By Séamus Leonard
With 32 Premier League games played in its 2013/14 campaign, Liverpool stands atop the table with 71 points. Manchester City and Chelsea are the only other realistic contenders for the title, with the former lying four points behind the Reds but, perhaps crucially, with two games in hand.
However, it is Liverpool with the points on the board and, incredibly, given where the club stood when Brendan Rodgers took over as manager in the summer of 2012, with its fate in its own hands. Win all remaining six games and Liverpool will be back at the pinnacle of English football for the first time since 1990.
Of course, those six games are by no means foregone conclusions. The impending visits of Manchester City and Chelsea to Anfield mean that it is still very much all to play for as one of the most entertaining Premier League seasons draws to a compelling conclusion.
But before the bankrolled Citizens make their way to Merseyside on April 13, Liverpool has the small matter of West Ham away to take care of. The Hammers had a dreadful start to the season, and for a while it looked like Sam Allardyce might be the next manager to get the bullet. But the Boleyn Ground boys have enjoyed a remarkable revival, winning six of their last nine games to climb to the safety of mid-table.
While 37 points do not make Allardyce’s charges mathematically safe, it would take a bizarre sequence of results to see them relegated. The task now for ‘Big Sam’ is to motivate his players to maintain their recent form and secure a top ten finish.
In terms of motivation for Sunday’s game, there will be little need for Allardyce to say anything to striker Andy Carroll or winger Stewart Downing. Both players were sold by Liverpool to West Ham last summer (Carroll had been on loan with the East Londoners prior to his sale), though Rodgers used his Friday press conference to praise both players. The move south has worked out for both former Reds, and Carroll insists he is more focused on impressing England manager Roy Hodgson than getting one over on Rodgers.
The Geordie attacker has shown glimpses of his best since he returned to the West Ham line-up after a prolonged period on the sidelines through injury. His trademark header from a corner in the 2-1 win over Sunderland last Monday will no doubt have sent shudders down the spines of Liverpool fans worried about the lack of aerial strength in their side’s defense.
Rodgers has the option of bringing the powerfully-built Mamadou Sakho into the heart of the rearguard, but there are a variety of reasons why that is unlikely to happen. The fact that the Liverpool backline has kept three clean sheets in its last five games is the most pertinent one, but Sakho also hasn’t played a competitive first-team game since leaving the field injured against Chelsea last December, and it would be something of a gamble to throw him into the mix in such an important fixture.
Whatever about Carroll’s aerial threat in the box, the England international is also a danger with flicks from direct balls, and this is an area Rodgers might see fit to guard against. The Liverpool boss made a point of recognizing Lucas Leiva during the week, commending the Brazilian’s professionalism as he struggles to regain a spot in the starting 11.
While playing Lucas and Gerrard together at the base of the midfield has not always worked to good effect this season, Rodgers may be tempted to try it again. It would offer Liverpool extra bodies around any second balls off Carroll, it would give Lucas some much-needed playing time, and, with Lucas there to stick his foot in, Gerrard may be less likely to pick up a yellow card that would see him reach ten for the season and incur a two-game ban.
The problem with including Lucas is that it would force Rodgers to choose between Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling. Both players put in exceptional displays in the 4-0 win over Tottenham last weekend, with the latter considered the man of the match by many observers. With West Ham likely to sit deep and look to hit the visitors on the break and from set pieces, Coutinho would probably get the nod due to his ability to unlock defenses with precision passing.
Liverpool has become accustomed to racking up cricket scores against lesser opposition this season, but the Reds may have to show some patience on Sunday. West Ham has kept 13 clean sheets so far this term and has a very dependable goalkeeper in Adrian.
But the Hammers are capable of having their off days as well, and they recently succumbed without much resistance to Manchester United. If the lackluster Red Devils are capable of coming away from Upton Park with a 3-0 victory, Rodgers and his troops have every reason to feel confident of recording their ninth league win on the bounce.
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 CNBC and NBC Sports Live Extra, with coverage starting at 1100 EST.
West Ham United v Liverpool
When: Sunday, April 6, 1100 EST/1600 BST
Where: Upton Park, London
Previous Premier League match: Sunderland 1-2 West Ham, Liverpool 4-0 Tottenham
League Position 2013-14: West Ham 11th (37 points), Liverpool 1st (71 points)
Projected West Ham United Starting 11
DEF: Demel, Tomkins, Reid, Armero
MID: Downing, Noble, Taylor, Nolan, Diame
Subs from: Jaaskelainen, Spiegel, Johnson, McCartney, Razak, Diarra, Nocerino, J Cole, Jarvis, Vaz Te, C Cole
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Flanagan
MID: Henderson, Gerrard, Lucas, Sterling
FW: Suarez, Sturridge
Subs from: Jones, Cissokho, Kelly, Sama, Smith, Toure, Luis Alberto, Coutinho, Teixeira, Aspas, Moses
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard