08 December 2012

Liverpool at West Ham 12.09.12

11am ET, live in the US on FSC

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 West Ham (a) 02.27.11
3-0 Liverpool (h) 11.20.10
3-0 Liverpool (h) 04.19.10
3-2 Liverpool (h) 10.19.09

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Udinese (a); 1-0 Southampton (h); 1-2 Tottenham (a)
West Ham: 3-1 Chelsea (h); 0-1 United (a); 1-3 Tottenham (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Suarez 10; Agger, Enrique, Gerrard, Şahin, Skrtel, Sterling 1
West Ham: Nolan 5; Diame, Maiga, Noble 2; Carroll, Cole, Jarvis, O'Brien, Reid, Taylor, Tomkins, Vaz Te 1

Referee: Lee Probert

Liverpool won nine of the first ten matches that Lee Probert refereed, including a 3-0 victory against West Ham where – shock of shocks – Liverpool actually won and scored a penalty. And then lost the last two, against Fulham at the end of last season and Swansea in the League Cup six weeks ago.

Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Gerrard Allen
Cole Shelvey Sterling

Pretty much the same side that narrowly beat Southampton, but with one teensy, tiny exception. Some guy named Luis Suarez is suspended.

It's the moment Liverpool have been waiting for and fearing. As Borini's still out for another month or so, the one striker in the squad's unavailable. Rodgers has at least been planning for this moment, using both Pacheco and Shelvey as a false nine in cup competition as well as handing debuts to Morgan and Yeşil.

But Morgan, Pacheco, and Yeşil all played in Friday's u21 match, making their participation against West Ham very unlikely. But it was unlikely anyway; Shelvey always seemed odds on favorite to assume the role, with the official site dropping more than hints in an interview published today. He is the best candidate for the role; Morgan and Yeşil are simply too raw and inexperienced against a seasoned resilient back line, Pacheco is clearly out-of-favor under yet another manager. Only four sides have conceded fewer goals than West Ham so far this season: Manchester City, Chelsea, Stoke, and Arsenal.

The de facto striker is one of three former West Ham academy players who could feature tomorrow, along with Johnson and Joe Cole. The latter *could* be the answer to the hole on the flank, but if Joe Cole's the answer, I'm not sure I want to know the question.

Whoever joins Shelvey and Sterling in the front three will have a huge role to play. Liverpool will need help if they've any hope of breaching the Hammers' back four: will need runners in the box, wingers cutting inside, and support support support. Cole might not be the worst idea in the world, linking up well with Shelvey against Young Boys and with a point to prove against his old club, but I still question his abilities. After the last two-plus seasons, I can't help it.

The other options are Downing, Assaidi, Suso, and Enrique. I think we can cross the first of those four off the list, after that performance against Udinese to go along with all of those other performances. With Wisdom out of favor since his injury, Enrique seems more likely to play in defense, but the 19-year-old could come back into the side with Johnson resuming a left-back berth. Either Taylor or Jarvis – more likely the latter – will challenge Liverpool's right back, although both like to stick wide and deliver crosses, something that Wisdom should be able to cope with. Assaidi's been rarely seen recently, while Suso hasn't started a league match since being hauled off in the 36th minute against Wigan. Maybe Joe Cole's not such a bad option after all. And no, I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.

Last time Liverpool faced West Ham, the side was in its purple patch under Dalglish, on an eight-match unbeaten run. Liverpool stuck with the three-at-the-back formation which had worked so well against both Stoke and Chelsea. And Liverpool were comprehensively beaten. Granted, both are vastly different sides now, but that recollection makes me think that a shift to the three-man defense we saw against Everton, Anzhi, and Chelsea is extremely unlikely, even with Suarez absent.

Meanwhile, the midfield and defense seem fairly set in stone. Gerrard, Allen, and Lucas in the middle, with Liverpool needing its captain to supplement the attack. There's also a marginal case for playing him as the false nine, but that seems a bridge too far. Either way, Gerrard has an excellent scoring record against West Ham, beating Jaaskelainen more than any other current Premiership keeper and scoring more goals against West Ham than all but two other clubs (Villa and Everton). There's a small chance Henderson could replace Allen if the latter's fatigued after his exertions against Udinese, but the Welshman's barely missed a moment of Premiership action so far this season. And Lucas' indescribable importance between the lines will be incredibly important against Kevin Nolan, West Ham's best player so far this season.

As said earlier, Wisdom may come in for Enrique, allowing the latter to play further forward, but otherwise, Skrtel, Agger, Johnson, and Reina are certain starters in defense. Skrtel will have to mark Carlton Cole closely, a job he seems tailor-made for, while Agger will pick up Nolan on his runs into the penalty box. Liverpool have kept four clean sheets in the six matches since Reina's return from injury, conceding two in the games against Young Boys and Tottenham. All four of the opponents that Liverpool held scoreless – Wigan, Swansea, Southampton, and Udinese – barely had a sniff at goal.

As for West Ham, Sam Allardyce team is Sam Allardyce team: hard-working, physical, direct, tough to beat. And much higher in the table than originally predicted. Nolan is the hub of everything good in attack, Diame has been a crucial addition in midfield (and has scored some crackers from outside the box), and Winston Reid's dramatically improved as a center-back under Big Sam. The starting XI will almost certainly be Jaaskelainen; Demel, Collins, Reid, O'Brien; Noble, Diame; O'Neil, Nolan, Jarvis; Cole. The only possible changes are on the flanks – Taylor or Benayoun for Jarvis or O'Neil. Like Liverpool, West Ham have three ex-opposition players on their books, but Carroll's both injured and ineligible, Benayoun's a more likely substitute than starter, and Alou Diarra's made just one league appearance so far this season.

It's becoming boringly predictable and depressing, yet I can't help but remind that Liverpool haven't won consecutive league matches in nearly a year, since beating Villa and QPR on December 10th and 18th last season. Liverpool have won just one of seven away matches in the league this season, the 5-2 win at Norwich. That win remains the only time Liverpool have won away against a side above them in the table in more than a calendar year; Norwich were in 17th on three points, Liverpool 18th with two points at kickoff that day.

Recent history is against Liverpool tomorrow, and along with Stoke away in 17 days, this will probably be Liverpool's toughest match this month, especially since Liverpool will be without its talisman. It'll also be a sign of how far Liverpool have progressed recently. This will be a street fight, and Liverpool will be without its street-fighting man. It's a test of both ability and character. Despite incremental improvements, we've still needed to see more of both from Liverpool this season.

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