Thursday, 23 January 2014

Bournemouth v Liverpool this Saturday lunchtime could be an FA Cup cracker

Saturday's early kick-off in the FA Cup Fourth Round sees AFC Bournemouth host Liverpool, in what should hopefully be an easy-on-the-eye encounter. Two talented young managers with similarly attractive playing philosophies  it might just be the perfect way to start your weekend

These two sides have met twice before, both in the FA Cup, both times Bournemouth were the hosts, and on both occasions they played out hard-fought draws before being given a hiding at Anfield in the replay. But given those ties took place in 1927 and 1968, it's probably about time the two teams were drawn against each other again.

Bournemouth have been so impressive in recent seasons over the course of Eddie Howe's two spells at the club (though the less said of Paul Groves' lacklustre tenure in the middle, the better). When Howe first took the job in 2009, he inherited a team languishing at the foot of League Two, a 17-point deduction hanging over their heads. He kept them up against all the odds, but bigger surprises were to follow. The following season he got them promoted under extremely trying circumstances  the club were under a transfer embargo for virtually the whole season and frequently failed to list a full complement of substitutes on their teamsheet. On one occasion teen striker Jayden Stockley was hauled out of his GCSE exams to make up the numbers on the bench. Slim pickings indeed. In short, Howe was a miracle worker right from the off.

After 100 games at the helm, Howe was lured away in January 2011 to Championship football and Burnley. But he and his family struggled to settle, and by October 2012 he had made the difficult decision to drop back down to League One and return to Bournemouth. It proved to be a wise move all round, with Bournemouth rocketing up the table and clinching another ahead-of-schedule promotion, while Burnley have also improved markedly since Sean Dyche took over from Howe. Win-win situation.

Eddie Howe 
Bournemouth have spent quite a bit of money to get to where they are now (bottom half of the Championship, but looking good enough to stay up). It's very possible to argue some of that money was badly spent, with the two biggest signings  Matt Tubbs and Tokelo Rantie  thus far not offering sufficient return on investment. But for the most part Bournemouth have signed talented, technical footballers with a strong work rate. Howe has a way of playing and it requires good technical ability and lots of graft. Most of his signings have bought into this ethos.

Howe's methods are not wildly different to those of Brendan Rodgers. Indeed, Bournemouth captain Tommy Elphick used the press conference ahead of the game to praise Rodgers and speak in glowing tones about how he tries to get Bournemouth playing in a similar way. "We aspire to be like Liverpool so it's a good time to play them to see how far off we are," said Elphick. "There's a lot to learn from a team like Liverpool and a manager like Brendan Rodgers. The key is having no fear. If you give them too much respect they will hurt you."

In terms of similarities, both managers will shift between a single striker and two up front depending on the fixture and/or if the temperature of the game demands it. And both Rodgers and Howe like to have good technical players in central midfield that are constantly on the move, with a wide range of passing. For Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva at Liverpool, read Harry Arter and Eunan O'Kane at Bournemouth.

Both managers like to play the ball out from the back too, so hopefully Saturday's encounter will be an elegant game with plenty of good technique on show. If you've only just crawled out of bed with a stonking hangover, there are worse ways to nurse yourself into the weekend.

The aforementioned O'Kane is in a rich vein of form. The diminutive central midfielder is the sort of player for whom one's appreciation creeps up the more you see of him. His build is not particularly athletic, but he's constantly near the play, knows when to keep it simple, and is excellent at positioning himself in such a way that he either intercepts the pass or dissuades the opponent from releasing the ball at all.

Harry Arter is in a similar mould, with but more bite to his play, a greater range of passing and a bit more of a goal threat too. A cousin of Scott Parker, you can see similar tenacity in his game at times, though too many of his all-too-regular yellow cards come from his inability to stay out of the referee's ear.

Eunan O'Kane. [Photo: Mick Cunningham]
At right back, Simon Francis is the most dependable player in the team. When needed, he'll be up and down the touchline all game, and must get through a tremendous amount of running over 90 minutes. When he gets to the byline, he's capable of whipping in dangerous crosses.

Honorable mentions to: attacking workhorse Lewis Grabban, who has scored some invaluable goals this season and never stops running; classy wide midfielder Matt Ritchie, whose shots from range are as dangerous as his haircut is daft; and goalkeeper Lee Camp, who has proved to be an excellent shot-stopper and has recently made his loan move from West Brom permanent.

Of course, along with Camp, Bournemouth's busiest players on Saturday could well be their centre-backs. Particularly if Luis Suarez sees some pitch time. The club are fortunate to have three good ones. Elphick and Elliott Ward have been getting the nod over Steve Cook of late, but whichever pairing Howe opts for, they are all capable and competent. The worry is whether capable and competent will be enough.

Finally, if tiny right winger Ryan Fraser sees any time on the pitch, I'd like to see him in a race with Cissokho. Fraser is seriously rapid once he's got some open space in front of him.

Anything's possible and it's not a bad time to be playing Liverpool. After their strong start in the Premier League, their recent points haul has been somewhat more modest, and they may be starting to prioritise finishing fourth over cup competitions. They will surely have half an eye on their huge game with Everton at Anfield on Tuesday evening.

They have some key men missing too. It's unlikely that any of Lucas, Johnson, Agger, Sakho, Flanagan or Luis Enrique will see any time on the pitch this weekend, so it's clear to see that it's in defence where they might be a little stretched. That said, they still have good options in Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho and Kelly. But will they really want to play all four when the same back four might be needed in the Merseyside derby three days later? Perhaps the likes of Aussie left-back Brad Smith will get a rare start?

If Suarez starts and is paired with Sturridge, you fear for Bournemouth's chances. But if Rodgers opts to keep them in reserve for Tuesday then Bournemouth must look to grab the initiative first half before Liverpool potentially introduce reinforcements later on.

Bournemouth don't have masses of cup upset pedigree, but they did knock Manchester United out in the 1980s and narrowly lost to them 2-1 in the 1950s. They would have knocked them out twice in the 1980s, had Steve Bruce not cynically trodden on Luther Blissett's heel in 1989 when he was about to score a late winner. The referee hadn't kept up with play and missed the foul. Predictably, United won the replay. With apologies to Worksop, Heybridge Swifts et al, the Liverpool game this weekend is unquestionably Bournemouth's biggest game in the FA Cup since that day 24 years ago.

If Suarez and Sturridge both start, Liverpool to be leading at half-time and full-time looks reasonable odds at 19/20 (BetVictor). If neither starts, I'd be tempted by the draw at 9/2 (various), but of course those odds could plummet fast once teamsheets are confirmed, so be poised and ready to bet around 60-90 minutes before kick-off if you're getting on that one.

Harry Arter's customary yellow card may well make an appearance, but 8/1 (Betfred) on him being the first player booked is not really value, so wait for Betfair odds nearer to kick-off. I prefer 31/10 on Victor Moses to score anytime (Unibet). The Nigerian has had hardly any game time since early December, but would seem likely to get a run-out here.

Victor Moses: a good anytime goalscorer bet?
The final word goes to Eddie Howe, ahead of what will hopefully be the game of the round. "It's a great challenge. It's a rare opportunity to pit our wits against one of the best teams in the world. This is a really special game. Not just for us as players but as fans, and the buzz around the town. We don't want to show Liverpool too much respect and freeze on the occasion."

"Better managers and players have tried to keep Suarez quiet and failed. It's one of the biggest challenges in world football."

AFC Bournemouth v Liverpool, Saturday 12.45pm, ITV1