WEST Ham are having a very ‘West Ham-my’ season aren’t they? They’re eighth in the league. They’ve more or less stopped winning matches (one win in their last nine). They’ve had some big results and some shockers.
Their season reaches its usual January climax right about…now. The Hammers will be looking for a bit of a flurry this month before parking this campaign well before Easter. West Ham are not really in the business of giving their people anything to tax them much past March.
It would suit our ends if they could get their half-arsed heads on to the beach in time for our first 2016 trip down to The Smoke. It’s a busy schedule for us right now, and we’d ideally like a bit of a blow, rather than having to gegenpress the Hammers all over the show for an hour and a half.
The Reds have put shifts in to despatch Leicester and Sunderland by single goal margins. And Jürgen Klopp will be wondering whether or not it’s reasonable to ask his men to do another 125km stretch.
Liverpool’s season, in truth, is also following a familiar pattern. We often find ourselves on something of a cusp as the New Year beckons. This time out it feels a cusp particularly replete with possibilities.
We can genuinely say we’re in with a shout for four trophies. Yes, even the league. The steady regaining of a winning habit may just be coming at the right time. A run of sorts now and this season suddenly looks a very tasty one. No-one is out of sight. No-one has even a semblance of a gallop in motion.
Handily, Manchester United appear as if they might yet turn a miserable winter into a full-blown New Year crisis. Chelsea have simply combusted and don’t look capable of a miracle uprising. Arsenal and City are strong yet reassuringly soft-centered. Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City may finish above us, and if they do we will only have ourselves to blame — a season is there for the taking.
This fixture then looms as one that seems as pivotal as it gets. Lose or draw and the new momentum is lost. Win, though. Win and a brightening picture threatens to get positively blinding. This is a tough fixture, mind. West Ham never just roll over at their place. It’s been ages since they have, and there is little prospect of a cakewalk tomorrow dinnertime.
They are welcoming back star man Dimitri Payet and have finally ended that lengthy non-winning sequence with a victory over Southampton a few days back. They also know that they have near humiliated us in two of the last three encounters between us (the 3-1 at Upton Park last season, and the 3-0 at Anfield this one).
Many of our fans will have an eye on Tuesday’s League Cup semi-final first leg at Stoke City and the opportunity to put a deposit down on a place at Wembley. Klopp can’t afford to think this way. Opportunity in the league is knocking and it would be folly to in any way diminish the West Ham fixture by keeping half an eye on the semi.
This is one-game-at-a-time country and it finds out managers and players. You can never win the match after the next one, only the one you’re about to play.
Ordinarily, Klopp would eye an aggressive unit like West Ham and look towards at least matching up in midfield. Such a luxury may escape him given that a procession of injuries to mainstay players has now reached epidemic proportions. James Milner is out a while longer, Joe Allen is vomiting, and Jordan Henderson is kicking his heel. Emre Can and Lucas will have been kept in padded rooms to ensure their guaranteed starts in East London.
From almost nowhere, it’s possible that Daniel Sturridge is again available for a cameo. Recent history has shown that it is perhaps better to start him than to attempt rehabilitation from the substitute’s bench. It’s four weeks since he last figured in the initial 11, but he tends to hit the ground razor sharp. It’s what happens after he leaves said ground that is always the concern.
If Sturridge can begin the match it enables Klopp to look to a side built to counter attack with real pace and incisiveness. If he goes with Daniel then he goes with Jordan Ibe, too, and gives a deeper-lying Philippe Coutinho fizzing options ahead of him. The question then is whether it is preferable to send Christian Benteke out again to perform a range of services, or to look to extra movement between the lines from one of Roberto Firmino or Adam Lallana.
Benteke will tempt the manager because he’s a big lad in a game that often seems to be about the big lads. Our ex Andy Carroll is still looking to plant one on us for old times’ sake, and having Benteke as an extra pair of defensive hands on set pieces may be no bad bonus.
The big Belgian is also useful for a team sitting deep and looking to hit on the counter with the kind of hold-up play that can turn stretched defender into genuine attacking potential.
Against this case might be a fear that Benteke is a player who is prone towards an injury and three games in eight days may just be asking for trouble.
If Sturridge is to return it will not be for the full 90 minutes. Klopp will want something to influence the game with for the last half hour and big Christian could most likely be that something.
Yet, Benteke, for all his square peg in round hole propensities, has a goal in him. Two in his past two games. Six league goals in 11 starts. He is perhaps finding a rhythm and it may be the worst decision to deny him a chance to sate his refound appetite. His swansong for Aston Villa was something like 10 goals in his final 12 appearances. He’s a hot streak striker. A wave that needs surfing.
Liverpool with a manager still marvelling at the quaintness and perverseness of our league have had little time to prepare anything special for West Ham. As of Thursday’s press conference Klopp had not even had time to complete video reconaissance on this impending opponent.
It may be that his best tactic is the crudest one. Rotate and ensure fitness levels so that his side can at least compete long enough to be able to live in a game that could well be decided when holiday legs are failing and space is no long at a premium in the match’s final phase.
The predicted team to gegenpress Liverpool to a third straight win: Mignolet; Clyne, Lovren, Sahko, Moreno; Lucas, Can; Coutinho; Ibe, Lallana, Sturridge.
Pics: Propaganda-Photo–David Rawcliffe