The seventh-placed team in the Premier League host the sixth-placed team at Anfield this weekend, with Liverpool and West Ham United going head-to-head for a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup (5.30pm Saturday live on BT Sport 2).
It has been a topsy-turvy but ultimately positive week for Liverpool, who overcame Norwich City 5-4 at Carrow Road in the Premier League last weekend and booked their place in the final of the Capital One Cup – where they will face Manchester City – with a penalty shoot-out victory over Stoke City on Tuesday night. With the Champions League places realistically out of reach, it is possible that Jurgen Klopp will now focus on the cup competitions. Liverpool are still in the Europa League and may value the chance to land silverware above a top-six finish in the Premier League.
The primary question mark surrounding the Reds at present is the defensive issues that have seen them concede 11 goals in their last six outings in all competitions. Set pieces seem to be a particular weakness, with goalkeeper Simon Mignolet timid in the air and organisation issues plaguing the team’s entire setup at corners and free kicks. West Ham, without Andy Carroll but still with plenty of height in the side, may look to make the most of Liverpool’s struggles from dead ball situations.
3/1 West Ham (Betfred)
Slaven Bilic’s (pictured) men’s unbeaten run of nine matches was brought to an end by a 2-1 defeat to Newcastle United two weeks ago, with a 2-2 draw with Manchester City last time out seeing them fall further behind the top four. The six-point gap separating them from the Champions League places is by no means insurmountable, though, with West Ham likely to be confident of recording a number of victories in the coming weeks, when they will face Aston Villa, Southampton, Norwich and Sunderland in the league.
The competitive and unpredictable nature of England’s top flight this season has seen many of the traditional powers fall at the hands of some of the division’s middle-rank outfits, something that may also be a feature of this year’s FA Cup. If a side other than Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool is to win the competition for only the third time in 20 seasons this term, West Ham are probably the favourites.
Liverpool’s injury crisis has eased somewhat in the last couple of weeks, but Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, Martin Skrtel, Joe Gomez, Danny Ings and Divock Origi are not fit enough to play any part this weekend. Klopp named a very young and inexperienced side for the trip to Exeter in the third round, but is likely to select a starting XI that is much closer to Liverpool’s strongest this time around.
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West Ham, meanwhile, will be without defender Joey O’Brien, midfielder Manuel Lanzini and strike duo Carroll and Diafra Sakho. Bilic also shuffled his pack in the previous round against Wolverhampton Wanderers and could do the same again with Tuesday’s Premier League clash with Aston Villa in mind, although equally he may now have started to turn his attention towards England’s principal domestic cup competition.
The Hammers defeated the Reds 3-0 at Anfield earlier in the campaign and 2-1 at Upton Park at the start of January. They have established themselves as one of the Premier League’s most dangerous teams on the counter-attack, with fellow top sides Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea all yet to defeat Bilic’s charges in 2015/16.
The visitors will therefore pose a tough threat to Klopp and Liverpool and are worth backing for a draw. With both outfits keen to avoid a replay and better going forward than they are at the back, there could also be plenty of goals at Anfield on Saturday.