Liverpool-West Ham United Preview
Assessing 11 Premier League matches under Jurgen Klopp to end the first round of fixtures, one cannot deny Liverpool's progress - as maddening and laboured as it might seem at times.
That's without their new manager yet having an opportunity to structure his roster to a preferred style, though that'll change midnight Saturday with the English transfer window opening in the hours before the Reds take on one of the teams they've passed since Klopp signed on. West Ham United, however, have once again started to find a semblance of an attack and haven't lost a home match at Upton Park since August, so Liverpool's hope of their first three-match winning streak in the division could hit a snag.
Liverpool (8-6-5) are three spots higher than when the German took over and already within one place of where Brendan Rodgers situated them at the end of the last campaign, but they entered the festive period with one point out of three matches, including a 3-0 loss at feisty Watford on Dec. 20.
It responded six days later with a 1-0 win over then-leaders Leicester City while holding the Foxes goalless for the first time this season. Wednesday's 1-0 win at Sunderland might not have been the variety that starts trophy discussions, but there were positives:
One, they have consecutive clean sheets for the first time under Klopp.
Two, they enter the new year five points off the top four, so the path to the Champions League is manageable.
"Thirty points feels much better than 27 - more than three points better, to be honest," Klopp told the team's official website. "You can see how close it is - the best teams in the league after 19 games have six points more than we have, so it's not that much but it's a lot.
"We don't have to think about this now. January is coming now and we will play every three days. Today, this was the squad we have at this moment - no player more. Everybody needs a little bit of luck and then we will see."
And then there's the matter of potentially having a striker emerging. Christian Benteke scored against the Foxes and Black Cats and figures to be in Klopp's starting XI for a second straight match.
"I came to Liverpool to try to score a lot of goals, I'm in good shape," said the newly 25-year-old Belgium international, who has six league goals with just 11 starts in his first season out of Aston Villa. "I hope I can keep it up."
Liverpool are in some ways a club still desperate to come anywhere near replacing what they got from Luis Suarez in 2013-14 when they finished with 101 goals. The players they'd hoped could do so haven't yet worked out, and their 22 goals are second-fewest in the top half of the table to Stoke City's 20. Mario Balotelli is on loan to AC Milan after scoring four goals in a season at Anfield. Daniel Sturridge, Suarez's former striking partner, has played five Premier League matches this season. Attacking midfielders Steven Gerrard and Raheem Sterling have moved on.
And thus: "It's Christian Benteke time," Klopp said. "He has the nose for this, the skills."
After the weekend Klopp debuted, West Ham (7-8-4) were ecstatic in fourth on 17 points through nine matches and the run that put them there began with a 3-0 romp at Anfield on Aug. 29. The Hammers also won last season's corresponding fixture at Upton Park on Sept. 20, 2014, and Diafra Sakho scored in both.
Sakho has been out with a thigh injury since Nov. 29 without an immediate return in sight, but the rest of Slaven Bilic's once-hobbled club are returning to health. Andy Carroll and Manuel Lanzini have returned and it sounds like top scorer Dimitri Payet will be ready this weekend with Victor Moses and Winston Reid not far off.
Those moves figure to be the club's version of a January upgrade.
"With the injured players coming back, we are in a good way, I am happy with the squad," said Bilic, who is eighth on 28 points and two off of a Europa spot. "If something exceptional comes up then maybe, but at the moment we have a good team. Apart from Sakho we are all practically back, if we are lucky he could be back by early February, overall our squad is good enough. We did a very good job in the summer, particularly toward the end."
The inclusion of Carroll and Lanzini as second-half substitutes made the difference in Monday's 2-1 home win over Southampton. The Hammers trailed 1-0 at the interval, but Michail Antonio and Carroll flipped things to end a span of three goalless draws and an eight-match winless stretch (0-6-2).
"It was really poor," Bilic said of the first half. "At halftime we made some changes but it was a change of character, of approach, of determination and will. They did try in the first half, but this was a different West Ham."
West Ham have never done the double over Liverpool in the Premier League era and haven't taken four points since 1998-99.