By Séamus Leonard
Liverpool faces into its third consecutive away game in the Premier League, but the results and performances from the previous two encounters have the Reds in buoyant mood ahead of the trip to South Wales.
Last Sunday’s 3-0 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford was monumental. Time will be required to determine if the game marks a long-term shift in power between England’s two most successful teams, but it was definitely another landmark display in a season littered with such phenomena. And as has been said so many times before this season, it wasn’t just the result that impressed, but the manner in which it was achieved.
As satisfying as it was to see the Red Devils humiliated on their home turf, it still only amounted to another three points on the board. Midfielder Jordan Henderson, who grows in stature each passing week, struck the right chord when he was reported on Tuesday as saying that the Reds’ focus had already moved to Saturday’s game in Cardiff.
And manager Brendan Rodgers followed that up in his press conference on Thursday when he said the focus remains solely on Cardiff. Saturday’s encounter will mark the start of a crucial eight-day period, during which Sunderland visits Anfield on Wednesday and Tottenham on Sunday.
There is no doubt that Liverpool is in the “conversation” when it comes to title challengers. Now Rodgers’ charges must ensure they are still being talked about in the same manner come the start of April. Looking at the formbook, there is no reason why the Reds shouldn’t stay in contention. They are unbeaten in the league since the turn of the year, recording eight wins and two draws in that period.
The fact that Liverpool has no other competitions to serve as distractions has been well documented, but the return to fitness of center back Mamadou Sakho and defensive midfielder Lucas Leiva is another boost for Rodgers. For the first time all season, the Liverpool bench actually looks strong, as evidenced by the absence of veteran defender Kolo Toure from the match day 18 last Sunday.
This newly-acquired squad depth could prove crucial in the run-in. It could be especially important in the coming week.
Having gone away to Southampton and Manchester United, scoring six goals and keeping two clean sheets in the process, the prospect of taking on Cardiff City should not have made Rodgers lose any sleep this week. While nothing can be taken for granted, this is probably – on paper at least – the easiest of the nine games Liverpool has remaining.
Cardiff is currently 19th in the table, just one point ahead of basement side Fulham. It is three points from safety, has more games played than most of its fellow strugglers, and has an inferior goal difference to the sides immediately above it.
The last thing Cardiff boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs is a visit from the league’s form team, but that’s what he has to contend with. In all honesty, it is difficult to feel any sympathy for the Bluebirds. They are reaping what has been sown by their horrendous owner Vincent Tan. Not only did the Malaysian businessman commit the treacherous act of changing the club’s home colors from blue to red, but he also sacked Malkay Mackay – the man who had brought Cardiff back to the top flight for the first time in over half a century – for no good reason.
Any sympathy going is reserved for the Cardiff faithful, whose dream promotion to the Premier League has been overshadowed by Tan’s ridiculous decisions and antics.
The hosts took the scalp of Manchester City at home last August, but they failed to build on their early-season promise and the installation of Solskjaer has not had the effect Tan presumably desired.
Despite Cardiff’s woes, Rodgers will be keen to ensure that Liverpool does not allow any complacency to set in. In terms of selection, it would be a surprise to see any changes to the side that started in Manchester. Joe Allen has been picked for both of the last two games, and his return to side has been key to Liverpool’s increased defensive solidity. While some credit must go to goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and the excellent performances of the back four, Allen’s inclusion has given the Reds a much more compact shape, without interfering with their attacking prowess. Indeed, it was the Wales international’s darting run forward that lured Man United defender Phil Jones into conceding that crucial second penalty last Sunday.
In the not too distant past, Liverpool fans might have feared a trip to a place like the Cardiff City Stadium. It wasn’t so much the strengths of the opponents that prompted those fears, but rather the weaknesses of the men in red.
It was a painful learning process at times, but those weaknesses (mostly defensive in nature) are no longer a grave concern. Liverpool’s incredible season is building to what could be a historic crescendo. Every win is a step closer to achieving what was inconceivable before this amazing season began. Don’t take your eyes off this Liverpool side. You may never see the likes of it again.
If you are in the greater Boston area, you will be able to watch the match at The Phoenix Landing with LFC Boston. If not, you can watch it on NBC Sports Live Extra, with coverage starting at 1100 EST.
Cardiff City v Liverpool
When: Saturday, March 22, 1100 EST/1500 BST
Where: Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff
Previous Premier League match: Everton 2-1 Cardiff, Manchester United 0-3 Liverpool
League Position 2013-14: Cardiff 19th (25 points), Liverpool 2nd (62 points)
Projected Cardiff Starting 11
DEF: Da Silva, Caulker, Cala, John
MID: Noone, Mutch, Medel, Kim, Zaha
Subs from: Lewis, Turner, Theophile-Catherine, Jones, Taylor, Whittingham, Gunnarsson, Cowie, Daehli, Eikrem, Berget, McNaughton, Bellamy
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Flanagan
MID: Henderson, Gerrard, Sterling, Allen
FW: Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Cissokho, Toure, Sakho, Kelly, Sama, Smith, Lucas, Luis Alberto, Coutinho, Teixeira, Aspas, Moses
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard