Welcome to the final countdown. There are just ten league games left to go, and Liverpool are where they should be, in the mix for Champions League places. A solid start in August, with victories over Southampton at Anfield and Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane accompanying a defeat at the home of the defending champions Manchester City, was followed by a wholly unsatisfactory autumn that featured five defeats in just ten Premier League games. The combination of a manager open to change, a change in personnel in the first team, and a new formation pushed Liverpool back in contention for the top four.
It is without question that Liverpool represent the star pupil in this year's Premier League class ahead of a generally competitive league. Issues of growing mediocrity in the leading clubs aside, there have been a number of defeats for every club vying for Champions League qualification ranging between five and nine. The five teams competing for two places are separated by seven points, but Tottenham can reduce that to five by winning against Queens Park Rangers in the only Premier League game this weekend. Just a point or two separates one side from the other, meaning that each midweek or weekend set of matches provides an opportunity for each side to put pressure on a rival.
Both Tottenham and Liverpool were knocked out of the Europa League late last month as part of English football's underwhelming European performances this season but have the benefit of playing one game a week for the rest of the season. Liverpool's projected participation in the FA Cup will see next month's trip to Hull City rearranged for midweek, but Brendan Rodgers has the luxury of picking a consistent line-up from the tricky trip to Swansea City until the final league game of the season at Stoke City.
The 23 points gathered from this year's nine league games has featured a few players who are currently injured, and all of them should be fit next month. Brendan Rodgers will need to be careful as Arsenal have collected only two points fewer over the same period, while Manchester United's seventeen points isn't vastly inferior to Liverpool's. Rodgers' penchant for consistency will be required in the run-in but faces a few decisions to make with the return of Jordon Ibe, Steven Gerrard, Mamadou Sakho, and Lucas Leiva.
Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho have been excellent as the two attacking midfielders behind the striker over the past three league games. In Liverpool's last league game, Raheem Sterling was moved to the right of midfield to ensure that the two schemers would continue to operate in that position behind Daniel Sturridge. The Golden Boy had a strong game against the relegation battlers as Liverpool predominantly built their attacks through the right, benefiting from Sterling's zip and zeal on the ball with his customary tactical awareness without it. Steven Gerrard will be a candidate for attacking midfield, especially with Lucas, Joe Allen, and Jordan Henderson proving to be capable midfield marshals. Allen's resurgence over the last few league games shows Liverpool's midfield can thrive in the absence of Lucas, but the Brazilian's presence could be vital for away games against Arsenal, Chelsea, West Bromwich Albion, and Stoke City.
Lazar Marković has been a regular on the right side since the turn of the year with key contributions in the victories over Sunderland and Tottenham. Marković's impressive contribution to the defensive phases of play on the right is no surprise as he spent a season under the tutelage of Jorge Jesus, a manager who makes similar demands to Brendan Rodgers in terms of pressing and tactical awareness from his attacking players. Jordon Ibe has been a revelation after being recalled from his loan spell at Derby County in January. A trip to Goodison Park in the Merseyside derby and home clashes with Tottenham and Besiktas did not overawe the 19-year-old. His performances were of such a high level that dropping Marković not only seemed fair but also wise. However, will Sterling continue on the right to keep both young technicians out of the side?
Daniel Sturridge has confirmed that he's ready for action but will he rotate with Sterling in the striker's spot. Sturridge is clearly the superior striker, one of the league's best, but presses far less than his "little brother" in attack. Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert, and Fabio Borini are all available but none suit the system quite like Liverpool's leading candidate for player of the season. Although Sterling's finishing can flit from erratic to sharp, his pace, movement, and intensity in his pressing are first-rate. Also, the fragility of the a player who scored more than twenty league goals last season and boasts a solid minutes-per-goal ratio must be considered. Having Sturridge for eight games out of ten is far better than seeing him excel for five consecutive games before breaking down again. The schedule of one game a week should suit Sturridge, but will the international break at the end of March alter Rodgers' plans for the player?
Finally, Rodgers must make a decision on the defence. It should be a swift one, but Liverpool's manager can make surprising choices. Mamadou Sakho, Martin Skrtel, and Emre Can have been the defensive foundation during the majority of this impressive run. The three complement each other excellently in roles that aren't as easy as one would think. Sakho and Can are composed on the ball, possess the awareness to pick out a player with sharp forward passes, and utilise their physicality effectively in the channels. Both have been assisted ably by the likes of Alberto Moreno, Lazar Marković, and Jordon Ibe. Martin Skrtel appears to exist on this earth for the purpose of battling with distinction in a three-man defence. His indecision is replaced with confidence and leadership as he sweeps up behind his partners, battles for the ball in the air, and lives unburdened by the need to pick out players ahead of him. However, growing confidence has seen Skrtel step out of defence with ease a few times along with more comfort in possession.
Mamadou Sakho's problem is that he picks up an injury once in a while, which is worrying as he is Liverpool's best defender. Dejan Lovren has stepped up to be a better proposition than the one who looked like one of Liverpool's worst signings for many years. His distribution and lack of common sense on the ball remain significant concerns but his defending has been generally solid. Sakho should replace the Croatian international as soon as the former PSG captain regains his fitness, bringing the authority he has displayed at club and international level back to Liverpool once again. It is heartening to know that Liverpool's defensive solidity remains in the absence of Sakho, but his return will only strengthen Liverpool with business in the FA Cup and Premier League to conclude.
Should Brendan Rodgers pick a regular line-up for the remaining league games or should there be some rotation with six away games littered among the club's final ten matches? With everyone fit, who would be your picks to start for Liverpool with a place in the top four at stake?