IT’S going to be quite the contest – Hull City v Liverpool. The Mighty Reds against the team from over there. The lads who once were lost, and now are found. I’m talking about both sides.
Always a surprise how suddenly and dramatically things turn in football. It’s almost the sport’s most enduring theme, and perhaps the reason it is the most loved. Do rugby or cricket have these legends of rise and fall, of humiliation and then redemption? Maybe other sports do, but surely they don’t have such a stock of them.
Hull looked the epitome of a busted flush as recently as Christmas. Then the Hull elders acted, defrocked the harrowed Mike Phelan, and replaced him with a gelding of manager – 39-year-old Marco Silva was Portugal’s Gary Monk. Only Gary had English football’s top two divisions on his CV, while Marco had the equivalent but in weaker leagues – his native Portugal, and latterly in Greece.
Silva was considerably handsomer than craggy Mike Phelan, and had an air of mystery that only the handsome lads from foreign leagues can exude, but his reputation could barely be described as a work in progress. Kudos to Hull vice Chairman Ehab Allam, then, for the talent spotting and the bravery to gamble the club’s top flight status on so green a coach.
Silva’s Humberside revolution is still very much an understated one. There are not yet enough wins on the board for the townsfolk to be considering erecting statues to him, but he navigated a fixture programme that could only be classed in the baptism of fire category. Four of his seven fixtures have been against Chelsea and Manchester United. Only one of these games at home.
His record in those four games – a win, a draw and two defeats. Just five goals conceded. In the other three fixtures he claimed two wins and lost one.
The bare stats only just hint at the improvement under Silva. He has stabilised the freefall. He has made Hull not just hard to beat, but a genuine threat to teams at every level in the Premier League. Wednesday night’s draw at Old Trafford — a backs-to-the-wall job, obviously — was a marker of the progress being made. The bookies were offering 18-1 on a Hull win. If ever there was a 0-0 to make a league sit up and take a bit of notice, surely this was it.
It is our misfortune that we face the new Hull. The old Hull were a dream. It seems all but a dream now that we saw them off 5-1 last October. Back then, no team came away from Anfield with anything but bruised egos. Liverpool were ruthless. Liverpool were pressing. Liverpool were goals.
Silva started his Hull assignment on January 4 this year. A date that equally marked a turning point in Liverpool’s season. The Reds’ results are actually not dissimilar to Hull’s, but the expectations of the two are poles apart.
It is Hull’s misfortune that they face the new Liverpool. The post-Chelsea Liverpool. The Liverpool that regained a sense of itself and took runaway Chelsea to the wire in a frenetic 1-1 draw at Anfield on Tuesday. It was far from being a resumption of the business of the Autumn, in terms of the quality of the football, but the appetite looked to have returned. The urgency and the tempo were back, and for moments it looked like Chelsea might be subsumed by it.
Only a draw, sages might council, but Jürgen Klopp had the demeanour of a manager who had seen enough to leave him hugely encouraged. His own 90 minute wild touchline flamenco rendered the fourth official broken, breathless and in awe. Klopp had perhaps also re-discovered his own inner-Klopp. He kicked every ball, disputed every adverse decision, and exhorted his whole team — the players and the crowd — at every sensing of a lapse in intensity.
Maybe it’s a shame that the TV won’t be at Hull to bear witness to what should be an essential Premier League encounter. The re-energised David against a defiant Goliath. The head should be saying that a full-strength Liverpool must have too much for even a rebooted Hull, but the whispers in the betting fraternities will be all about how the clever money must be lumped on the home team.
Hull are a challenge to Liverpool, but this Liverpool like to be challenged. A banker of a fixture would not have suited the Reds in the wake of the Chelsea rehabilitation.
Klopp knows, above all else, that defeating demons is one thing, but you still can’t beat the good old-fashioned luxury of a fully-fit squad to select from. At the time of writing, it looks like only Danny Ings, Marko Grujic and Ovie Ejaria will not be available, though the former hasn’t been for nearly two years, so — no disrespect Danny — he doesn’t really count.
Sadio Mane returned from international duty a week ago and, save for 25 minutes on Tuesday night, has had the best part of a full week to get himself right for Hull. Phil Coutinho got another 65 or so under his belt in the week, and it feels like we’re approaching the moment where we get the real-deal version of Philippe back. These developments can only come as blessed relief to Bobby Firmino, who has carried too much of the can in recent weeks with his two partners in crime out of the picture.
Barring late injury worries these three surely start for the first time since November 26. Liverpool were top of the league then, where now we are fourth. It’s not very hard to see the correlation.
Still, uplifting as the site of the three of them back in tandem will be, nagging doubts about the team’s broader prospects will remain while their deputies continue to flounder.
One or both of substitutes Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi will be required at some point during the course of Saturday afternoon. Both need to start showing that they still have parts to play this season, or it could be their last in Liverpool red.
In central midfield Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson won’t need to check the manager’s teamsheet to know that they will start against Hull City. Both have had arguably their best seasons for Liverpool, and both were outstanding when tested at the highest level in midweek.
Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can have been mates and rivals all season, and one of them will be disappointed by Klopp’s team choice this weekend. My money is on Wijnaldum to get the nod over Emre, by dint of his goal and near man-of-the-match performance against Chelsea. Gini has still to convince everyone, but there is little doubt that the team has functioned best as a whole with him in the side.
The defence for now picks itself, although I’m always eager to see more opportunities for the precocious Trent Alexander-Arnold. He’s nowhere near Nathaniel Clyne’s level as a defender, but there may come times when he can offer us more going forward.
God knows what kind of welcome magic man Silva and Hull have planned for the Reds. They have been in attack mode at home under the new man, and though that will mean Liverpool will have to remain compact and concentrated, it should ultimately aid our cause.
We’ve had enough views of bus parkers this season to last us a lifetime. It would be nice for our forwards to see just green grass ahead of them for once.
The Comeback Reds to ruin Silva’s Saturday: Mignolet; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Coutinho, Mane, Firmino.
Last Match: Liverpool 5 Hull City 1
Referee: Lee Mason
Odds: Hull 27-4, Draw 4-1, Liverpool 1-2