08 February 2014

Szcz throws down the gauntlet. Can any at Anfield pick it up?

As I write, there are only a few hours left before we invade Anfield. Much of the talk in the lead-up has focused rightly on the midfield battle, and rightly so, as controlling the midfield allows one to dominate the tempo and rhythm of the match. Just as much attention has focused on Luis Suarez, both for his goal-scoring for and for the summer soap-opera that saw us make a £40m+1 bid for the Hungry Argentinian Uruguayan (edited. shouldn't stay up past my bedtime...).

However, it's from between the sticks that the loudest talk has come, naturally, and it's from our Polish keeper, who is in a form to rival that of Suarez. Sure, Suarez has scored goal after goal after goal, but Szczesny has made game-saving or clean-sheet keeping save after save after save. In years past, we've bemoaned the gap between Szcz's talent and performance, wondering when he would leave behind the head-slapping howlers as well as deliver game-changing stops. It appears that this time has come. As I discussed in this post a few days ago, Szczesny is currently the best keeper in the Prem. He's kept clean sheets in nearly half of his Prem starts—11 in 24—and the only keepers to concede less-often than he has haven't faced any penalty-kicks, while he's faced four.

It's not just in the stats that we see the difference; it's in his attitude. It's gone beyond overconfidence; it's settling into a more-mature awareness of his abilities and responsibilities. Speaking at the club-site ahead of the trip to Anfield, Szczesny weighed in:
Our defensive record recently has been very impressive. I think not only the back four but the whole team has been defending really, really well, so we're confident that we can do it again at such a difficult venue. Then we'll enjoy that double against them even more. I think we are on a very good run so we're confident. We know that that it's going to be a very tough game because Anfield is one of the toughest venues in the country but, having said that, we're looking forward to it. I think it's going to be a cracking game.
While this does venture into the kind of trash-talk that can stoke up the opposition, anyone looking for motivation at this point, ahead of a key match-up, is going to need more help than Szczesny is willing to offer. After all, he's not necessarily saying anything new. We can always count on him to make bold statements. The difference to this point in the season has come from his ability, and that of his teammates, to back it up.

Since the drubbing at the Etihad, we've conceded a mere four goals in our last nine matches, one of those an irksome give-away to Aston Villa when Cazorla clicked off for a moment. If there's a worry, it's that all four came on the road and may have come as we underestimated the opponent. However, there'll be no underestimating Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers may have decided that his squad can't compete for the Prem title, but he's certainly eyeing next year's Champions League.

Whatever Liverpool's motives are, Szczesny sounds ready to help shut down Suarez and Sturridge on the occasions that they do get service from their midfield and slip past Kos and Per. They may try to pick up the gauntlet Szczesny has thrown down, but running the gauntlet to to him is another matter. I don't think that a clean-sheet is in the offing, but Szczesny and the back-four may beg to differ.

Kick-off's in about 6 hours as I call it quits here. It's past midnight and the missus will be not be sympathetic to my stumbling around in the kitchen to get my coffee ready...