By Séamus Leonard
After seven straight Premier League wins in a row, Liverpool now has seven games remaining in a season that could yet be a historic one for England’s most decorated club.
Wednesday night’s 2-1 victory over Sunderland wreaked havoc on supporters’ nerves, but the Reds showed just enough resolve to resist the Black Cats’ efforts for an equalizer in the closing stages at Anfield. Manager Brendan Rodgers will be hoping such resilience will become a trademark of his side as the season races towards an exhilarating finish.
Rodgers’ charges currently lie second in the table, just one point behind leaders Chelsea. Big-spending Manchester City is arguably in the driving seat, sitting just two points behind Liverpool but with two games in hand over both its title rivals.
Not that the Liverpool players will have been allowed to dwell on the possible permutations, as Rodgers’ modus operandi of focusing on the next game will have kicked in immediately after the three points were secured in midweek.
Although tension was a major factor against the Wearsiders, the Liverpool manager insisted that, on reflection, his side was much more comfortable than the scoreline or the atmosphere suggested. Rodgers has urged fans to enjoy the title race, obviously hoping to reduce the growing anxiety among Kopites.
That nervousness, of course, was borne out of the fear that Liverpool would allow its first serious title challenge in five years to be undermined by the concession of points to a relegation candidate. In that sense, the visit of Tottenham should make for a more relaxed home support.
Liverpool has saved its best performances for the big games this season, especially since the turn of the year. But even before then, the Reds were making people sit up and take notice. No game illustrated that better than the reverse fixture at White Hart Lane when Liverpool overcame Spurs 5-0 on its own patch – a performance that is recognized as the blueprint for how Rodgers wants this Liverpool outfit to play.
The Merseysiders recorded that victory without the services of injured duo Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge, making the performance and result all the more impressive.
The hosts have virtually a full strength squad to choose from, with long-term absentees Jose Enrique and Sebastian Coates (both knee) the only players still on the treatment table. While Rodgers is not a manager who is keen on changing a winning team, there are a couple of changes he might consider.
In defense, Mamadou Sakho will be itching to get back to first-team action after three months on the sidelines. Liverpool was undone by a corner in midweek, and so the Frenchman’s physique would be a huge help on set pieces. Daniel Agger could be the man to drop to the bench. The Denmark international’s predisposition to injury is well known, and asking him to play a third game in just eight days may not be a prudent move.
Rodgers also has a decision to make at left-back. Jon Flanagan has had a remarkable season, coming from the furthest fringes of the squad to establish himself as a first team stalwart. The 21-year-old’s performance level has dropped noticeably in recent games, however, and it might be time for Rodgers to step in and give the young Scouser a rest. Aly Cissokho is the obvious replacement. The Valencia man may not be the most comfortable in possession, but his abilities on the defensive front should not be underestimated.
There is a decision to be made in midfield as well. The diamond formation worked brilliantly on the road for the Reds, but it made them look ponderous in possession against Sunderland. Liverpool’s superb home form has been based on speed in attack, and so you would feel on that basis that Raheem Sterling has to come back into the starting 11. If that transpires, Philippe Coutinho is likely to make way. Starting the Brazilian and Sterling in the same side at home against Aston Villa in January proved a disaster, and Rodgers is unlikely to risk such a scenario again.
While Sunderland came with a defensive game plan, Tottenham will almost certainly be a bit more aggressive going forward. The North Londoners lie seven points behind rivals Arsenal in the race for the fourth Champions League spot, and, therefore, a draw would not be much use to Tim Sherwood’s charges.
Sherwood is sweating over the fitness of Emmanual Adebayor, as the Togolese striker continues his recovery from a gash on his heel. Adebayor has been the main threat for Spurs since Sherwood replaced Andre Villas-Boas as manager, and it is no secret that Liverpool struggles to cope with physically powerful target men.
Tottenham has had a full week to prepare for its trip north, and its players will have been on a high after last Sunday’s last-gasp 3-2 win over Southampton.
Essentially, however, this game will be decided by which Liverpool side turns up. If the Reds come anywhere near the level that has seen them blow the likes of Everton, Manchester United and Arsenal out of the water, then there is little chance Spurs will get anything from this game.
But those impressive performances don’t produce themselves. Liverpool needs to be confident but not complacent, respectful but not fearful. The atmosphere at Anfield is sure to be electric. Let’s hope the Redmen can match it.
Liverpool v Sunderland
When: Sunday, March 30, 1100 EST/1600 BST
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Previous Premier League match: Liverpool 2-1 Sunderland, Tottenham 3-2 Southampton
League Position 2013-14: Liverpool 2nd (68 points), Tottenham 6th (56 points)
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Cissokho
MID: Henderson, Gerrard, Allen
FW: Sterling, Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Flanagan, Kelly, Toure, Agger, Sama, Smith, Luis Alberto, Teixeira, Coutinho, Aspas, Moses
Projected Tottenham Starting 11
DEF: Naughton, Kaboul, Vertonghen, Rose
MID: Lennon, Paulinho, Bentaleb, Eriksen, Chadli
Subs from: Friedel, Gomes, Dawson, Fryers, Dembele, Sandro, Townsend, Sigurdsson, Kane, Adebayor
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard