By Séamus Leonard
And then there were 12 (games). After last weekend’s unfortunate FA Cup exit at the hands of Arsenal (or more accurately the whim of referee Howard Webb’s ego), Liverpool is left to concentrate on its Premier League exploits between now and the end of the season.
In previous years, the last line would have been a wistful one, with eyes turning towards the summer and thoughts focusing on who the club could bring in to generate an upturn in fortunes. Not so this year, with the Reds delicately placed in fourth position. The break in league action has given all involved time to assess the situation, but it’s still difficult to know whether Liverpool should be looking to catch those above, or concentrating on keeping those below in its slipstream.
Ever since the Premier League fixture list was released last July, it has been remarked upon how favorable the schedule was to Liverpool. With home games to open and finish the campaign, and the majority of tough away encounters in the first half of the season, the situation was set up for Brendan Rodgers and his charges to take advantage of. The only penance to be paid, seemingly, was a pair of away ties against Manchester City and Chelsea during the traditionally difficult festive period. Narrow 2-1 defeats at both the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge did upset the Reds’ rhythm for a while, but recent results have left Rodgers & Co well placed to attack the closing stages.
Injuries have played their part in disrupting Liverpool’s flow, but the tide seems to be turning in that respect. Defender Glen Johnson is back in the reckoning for selection after his enforced spell on the sidelines, and midfielder Lucas Leiva and center back Mamadou Sakho are on the mend as well.
Johnson is unlikely to be brought straight back into the starting line-up on Sunday, but his return to fitness can only serve to boost Rodgers’ options as he plots to orchestrate as strong a finish to the season as possible. Where Liverpool can realistically end up in the table is still a matter for conjecture, but it stands to reason that every victory the side can rack up makes the case for a title challenge all the stronger. Conversely, any dropped points will undermine Liverpool’s hopes, and so a win against a Swansea side under the stewardship of recently-appointed manager Gary Monk will be seen as essential to maintain momentum.
A lot of attention will be paid to the Swans’ team selection, as it will indicate what approach Monk will take. This league encounter for the Welsh outfit is sandwiched by two Europa League Round of 32 legs with Napoli. The first leg ended 0-0 at the Liberty Stadium on Thursday, so Monk must decide if he will opt for a full strength side at Anfield, or rest some players with one eye on the return leg in Naples. The two managers are well acquainted with each other as Monk was Swansea captain when it won promotion from the Championship under Rodgers in the 2010/11 season. Will facing his own boss bring the best out in Monk, or will a sense of reverence stymie his ambition?
It would be no surprise if the latter was the case given Liverpool’s exceptional home form. The Reds have won 11 of their 13 league fixtures at Anfield this season, with one draw and a lone defeat, and their cup exits occurred on the road at The Emirates and at Old Trafford. It is one of the many benefits of being near the top of the table that some of the lower clubs are often beaten before they ever step on the surface of the iconic grounds. For too long after Rafa Benitez’s departure as manager in 2010, Anfield proved a happy hunting ground for visiting teams. To Rodgers’ credit, he made making the L4 venue a fortress again a priority and he has succeeded in that task.
And Liverpool’s victories on home turf have been achieved with such swagger of late that fans are flocking to witness with their own eyes how devastating Rodgers’ charges are in attack. If the 11 players on the pitch are struggling, then a reinvigorated and intimidating home crowd may play a vital part between now and May.
The sense of belief that Liverpool takes to the pitch with at Anfield these days should not be underestimated. As Everton and Arsenal have found to their respective costs recently, the Reds can win a game early and are not in the business of taking their foot off opponents’ necks. The less impressive away results are an issue that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later, but with Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea all still to come to Anfield, Liverpool will need to remain stingy hosts as well.
Rodgers fielded a strong starting 11 against Arsenal last week, but at least a couple of changes are likely. Brad Jones was solid between the posts and was not at fault for either of the Gunners’ goals. Nevertheless, first-choice stopper Simon Mignolet will almost certainly be recalled. Joe Allen didn’t have his greatest game at The Emirates, but it was important for the former Swansea midfielder to get 90 minutes under his belt given his season has been heavily disrupted by injury. The Wales international will probably drop to the bench at the expense of Jordan Henderson. Aside from that, Daniel Agger should retain one of the center back berths. The Dane looked rusty last week after his injury lay-off, but he is a safer option than the error-prone Kolo Toure.
It’s hard not to feel like a home game is a nailed-on victory for Liverpool at the moment. Here’s hoping that Swansea buy into that inevitability.
Liverpool v Swansea City
When: Sunday, February 23, 0830 EST/1330 GMT
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Fulham 2-3 Liverpool, Stoke City 1-1 Swansea City
League Position 2013-14: Liverpool 4th (53 points), Swansea 10th (28 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Flanagan, Skrtel, Agger, Cissokho
MID: Gerrard, Henderson, Coutinho
FW: Sterling, Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Johnson, Kelly, Toure, Sama, Allen, Smith, Luis Alberto, Teixeira, Aspas, Moses
Projected Swansea City Starting 11
DEF: Rangel, Flores, Williams, Davies
MID: Dyer, Britton, Canas, Shelvey, Routledge
Subs from: Tremmel, Amat, Taylor, De Guzman, Emnes, Pozuelo, Hernandez, Tiendalli, Vazquez, Michu, Ngog
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard