The home clash with Manchester United on Sunday may not be a must-win affair for Liverpool, but it is almost certainly a must-not-lose match for Brendan Rodgers’ side.
Finishing in the top four is the primary objective for both of these great rivals, and Sunday could go a long way to deciding who achieves that target. If Liverpool win, they will continue their climb from 12th in November into the Champions League spots. Lose, and they slip five points behind United, with Southampton and Tottenham both looking to move within a point of the Reds.
With home advantage and victory the more pressing need for Liverpool, Rodgers has some decisions to make. Does he revert to the usual 3-4-3 that had to be ditched at Swansea, or stick with the midfield diamond that helped grind out the win in Wales? What does the manager do with Steven Gerrard? Does the captain stay on the bench for his final meeting with the arch enemy?
If so, he may be joined by Daniel Sturridge. The striker has started seven of the last nine matches but is yet to really find form since his injury lay-off and it may be that Rodgers opts to use Raheem Sterling as a central striker, as he did in the win over Manchester City at the start of the month.
Sterling also played through the middle in the 3-0 loss to United at Old Trafford – the Reds’ only defeat in 13 Premier League games since they languished in the bottom half of the table. The scoreline did not tell the whole story that day. Sterling’s pace caused the United backline all sorts of problems, with only Sterling’s abject finishing and the brilliance of David De Gea rescuing United.
Since then, Rodgers has tightened up at the back, with Simon Mignolet – dropped at Old Trafford – having found some form and the defence no longer the porous unit it was. The Reds have conceded only three goals in their last eight games, and if they can keep United out, you have to fancy their chances of finally beating De Gea this season.
Louis van Gaal
Having finally delivered the kind of performance Van Gaal has waited for, United must take that form to Anfield if they are to avoid a defeat which would see them drop out of the top four.
Against Spurs, United were sharp, incisive and fluid – all characteristics which have been absent for much of the season. The question for Van Gaal is: how does he alter his team while retaining the qualities demonstrated against Tottenham?
Much of the focus will be on whether the manager reinstates Angel Di Maria to his XI. The record signing let his side down by getting sent off in the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal, but his form over recent months has been fairly dreadful. Juan Mata started last week on the right and gave one of his best performances of the season. We will see if it is really true that Van Gaal doesn’t much fancy the Spaniard if he is returned to the bench at Anfield.
The tactical battle will be as fascinating as the individual match-ups. United impressed with a 4-4-2, with either forward taking it in turns to drop deep, but Van Gaal may opt for an extra designated midfielder, with Daley Blind likely to return to the middle with Michael Carrick. Will Ander Herrera be battling alongside them after his impressive display against Tottenham? Is the lumbering presence of Marouane Fellaini the best option from the start against the pace of Liverpool’s passing and pressing?
Van Gaal has seen his decisions and methods questioned by United supporters over recent months, but a victory at Anfield and a five-point cushion over their main rivals would satisfy even the most hard-to-please Red Devil.
One positive for Advocaat ahead of his first match is that Sunderland simply cannot get any worse. Sending 11 men on to the pitch in time for kick-off would represent a positive impact following Gus Poyet’s disastrous final game in charge last week.
Another reason to be optimistic may be found in the identity of Saturday evening’s opposition. It seems West Ham are sliding, having failed to win in the Premier League for two months. But that does not necessarily tell the whole story.
Six of the seven opponents who they have failed to beat during that period come from the top seven, with Sam Allardyce’s side especially unlucky not to beat Manchester United and Tottenham. Only the 3-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace really showed the Hammers in a bad light.
So against the man who is a leading candidate to take over from him in the summer, Advocaat needs to ensure his beleaguered players benefit from the new manager bounce.
A little positivity may help. Under Poyet, the Black Cats looked consistently caught in the headlights, especially since their 8-0 humiliation at Southampton. Sunderland have quality in attack, but the likes of Jermain Defoe and Steven Fletcher need something – anything – that resembles good service. If, like under Poyet, Sunderland are going to be easy to break down, Advocaat needs to make them a lot harder to stop.
