By Séamus Leonard
The holiday season is often a defining period in the English Premier League calendar, and a visit to fellow title and top four hopefuls Tottenham is the start of a five-game stint that will likely determine what Liverpool’s ambitions for the rest of the campaign will be.
While manager Brendan Rodgers is loath to ever look beyond the next game, he will realize that the outcome of the upcoming fixtures against Tottenham (away), Cardiff City (home), Manchester City (away), Chelsea (away) and Hull City (home) will have a huge effect on how involved Liverpool will be at the business end of the league in the months to come.
There is validity to the argument that Liverpool needs to start winning games against top sides such as Spurs, especially away from home. Rodgers has done many impressive things since taking over at Anfield in the summer of 2012, but he has yet to register a victory on the road against a rival for Champions League football.
That said, any pragmatic Liverpool fan would take two wins (Cardiff and Hull) and three draws (Tottenham, Man City and Chelsea) if they were offered them now. Some may argue that shows a lack of ambition and/or confidence, and that the Reds should be aiming for more than nine points from an available 15. However, even denying other sides three points in so-called ‘six-pointers’ is a progressive step.
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard limped out of last week’s 4-1 win over West Ham United with a hamstring injury that is likely to keep him sidelined for at least a month. He joins striker Daniel Sturridge on the treatment table. It is frustrating to lose the skipper at such a crucial juncture, especially as the injury was probably preventable. Trying to get three games in six days out of a 33-year-old is a risky business, and Liverpool, Gerrard and Rodgers have paid a high price for the unnecessary gamble.
In a strange way, however, it is probably not the worst thing in the world for Gerrard to sit out Sunday’s trip to North London. The axis of him and Lucas Leiva has simply not worked this season, and the midfield has looked a lot more balanced when Lucas has been absent. The pair tends to sit too deep when they have played together, and we saw at Hull how dangerous a tactic that can be away from home. Joe Allen has looked solid since returning to the fold. Yes, he missed that sitter to make it 3-1 against Everton at Goodison Park, but his overall contribution has been impressive. Gerrard’s enforced absence offers the Wales international a chance to prove that he has what it takes to be a regular starter in the engine room.
Daniel Agger is available again after illness kept him out of the West Ham game. The vice-captain may have to be content with a place on the bench, however, after Mamadou Sakho’s strong display against the Hammers. Raheem Sterling has also shown improvement in the last two games, but the 19-year-old could also be held in reserve. Victor Moses is a danger on the counter attack, and the on loan attacker has plenty to prove after his shocker against Hull. Rodgers may also like to have some pace and physicality out on the left flank to offer support and protection to full-back Jon Flanagan.
Opponents Spurs has had a strange season to date. There were reports mere weeks ago that manager Andre Villas-Boas was on the verge of the sack in the wake of the mauling at Manchester City. A home draw against Manchester United and away wins at Fulham and Sunderland have put Tottenham right back into the mix, however, and a win on Sunday would bring the North Londoners level on points with Liverpool.
Progression to the knock-out stages of the Europa League has also been achieved with the minimum of fuss. Indeed, striker Roberto Soldado will be brimming with confidence after his hat-trick against Anzhi Makhachkala on Thursday night.
Tottenham may have lost Gareth Bale to Real Madrid during the summer, but the €100m it recouped on the Welshman has been reinvested in the squad. On paper, Spurs looks a formidable proposition. In reality, Villas-Boas is still working hard to get the new arrivals such as Paulinho, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela to gel. Tottenham’s home form has been patchy to say the least. Of its seven league games at White Hart Lane to date this season, Tottenham has won only three, drawn two and lost two.
With Luis Suarez in the form of his life, Liverpool will always carry a goal threat. Therefore, the key to winning on Sunday is to maintain defensive concentration. Liverpool has only kept four clean sheets so far this season, and three of those came in the opening three games. Injuries, illness and individual errors have not helped, but excuses are no longer acceptable. Rodgers’ charges simply cannot afford to keep conceding if they want to stay in the hunt for a top four spot.
Tottenham v Liverpool
When: Sunday, December 15, 1100 EST/1600 GMT
Where: White Hart Lane, London
Previous Premier League match: Sunderland 1-2 Tottenham, Liverpool 4-1 West Ham United
League Position 2013-14: Tottenham 6th (27 points), Liverpool 2nd (30 points)
Projected Tottenham Starting 11
DEF: Walker, Dawson, Chiriches, Rose
MID: Lennon, Sandro, Dembele, Paulinho, Chadli
Subs from: Friedel, Gomes, Naughton, Fryers, Capoue, Kaboul, Lamela, Sigurdsson, Eriksen, Townsend, Holtby, Defoe, Adebayor, Kane
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Flanagan
MID: Henderson, Lucas, Allen, Coutinho, Moses
Subs from: Jones, Kelly, Agger, Toure, Cissokho, Ilori, Luis Alberto, Ibe, Sterling, Aspas
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard