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Absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder – just ask Jordan Henderson. His three-game suspension for a needless lunge on Samir Nasri has coincided with a run that has seen Liverpool throw away the initiative in the title race, prompting Reds fans to question his replacement Lucas Leiva and elevate Henderson’s stock even higher.
While Henderson is a certainty to return for the final game against Newcastle, he could be joined in midfield by Philippe Coutinho, who was restricted to a cameo role for the Crystal Palace debacle on Monday by injury.
Without Henderson and Coutinho the Liverpool midfield has seen two of its key men missing at the worst possible time, having been so fortunate with midfield availability prior to the last few weeks.
Henderson for Lucas is an inevitable change, but while Joe Allen has impressed in recent weeks, Coutinho should also return. Unlucky to miss out on Brazil's 23-man World Cup squad, the playmaker is the form man at Liverpool in recent months and can help unlock the Newcastle defence - albeit a challenge that has not looked too difficult during Alan Pardew’s side’s torrid recent run of form.
No Liverpool player has created more chances than Coutinho since the start of March, with the Brazilian laying on 24 chances in the last 10 games, including three assists. Allen, while drawing praise for his defensive play, does not hold the all-round attacking threat of Coutinho.
In a game that Liverpool desperately need all three points from, the reintegration of Coutinho and a reversion to a midfield of Steven Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho and Raheem Sterling for the first time since the win over Manchester City looks to be the best option.
Of the four players vying for berths either side of Steven Gerrard, Coutinho has created more chances per 90 minutes – over twice as many as Allen – provided more assists and scored more goals.
Newcastle are unlikely to be too adventurous going forward. Pardew’s comments about the importance of last week’s game with Cardiff being a chance to end the season with a win suggests he had written this weekend off, and Coutinho’s ability to make things happen makes him ideal to start.
Under Rodgers, Coutinho has been transformed from a hot and cold playmaker, flirting with the label of being a luxury player, to an all-round midfielder.
Against City he completed seven tackles from 10 attempts, defending well against Samir Nasri, and while Allen holds the defensive edge over the 21-year-old, Coutinho is adept and mobile enough to provide the level of cover expected of a midfield player in Rodgers’ Liverpool side.
His goalscoring intervention against City was key and, should the Citizens slip up against West Ham, Coutinho’s inclusion could again be integral to a Liverpool victory over Newcastle.
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- Jordan Henderson
- Samir Nasri