By Séamus Leonard
Having overcome Manchester City last weekend, Liverpool has the destiny of this season’s Premier League table in its own hands with just four games remaining. The 3-2 victory over the Citizens came at a cost, however, with Jordan Henderson’s red card ruling him out for three games and Daniel Sturridge doubtful after sustaining a hamstring injury.
Those setbacks notwithstanding, Liverpool could not have wished to be in a better place as it faces into the final stretch of the campaign. The position of Brendan Rodgers’ men was further strengthened in midweek when Man City was held to a 2-2 draw at home by relegation-haunted Sunderland. The upset left Manuel Pellegrini’s men six points behind Liverpool (albeit with a game in hand), and with a difficult visit to Everton still on their schedule.
While City is still in the mix, the reality is that Liverpool is in pole position and the consensus is that it is the Merseyside club’s title to lose at this stage. Tricky fixtures against second-placed Chelsea (home) and Crystal Palace (away) are still to be played, but if Liverpool can remain at the summit heading into the final game against Newcastle United at Anfield, then the Reds would have at least one firm hand on the title at that stage.
But before all that, there is the small matter of Norwich City to be dealt with. The Canaries made the ill-advised decision to sack Chris Hughton as manager earlier this month. The club’s board was under the delusion that appointing youth team coach Neil Adams would give them a much-needed boost. Such an impetus did not materialize at Fulham last Saturday, with Norwich losing a pivotal relegation six-pointer 1-0 at Craven Cottage.
The Canaries currently lie fourth from bottom, just two points above the relegation zone. The problem for the East Anglians is that they arguably have the most daunting run-in in the division. After it faces the league leaders this Sunday, Norwich then has games against Manchester United (away), Chelsea (home), and Arsenal (away) to look forward to.
How morale in the camp is after the sacking of the popular Hughton is anyone’s guess, but Liverpool should not take a win for granted. The Reds need only look at Norwich’s 1-0 win over Tottenham to see how well the Canaries can play when the wind is in their sails at Carrow Road. The hosts have capable performers in the shape of Robert Snodgrass and Leroy Fer in midfield, and while Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s shooting boots have been A.W.O.L this season, the Dutchman has proven in the past that he is a fine finisher on his day.
Recent history is on Liverpool’s side, however, with Rodgers’ men proving difficult opposition for the Canaries. The hosts will not be relishing the prospect of trying to nullify Luis Suarez. The Liverpool striker scored four times in Liverpool’s 5-1 win over Norwich in the reverse fixture in December, and the Uruguayan has 11 goals in his last four appearances against the Canaries.
Suarez remains one goal shy of hitting the 30 mark in the league this season, and few would bet against him adding to his tally on Sunday. He will likely toil without Sturridge beside him, however, as Rodgers would be wise to take a pragmatic approach to the England international’s hamstring troubles.
With the attacking flair of Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho to rely on, Rodgers may feel that trio alone has the wherewithal to get the job done. There have been suggestions that Victor Moses will get a rare start, though that would be hard to swallow for two reasons. Firstly, the on-loan Chelsea man was awful when he came off the bench against City, and it was his costly decision to run straight into Vincent Kompany that led directly to the incident that saw Henderson dismissed. Moses will also be unavailable to face his parent club next weekend, and so Rodgers may prefer to stick with players that will be eligible for that possible title-decider.
Another factor is that the inclusion of Moses would force Rodgers to make a choice between Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen in midfield. Lucas played in a more advanced role than he is used to when he came on against West Ham a fortnight ago, and the Brazilian may be tasked with covering the ground on the right side of the field. Allen’s efforts, meanwhile, may be utilized on the left. No one individual would be capable of matching Henderson’s unerring dynamism, but between the two of them they could make a decent fist of it.
And don’t be surprised to see Joao Teixeira make an appearance at some stage. The Portuguese starlet made a telling impact when he was introduced in the crucial 3-2 win over Fulham in February. Rodgers has shown his faith in youth on numerous occasions already this season, and Teixeira’s keen eye for a pass may be required if Norwich prove a tough nut to crack.
Norwich City v Liverpool
When: Sunday, April 20, 0700 EST/1200 BST
Where: Carrow Road, Norwich
Previous Premier League match: Fulham 1-0 Norwich City, Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City
League Position 2013-14: Norwich City 17th (32 points), Liverpool 1st (77 points)
Projected Norwich Starting 11
DEF: Whittaker, Martin, Bassong, Olsson
MID: Snodgrass, Johnson, Howson, Fer, Redmond
FW: Van Wolfswinkel
Subs from: Bunn, Turner, Yobo, Hoolahan, R Bennett, Pilkington, Gutierrez, Tettey, Becchio, Hooper, Elmander
Projected Liverpool Starting 11
DEF: Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Flanagan
MID: Lucas, Gerrard, Allen
FW: Sterling, Suarez, Coutinho
Subs from: Jones, Cissokho, Toure, Agger, Kelly, Sama, Smith, Luis Alberto, Teixeira, Aspas, Moses, Sturridge
Follow Séamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard