Liverpool head to Turf Moor to face relegation-threatened Burnley.
With only three games left, it's no secret that Liverpool are going to need an unearthly amount of help (I'm looking at you, Jupiter) to nick the final Champions League spot. As of writing, Spurs dropped all three at Old Trafford, while City have yet to kick-off at the Emirates and Villa host Brum tomorrow in what's always a hotly contested derby. I've been vocal about the fact that I'm looking forward to some sort of finality in the Champions League conversation, not only because Liverpool would do better to concentrate on themselves, but also because the foolish, foolish hope that I feel when I dream up scenarios that would see Liverpool sneak in on the last day of the season. I need to be put out to pasture.
As I mentioned, though, Liverpool need to be focused on themselves, particularly during a congested week in the fixture list and a quick turnaround from the most epic trip in the history of epic trips to Madrid. They were able to fly back from Spain after the 1-0 loss to Atletico, but there's always danger that the team could feel some lingering effects of the travel, if not the performance. And they certainly can't afford to slip up (again) at this point.
After a bright start to the season, Burnley have faded near the bottom of the table and haven't been able to find their way back. Owen Coyle, the man that led them to four successive home victories (over United, Everton, Brum, and Sunderland) to start the season, left in January for Bolton, and since that time the club has won only twice in league, and only once at home---a 2-1 February win over fellow relegation strugglers West Ham. But the last win overall came more recently, with the Clarets thumping Hull 4-1 at the KC two weeks ago, and they'll need little motivation to come out fighting tomorrow.
There's been a fair bit of off-the-pitch controversy in recent weeks to go with their disappointing results---little-used midfielder Joey Gudjonsson spoke out against Coyle's replacement, Brian Laws, and was promptly suspended for two weeks. But he hasn't been the only one discussing Laws' effectiveness as boss, and losing 13 of 16 since taking over isn't going to help the man's case. He seems to think otherwise, and he'd likely love nothing more than a Liverpool scalp to prove the doubters wrong.
Burnley will try to do it with an attack that's spearheaded by striker Steven Fletcher, who leads the team with 8 goals. David Nugent, the former Portsmouth man, might partner Fletcher up top after being slated to return from injury. Some of the Clarets biggest struggles have been in defense---they've conceded at least four goals on five separate occasions---and the news gets worse, as defender Clark Carlisle is likely to miss out tomorrow with an ankle injury suffered in training.
So for all of Liverpool's struggles this season, those of Burnley are a bit more severe. But that doesn't mean that Liverpool won't have any concerns ahead of tomorrow. The first is their away record this season---the Reds have won only four matches away from Anfield this season and lost eight, including dismal displays at Wigan and Portsmouth. Also of concern is the fitness of...nearly everybody. David Ngog came out of Thursday's match against Atletico with a back strain, adding to Rafa's troubles in selection in attack.
Obviously the other trouble area is the fitness of the back line, but thankfully all involved came back from Madrid in one piece. They pick themselves at this point, and recent performances suggest that even without a slew of injuries, the Johnson-Carragher-Greek-Agger combination might be Liverpool's best.
From there, the record's on repeat. The faces in midfield have constantly rotated depending on Rafa's tactical approach, and there's no reason to think that tomorrow will be any different. Javier Mascherano and Lucas partnered on Thursday, but I'm again hopeful that we see more diversity than that tomorrow. Masch can clearly handle the defensive midfield responsibilities by himself, particularly against a team that's had such difficulty finding the net. This could open the door for a partnership with Alberto Aquilani, who, in the least shocking news this season, has been the subject of exit rumors. If next year is his coming out party, you have to think the bridge to that starts now.
The injury to Ngog and Rafa's proclamation regarding the return of Maxi makes things in front of the midfield a little clearer, with Kuyt the most likely to take up the reins in the forward role. A partnership with Ryan Babel wouldn't be entirely out of the question, but Babel will likely be required on the left wing, otherwise Yossi Benayoun would be required to play his third game in seven days. Not too much for Carra, Gerrard, or Agger, but the Israeli has had fitness problems this season and doesn't need a knock to end his season early.
If there's not much to say in the lead-in for a match against West Ham, there's maybe less to say here. Liverpool need to win, they need the three points, and regardless of their away form, it's a match they should win. Burnley aren't going to roll over, but with such little time left in the campaign, Liverpool have to wrap things up quasi-positively. And headed into such a demanding week---Atletico visit Thursday, Chelsea on Sunday---Rafa and company need all the confidence they can muster.