Liverpool finally return to action tomorrow, hosting the Hammers at Anfield.
Eight days has proved to be an extremely long time. Obviously Thursday's remembrances remind us that there are bigger things in life than a match or Champions League qualifying. So maybe it was a good thing that outside of the news surrounding the Hillsborough memorials, Liverpool were a relatively anonymous club. Certainly in the days leading up to April 15 we heard very little, and even in the days since, barring confirmation about the appointment of Martin Broughton and the sale of the club, Liverpool have managed to be relatively obscure.
Maybe part of this is the chaos settling in at the top of the table---Spurs have managed to make themselves judge, jury, and executioner in the title race, sweeping through Arsenal and Chelsea in consecutive White Hart Lane drubbings. The excitement around Spurs, who have to be favorites for the fourth spot at this point, combined with an increasingly tense run-in for United and Chelsea, equals a sort of second-tier status for Liverpool.
So it's about damn time that they get back in action. Irrelevance, for a Liverpool supporter, is close to relegation. The fact that the title conversation, or the Champions League conversation, or any conversation involving "successful" teams, doesn't include Liverpool is a gut-punch. To see such a storied, proud club cast themselves into mediocrity has been supremely disappointing, and press releases about the promises of a new chairman can only take you so far.
And as such, discussions of brighter futures and returning to prominence doesn't prevent West Ham from coming to Anfield tomorrow. And if we're talking about clubs slipping into irrelevance, unfortunately for Hammers fans, this might be the club we start with. Gianfranco Zola's side have had a season to forget, staving off relegation all year and fighting for their Premier League lives. They're currently three points ahead of Hull in 17th place, and they'll need all the points they can gather.
I have to confess that of the sides in the top flight, West Ham are probably one about whom I know very little. I do know they've grinded out good results in their last two---a 2-2 draw at Goodison and a 1-0 win over Sunderland at Upton Park---and have found a bit of inspiration in Ilan, the Brazilian striker who arrived at West Ham from St. Etienne in January. It's likely that he'll partner with Carlton Cole in attack, although Zola feels that he has more than enough options up top. That's not where the result will be earned for the Hammers, however, and they'll be missing a number of players behind whoever partners up top---Scott Parker is still suspended, and Luis Boa Morte, Kieron Dyer, Herita Ilunga, Jack Collison, and James Tomkins are all injured.
It's not as though Liverpool don't have their own injury concerns---the fitness of Fernando Torres has taken center stage, with the striker flying back-and-forth between Liverpool and Barcelona to meet with doctors, and his presence tomorrow is a major doubt. Emiliano Insua is definitely ruled out with a torn quadriceps, and Fabio Aurelio is still in search of the mythical "fully fit" label that's eluded him this season.
This spells out another appearance at left back for Daniel Agger, who has performed admirably in the role since Insua's injury required it. He's got the tendency to drift more centrally, which makes sense given his "natural" role as center back, but he's been able to keep opposing wingers at bay on the whole. It's Kyrgiakos and Carragher in the middle again with Glen Johnson at right back, and at this point the only cover is provided by Daniel Ayala or Stephen Darby.
The midfield picture likely depends on how Rafa decides to compensate for the potential loss of Fernando Torres up front. Guessing that he'll stick with the preferred 4-2-3-1 (which will probably look more like a 4-4-2 at some point), it'll be Gerrard in support of David Ngog or Dirk Kuyt up top, and Maxi and Ryan Babel on the wings. Hopefully Rafa sticks with Alberto Aquilani and Javier Mascherano in central midfield, as the trip to Atletico on Thursday most certainly means we'll see Lucas and Liverpool's tried-and-true European tactics---stifle, defend, defend more, nick one on the counter.
After such a long layoff, it's imperative that Liverpool come out on the front foot. West Ham are a desperate side with real problems---not these WASPy concerns about Champions League qualification and which world-class player they can't afford, but real-deal relegation worries. To give them any sort of hope in a match like this would be a grievous mistake. Eight days of no match action is followed by three in six, and any sort of hangover from the result against Fulham will punish Liverpool. There's been a fair share of surprises this weekend, so let's hope Monday goes as we'd all expect---three points for the Reds.