to throw men into attack, leave space at the back, and leave themselves open to Palace's counter-attacks.
Make no mistake, however, Liverpool start the game as strong favourites. They're still without Jordan Henderson but Daniel Sturridge should return upfront alongside Luis Suarez, and even a backline as resilient as Palace's will have problems keeping those two quiet. Their collective form has wobbled slightly over the last month or so, though, and while Suarez is excellent at battering the Premier League's minnows, do Palace still fall into that category?
The major decision is Rodgers' shape. We can guess the line-up - Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling as the three attackers, with Coutinho, Joe Allen and Steven Gerrard in the middle. But this could mean a 4-3-3, or a 4-4-2 diamond.
Will Rodgers go with the former, to stretch the play and attempt to play around Palace, or the latter, which means Sterling central and potentially more opportunities to play through the opopsition?
The 4-3-3 makes more sense, as Liverpool are unlikely to find much space between the lines - or indeed, space in behind. Attacking down the flanks makes more sense, and this doesn't have to mean constant crossing. Cut-backs can be dangerous too.
Palace's main threat on the break will be Jason Puncheon, who should start on the right. He's scored four times in his last five games - and has a habit of opening the scoring, too, so could be worth backing in the First Goalscorer market if you fancy Palace to get their noses in front.
The first goal of the game will be crucial. Palace's dependence on the counter-attack means they've been unable to recover from losing positions under Pulis, probably their only genuine weakness since he took charge in December. However, if they take the lead, the pattern of the game will become even more established - Liverpool will dominate, Palace will sit very deep.
Liverpool look a little underpriced to me - they're clearly strong favourites, but I think this could be trickier than many expect because of the defensive discipline of Palace's midfield. I'll back-to-lay a draw, as 5.24/1 seems a high starting price.
Back-to-lay a draw at 5.24/1
The Betfair Trader's View: Alan Thompson
Both these teams suffered their first defeats in a while last week. Palace’s run of five wins in a row came to end with Man City’s 2-0 win here and Liverpool’s 11-game winning streak was ended by the same scoreline against Chelsea at Anfield.
Since taking charge at Palace, manager of the month for April, Pulis has achieved an average of 1.5 points per game, and equalled the club record of five straight top-flight wins. However, they still remain bottom of the pile in attacking stats with only 15 goals scored at Selhurst Park this season; 78% of games at home this season have produced fewer than 2.5 goals.
Palace have only scored at home twice against sides in the top 12 – they won both games 1-0 (Chelsea & Stoke) and only one of those games produced an over 2.5 result (Newcastle 0-3).
Much will depend on how much that huge setback against Chelsea last week will have damaged Liverpool but, away from Anfield this season, they have been nothing short of sensational. Averaging 2.5 goals per game, they have scored in 13 consecutive away games, undefeated in their last eight, winning their last six and scoring 20 goals in the process.
Liverpool might well return to winning ways but they are far too short at 1.42 in the match odds market to do so against an in form Palace side, so I have to lay at that price.
I am also going to side with Palace’s defensive qualities over Liverpool’s impressive away form by backing Under 2.5 Goals at around 2.5 – giving me some cover should Liverpool win 0-1 or 0-2.