30 January 2015

Liverpool v West Ham 01.31.15

10am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports Live Extra

Last four head-to-head:
1-3 West Ham (a) 09.20.14
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.06.14
4-1 Liverpool (h) 12.07.13
0-0 (h) 04.07.13

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Chelsea aet (a); 0-0 Bolton (h); 1-1 Chelsea (h)
West Ham: 1-0 Bristol (a); 3-0 Hull (h); 2-2 Everton aet [9-8 on penalties] (h)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Gerrard 5; Lallana, Own Goal, Sterling 4; Coutinho, Henderson, Lambert, Moreno 2; Borini, Can, Johnson, Markovic, Skrtel, Sturridge 1
West Ham: Sakho 8; Carroll, Downing 5; Amalfitano 3; Cole, Zarate 2; Cresswell, Kouyate, Noble, Nolan, Reid, Tomkins 1

Referee: Andre Marriner

Guess at a line-up:
Can Skrtel Lovren
Markovic Henderson Lucas Moreno
Lallana Coutinho

Sturridge is finally – FINALLY – back in training, but I still don't expect him to start, at least for another match. I've obviously been wrong before but chances are he's eased in slowly, used off the bench if at all. As he was when he returned from injury against Stoke last season or West Ham in his first season.

There are also concerns about Mamadou Sakho, subbed off against Chelsea with a back injury but declaring himself fit on Twitter soon after. Once again, I suspect Liverpool will err on the side of caution. However, Sakho's absence would probably mean a start for Lovren (or Johnson, but probably Lovren), so the words "err" and "caution" may not be appropriate.

Finally, the only other lineup decision seems to be the usual: will it be Gerrard or Lallana opposite Coutinho up front. It's a moot decision if Sturridge starts, because Sterling will take that spot, but again, that seems unlikely. And given that Gerrard played 120 minutes on Tuesday, clearly fatigued for the last hour, Lallana will probably be the choice. Maybe there are other fatigue concerns after Tuesday's match – Allen for Lucas, Manquillo (or maybe even Johnson) or Enrique for Markovic or Moreno – but, as usual, I suspect Rodgers will dance with the ones that brung him unless it's really not feasible.

West Ham remain Liverpool's closest competitor in the league table, one point ahead of the Reds. And that's despite four consecutive draws in all competitions before beating Hull 3-0 – a match that was closer than the scoreline suggests – and squeaking past Bristol City in the FA Cup.

This team is Maximum Allardyce, a team built around direct football, counter-attacks, and set plays. And it's only become more emphatic since Andy Carroll returned to the side. The second and third goals against Hull came from quick counters after regaining possession. Only Chelsea have scored more set play goals than West Ham so far this season. You remember, the same Chelsea which beat Liverpool on Tuesday thanks to a set play.

West Ham will again use the diamond which gave Liverpool so many problems in the reverse fixture. As in September, their plays thrives on direct football, counter-attacks, and set plays. The probable XI is Adrian; Jenkinson, Tomkins, Reid, Cresswell; Song; Noble, Nolan; Downing; Carroll, Sakho. Jenkinson, Song, Tomkins, and Collins – who could feature in defense in place of either Tomkins or Reid – are all questionable with minor knocks, but likely to play. Kouyate could feature in place of Nolan after returning from the African Cup of Nations this week. There's also controversy over Diafre Sakho's exit from the African Cup of Nations, leaving the Senegal squad because of a back injury but immediately playing for West Ham in last weekend's FA Cup match. But that shouldn't preclude him from starting tomorrow.

Sakho, like Carroll, is excellent in air – five of his eight league goals have been from headers – but is even more dangerous with the ball at his feet. After Sakho, West Ham's joint-second top scorers are Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing, two players you may be familiar with. Downing also has the fourth-most assists in the Premier League: seven, which is the same total he managed in two seasons with Liverpool.

Liverpool are not the same side which lost 1-3 at Upton Park five months ago. After going two-down very early on, Liverpool switched to three-at-the-back, the first time we saw three-at-the-back this season, but the current 3-4-1-2 is a very different animal. Liverpool are vastly more secure at the back and vastly more cohesive in the middle third. There are however, still significant problems up front, still problems scoring goals. But West Ham have kept just two clean sheets since the start of December: at home against Leicester and Hull. That, combined with the imminent return of Daniel Sturridge, even if it's only as a substitute, is a cause for a bit of optimism.

And Liverpool need all the causes for optimism they can get tomorrow, needing to respond to Tuesday's setback and needing all three points against the side just ahead of them in the table. The best chance at a trophy's now gone – a replay in the fourth round of the FA Cup notwithstanding – but there are still 16 league matches left to play, and Liverpool are only five points off of fourth.

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