Liverpool aim to close the gap on the Champions League places when they take on West Ham United at Upton Park (12.45pm, Saturday on BT Sport 1).
Jurgen Klopp’s side recorded back-to-back 1-0 victories over the festive period, defeating Leicester City at home on Boxing Day and Sunderland away on Wednesday night. Those six points were vital to the Reds, whose 3-0 defeat at the hands of Watford before Christmas left them down in ninth place after a run of three games without a win.
Christian Benteke scored the decisive goals in both wins and is likely to lead the line for the visitors in the capital on Saturday. The former Aston Villa frontman has been forced to fend off criticism that he is unsuited to Klopp’s favoured high-energy, hard-pressing style of play at times in the last few months, but his scoring record of six goals in 16 Premier League appearances is respectable enough, particularly as only 11 of those outings have come from the start.
Consecutive clean sheets would have been even more pleasing for Klopp, who has now seen his side record three shut-outs in their last six top flight matches. Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho both looked solid in the triumphs over Leicester and Sunderland, while full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno continue to impress.
Keeping things tight at the back could be essential for Liverpool going forward: with only 22 goals scored at the midway stage of the campaign – fewer than Arsenal, Leicester, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, Watford, Southampton, Chelsea, Everton and upcoming opponents West Ham – the Merseysiders look as though they will need to be defensively solid in order to pick up points for the remainder of the season.
The Hammers are another side who have showcased greater resolve in recent weeks, with successive 0-0 draws secured against Manchester United, Stoke City and Swansea City last month. Another point was claimed away to Aston Villa on Boxing Day before a 2-1 victory over Southampton on Monday made it six games unbeaten for Slaven Bilic’s (pictured) charges, who have only lost twice in the Premier League since August.
On the flip side, that win against Saints earlier this week was West Ham’s first since overcoming Chelsea more than two months ago. A run of six draws in seven games looks rather positive in general, however: the Londoners were nursing a major injury crisis for much of that time, so it is pleasing for them that they remain in a healthy position in the top half of the table – just a point and a place behind Liverpool in seventh – now that they are coming out the other side of that unfortunate period.
It will be interesting to see what West Ham can go on to achieve this term. A brilliant start that included away wins over Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City suggested that they – rather than Leicester – would be 2015/16’s surprise package, but their aforementioned rotten luck with injuries led to the recent drop-off in results. A challenge for the Europa League certainly looks possible if the likes of Dimitri Payet, Winston Reid, Andy Carroll, Manuel Lanzini, Cheikhou Kouyate and Adrian can remain fit over the next few months. Maximum points against Liverpool this weekend would be the perfect way to begin 2016 and take a first step in that direction.
The hosts will definitely be without striker Diafra Sakho on Saturday, but Payet, Reid, Aaron Cresswell, Victor Moses and Nikica Jelavic could all return to the matchday squad after missing out in recent weeks.
Klopp and Liverpool, meanwhile, will be unable to call upon Divock Origi, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Sturridge, James Milner and Jordan Rossiter. Danny Ings, Joe Gomez, Jon Flanagan are long-term absentees, though the latter did play for the club’s Under-21 side on Tuesday.