This title race business doesn’t get any easier.
After surprisingly dropping two points at home to Leicester City, Liverpool will be hoping to make amends when they travel to the London Stadium to take on West Ham on Monday night.
The complexion of the title race has already changed – and could change further before kick-off on Monday. After Manchester City’s shock defeat at Newcastle, the Reds had the opportunity to stretch their advantage at the top to seven points.
However, a bright Leicester side threw a spanner in the works at Anfield, leaving Jurgen Klopp’s side with a five-point lead, which could be cut to just two if Manchester City beat Arsenal on Sunday.
Should that happen, the West Ham game takes on a whole new level of significance.
The draw with Leicester ended an up-and-down January for the league leaders. After a flawless December, with eight wins out of eight in all competitions, the first month of 2019 featured just two wins out of five, with defeats to City and Wolves before the wins over Brighton and Crystal Palace.
More than anything, though, Klopp will want to see his players back to somewhere near their best. They needed a Mohamed Salah penalty to win at Brighton, survived a scare against Palace and could have easily lost to Leicester, had the Foxes been more clinical with their chances.
And while Sadio Mane was bright midweek, Salah, Roberto Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri all had quiet nights.
A more vintage display is required at the London Stadium.
The Hammers – managed, of course, by former City boss Manuel Pellegrini, the man who denied Liverpool Premier League glory in 2014 – are one of the Premier League’s great enigmas. This season, they have beaten Manchester United and Arsenal at home but have suffered withering defeats, with the FA Cup elimination to AFC Wimbledon and Tuesday’s dismal 3-0 loss at Wolves particular low points.
West Ham have an abysmal recent record against the Reds, losing the last four games with an aggregate score of 2-16.
That and their mini-collapse at Wolves last time out does not inspire much confidence.
Klopp got his tactics spot on in the 4-0 win over West Ham on the opening day of the season. Deploying a 4-3-3, James Milner was given some freedom in midfield, drifting over to the right to create an overload alongside Trent Alexander-Arnold and unnerve the defensively suspect Arthur Masuaku, who was given little support by the more advanced Felipe Anderson.
This time around, with Alexander-Arnold injured, Klopp has different options at right-back. Jordan Henderson played there against Leicester, Fabinho has been deployed there in the past for Monaco and Brazil while Milner is more than capable of slotting into that position.
Further up, Klopp will want to see the energetic high press that caused West Ham a multitude of problems in August. At Anfield, Naby Keita impressed with his range of passing so it will be interesting to see if the Guinean retains his spot from the Leicester game, having been denied a clear-cut penalty when he was tripped by Ricardo Pereira.
The Egyptian has found plenty of joy in his three previous encounters with the Hammers, scoring four times including a brace at the London Stadium in November 2017.
Salah is currently on 48 Premier League goals for Liverpool. If he bags a brace on Monday, he will become the fastest player to reach 50 (in 61 games).
After a strangely subdued display on Wednesday, the 26-year-old is the most likely matchwinner as he looks to pull ahead in the race for a second consecutive Golden Boot.
With Marko Arnautovic possibly missing the game through injury, West Ham fans will look to Anderson to provide inspiration in the final third.
The Brazilian has enjoyed a fine debut season in England, with eight goals and two assists to his name, but will be hoping for a more productive evening against Liverpool after an anonymous display at Anfield.
All eight of Anderson’s league goals this season have been from open play, so he certainly carries the most significant threat going forward.
The hosts will be desperate to get their season back on track after three successive defeats but we’re backing Liverpool to clinch all three points.
Salah and Mane both have strong records against West Ham and Liverpool certainly have happy recent memories of trips to the London Stadium.
One final thing to note; all seven of the goals West Ham have conceded this side of the new year have come in the second half, so don’t be surprised if the Reds have to exercise some patience before unlocking their opponents.
* odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell