How Liverpool Can Stop Gareth Bale at Anfield

Mark Jones@@Mark_Jones86Featured ColumnistMarch 7, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur and Joe Allen of Liverpool battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane on November 28, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

A net? Slipping something into his pre-match meal? Visiting the same ACME store that provided Wile E. Coyote with the vast assortment of traps he used to try and stop the Road Runner? Liverpool may have considered all of these options.

But the Road Runner escaped all of those obstacles, and Gareth Bale has been emerging from pretty much every challenge he’s faced for the past few months.

On Sunday he’ll run out at Anfield in a match that not only brings together arguably the two most exciting players in the Premier League in the Welshman and Luis Suarez, but also serves as a huge test for both Liverpool and Tottenham’s European ambitions.

Spurs are firmly in the frame for a top-four finish largely thanks to a run of 12 matches unbeaten in the league, a run which was extended when Bale scored a 10th goal in his last eight games for club and country in the 2-1 win over rivals Arsenal last weekend.

That result coupled with Liverpool’s back-to-back league wins over Swansea and Wigan which saw them reach an aggregate score of 9-0 has opened up the chance for the Reds to possibly pinch fifth place from Arsenal. Brendan Rodgers and his side have surely left it far too late for a top-four tilt, but a fifth-place finish above the Gunners and Everton could undoubtedly be seen as progress.

It remains to be seen just what will happen over the remainder of the season, of course, but Sunday offers up an enticing clash that certainly should enthrall the neutrals, partly because of the presence of Bale.

Given that they are playing at Anfield, Liverpool’s plans will always centre on how they can affect the game in an attacking sense―and in Suarez, Philippe Coutinho, Steven Gerrard and maybe Daniel Sturridge, they’ll certainly have players who Spurs should be worried about―but a plot to stop Bale might have to take priority.

The notion that a team must go out to stop a certain member of the opposition is a relatively recent one, though, with one of Liverpool’s most famous coming in February 2007 in a Champions League tie at Barcelona.

Lionel Messi had broken into the team by then, but this was still very much Ronaldinho’s Barca, and Reds boss Rafael Benitez was bombarded with questions about just how the visitors planned to stop the Brazilian superstar in the first leg of their last 16 tie at the Nou Camp.

In the event, as recalled by Gerrard in an extract from his autobiography published on Benitez’s website, the Reds took the game to their Catalan opponents, effectively nullifying the threat of Ronaldinho by giving his teammates less chance to pass him the ball.

Liverpool won 2-1, taking a huge step towards their second Champions League final in three years in the process, and although the tournaments, names and places mentioned here indicate just how different the modern Reds side is, the principle perhaps remains the same.

Stopping those who give Bale the ball could be seen as just as important as stopping Bale himself, and so by giving the visitors as little time as possible to enjoy on the ball, the Reds could end up killing two birds with one stone.

Liverpool could be aided by the injury that saw Tottenham midfielder Moussa Dembele limp off in the North London derby at the weekend. If the Belgian is absent at Anfield, that removes another one of those talents who can give Bale the stage upon which to shine. The plan to keep the opposition players away from the ball will receive a boost.

It is easier to talk about such an approach than to put it into action, of course―particularly against a team who have been playing as well as Spurs have―but any plans devised for Sunday should centre on stopping all of Andre Villas-Boas’s players and not just Bale.

Wile E. Coyote focused on an individual, and he was never successful.

Maybe Liverpool should take note.