The win over Manchester City last week sent a much-needed surge of optimism through Turf Moor. In shutting out the champions, Sean Dyche’s side lifted themselves to just one point and a place from safety. But the Lancastrians need to make last week’s victory the start of a positive run and not revert to the form which saw them winless in their previous seven, five of which were defeats.
Achieving the desired consistency will not be easy, given the Southampton trip marks the middle point of a five-match run against top-seven opposition. But unlike many of their relegation rivals, what Dyche’s side lack in quality, they almost compensate for in work-rate and discipline and this week they face a Saints side in inconsistent form at home, with Ronald Koeman’s men having lost three of their last five in all competitions at St Mary’s.
Burnley’s run-in is not as difficult as it might have been, with Stoke and West Ham the highest-placed opponents they will face in their final six matches. But to make those games count, Dyche’s men must take heart and, more importantly, some points from the next three against Saints, Tottenham and Arsenal.
With United in fourth facing fifth-placed Liverpool, this weekend could see Arsenal further consolidate their place in the top four. Best-case scenario – victories for the Gunners and Manchester United – would see Arsene Wenger’s men open up a six-point gap between themselves and fifth place, with a four-point cushion the least desirable outcome, should the visitors do their job on Tyneside.
Of course, with only one point separating Arsenal from City in second, more optimistic Gunners may have higher targets, but the priority in the league, as it has been for too long now, is to make sure Champions League football stays at the Emirates.
For a team looking to bounce back from disappointment on the continent, there cannot be many more comfortable places to visit than Newcastle at the moment. The Magpies are going nowhere, in so many different ways.
John Carver’s side have occupied 11th place for the last two months, and though a top-half finish may be the publicly stated aim, last week’s dire display at Everton suggests many of the Magpies would be content to wrap up the season now.
For a motivated and in-form side such as Arsenal, this should be a comfortable three points. Anything less would see post-Monaco morale take a further hit going into the international break.
The inquest following the Barcelona defeat has seen most City players have their futures at the club questioned. If those individuals feel the need to prove themselves – and there is some doubt over how many actually wish to do so – then The Hawthorns is the place to start.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side still have a title – their title – to fight for, but after four defeats in five games, City are carrying themselves in a manner not befitting of a side aiming to become back-to-back champions.
Being outclassed by Barcelona shames almost no-one, but the manner of defeats to Burnley and Liverpool should. Pellegrini claimed City’s display at Turf Moor was ‘normal’ but the Chilean will find himself looking for a new job, if he is not already, should such performance levels become typical in the run-in.
Of course, the players need to step up for their manager. Question marks hang over the spine of the City side, which for so long has been their strength. Vincent Kompany needs to recover even a smidgen of the form which elevated him to world-class status not that long ago – Yaya Toure too – while £28million January arrival Wilfried Bony desperately needs to get off the mark for his new club.
QPR’s first-half performance last week at Crystal Palace was utterly dreadful, but Sunderland’s even worse surrender has seen Ramsey and his players avoid much of the scrutiny that might have followed.
It was hard not to feel sorry for Ramsey as the coach patrolled the touchline before the break at Selhurst Park while Palace walked into a three-goal lead. The 52-year-old with almost no managerial experience – certainly not enough for the job he was offered – could hardly turn down his big break in the Premier League. He may have realised that the QPR job would not be his in the long term, but here was a wonderful audition for a manager’s job elsewhere come the summer. His players, though, are doing him no favours.
There was a marginal improvement after half-time at Palace, capped with a stunning Matt Phillips strike, which was sadly wasted on Rangers in that particular game. This weekend they host Everton, who will arrive in west London ‘fresh’ from a Europa League tonking in Kiev and with plenty of problems of their own. If QPR are to show any signs of life in the battle for Premier League survival, they have to start on Sunday.
Ramsey claimed this week that a “heated discussion” between his players at the break last weekend “shows how much they want to do well” for QPR. That fighting spirit is badly needed on the pitch, never mind in the dressing room. If the caretaker boss is right and his players are as concerned as they should be, then the visit of Everton represents a great opportunity to right a few wrongs.