01 January 2016

Liverpool at West Ham 01.02.16

7:45am ET, live in the US on NBC Sports

Last four head-to-head:
0-3 West Ham (h) 08.29.15
2-0 Liverpool (h) 01.31.15
1-3 West Ham (a) 09.20.14
2-1 Liverpool (a) 04.06.14

Last three matches:
Liverpool: 1-0 Sunderland (a); 1-0 Leicester (h); 0-3 Watford (a)
West Ham: 2-1 Southampton (h); 1-1 Villa (a); 0-0 Swansea (a)

Goalscorers (league):
Liverpool: Benteke 6; Coutinho 5; Ings, Milner, Sturridge 2; Firmino, Henderson, Origi, Skrtel 1
West Ham: Payet 5; Lanzini 4; Kouyate, D Sakho, Zarate 3; Carroll, Jenkinson, Noble 2; Antonio, Cresswell, Maïga, Moses 1

Referee: Robert Madley

Guess at a line-up:
Clyne Lovren Sakho Moreno
Can Lucas
Ibe Firmino Coutinho

Milner and Origi remain injured – along with Skrtel, Ings, Gomez, Flanagan, and Rossiter. Neither Henderson, last seen limping off around the hour mark on Wednesday, nor Sturridge will travel to London, although there's a hope both will be available on Tuesday.

This is the time of year where Liverpool would like to rotate: three matches in a week, the last just 65 or so hours before this one, the most recent two on opposite ends of England, and a League Cup semi-final to come on Tuesday. But Liverpool simply don't have the players to rotate at the moment. You saw Liverpool's bench at Sunderland: Bogdan, Toure, Lucas, Ibe, Teixeira, Randall, Smith. That's where we're at right now.

The team pretty much has to be the above guess, with a small possibility of Brad Smith or Connor Randall coming in at fullback or a reversion to 4-3-3 with Can, Allen, and Lucas in midfield. But given West Ham's strength in counter-attacking at pace and down the flanks, I doubt either of those are really possibilities.

So, the biggest concern will be how the players who've started all three games this week – especially, Can, Coutinho, Clyne, Moreno, Firmino/Lallana, and Benteke – cope with all the minutes played. Can Liverpool replicate the work-rate seen in the last two narrow wins? We'd also hope to see Liverpool improve on the long-standing, oft-discussed shooting issues, but let's focus on what's actually probable.

Of course, there's also the concern about Liverpool's opponents. Who have utterly wrecked Liverpool in two of the last three meetings.

Did you enjoy Swansea, Newcastle, West Brom, Watford, Leicester, and Sunderland? Sides who sat deep, soaked up Liverpool's pressure, and – sometimes, to some degree – looked to counter-attack quickly? Good. You're getting it again.

Monday saw West Ham's first win since October 24, with six draws and two losses before a comeback win over Southampton, falling back to Earth after a surprisingly strong start which saw them beat Arsenal, Liverpool, City, Palace, and Chelsea in the first two months of the season.

West Ham have more than a few injuries concerns of their own – Reid, Moses, and Sakho are out; Cresswell and Jelavic are doubtful – but those concerns are beginning to ease. Dimitri Payet should return after seven weeks out, while Lanzini returned after a month-long injury against Southampton. The absence of those two players, especially Payet, were a massive reason for West Ham's struggles since the start of November.

Of course they're fit just in time to face Liverpool.

Assuming both Payet and Lanzini start, because always assume the worst, but that Cresswell and Jelavic remain out, West Ham's XI will be something like Adrian; Tomkins, Collins, Ogbonna, Jenkinson; Obiang, Noble, Kouyate; Lanzini, Valencia, Payet. I doubt Jelavic would start anyway, but Cresswell would definitely be preferred to Jenkinson at left-back. Alex Song could start in midfield rather than any of the above guesses. Maybe ex-Liverpool player Andy Carroll starts up front, coming off the bench to score the winner against Southampton on Monday; do you want speed or aerial ability when facing Lovren and Sakho? Zarate's played well in attack in the absence of both Lanzini and Payet.

Incidentally, the above guess is basically the same XI that won at Anfield in August. And regardless, West Ham will West Ham, similar to how Sunderland Sunderland'd, Watford Watford'd, and Leicester Leicester'd.

West Ham's two demolitions of Liverpool have come in the same manner, despite two different West Ham managers. Blitz Liverpool from the opening whistle, take advantage of any hesitancy, force errors, score early, then suffocate.

In the 3-0 win at Anfield in August, Lanzini scored in the 3rd minute, followed by Noble in the 29th (from Lovren's defensive error), before Coutinho's early second half red card finished matters. At West Ham in September 2014, Reid scored in the 2nd minute, Sakho in the 7th – the first a set play, the second a quick counter-attack after gaining possession in Liverpool's half – and it was game over before some fans even found their seats.

Okay, I hear you saying, "but that was Brendan Rodgers and one of those matches was more than a year ago. Liverpool played a different formation in both, and five of the 11 players to start in that 1-3 loss at West Ham aren't even with the club anymore." And that's completely fair. But a lot of the West Ham players remain the same, Liverpool still have a lot of the same problems in attack, and recent away losses at both Newcastle and Watford had some frighteningly similarities with Liverpool's bad moments under the last manager.

Liverpool have gotten better at overhauling an early concession since Klopp became manager – Kazan (h), Chelsea (a), Southampton (League Cup) – but Liverpool simply can't allow West Ham to do what West Ham did in those two victories. They're better than Kazan, they won't give Liverpool the space that Chelsea gave Liverpool, and given what's come since, it's hard to see the league cup quarterfinal as anything but a Sturridge-inspired fluke.

Preventing an early goal, or a counter-attacking goal, or a set play goal is only one part of what's needed tomorrow. Because Liverpool also still need to dramatically improve when facing a resilient, deep defense. As I'm sure you remember.

It's a new year, one fraught with potential and possibility. Begin it as you mean to continue.

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