The race for the UEFA Cup is in full swing, with essentially six or seven teams fighting for two spots. Tottenham’s triumph in the Carling Cup Final guaranteed them a place in Europe next season, something they wouldn’t have achieved through their league position, but that took away the UEFA Cup berth usually handed to the league’s 7th place finisher. Depending on which teams advance to the FA Cup Final, it’s also possible that another UEFA Cup spot, the one generally given to the league’s 6th place finisher, would vanish.
Of course, multiple Premiership teams have already applied for next summer’s Intertoto Cup, which leads into the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds if the team selected progresses through. That would, for all intents and purposes, replace the UEFA Cup spot taken away by Spurs, and England could gain another spot in Europe’s second-tier club competition if it remains on top of the UEFA Fair Play standings through the end of April.
With all this said, today’s game between West Ham and Liverpool is big, especially for the Hammers. The East London-based club is currently in 10th place in the league table, eight points out of what would be a UEFA Cup spot if the season ended right now, but with today’s game in hand.
Current Standings (4th-10th):
4. Everton (53 points, 28 games played)
5. Liverpool (50 pts., 27 GP)
6. Aston Villa (48 pts., 28 GP)
7. Blackburn Rovers (45 pts., 28 GP)
8. Manchester City (45 pts., 28 GP)
9. Portsmouth (44 pts., 28 GP)
10. West Ham (40 pts., 27 GP)
West Ham has been consistently inconsistent up to this point in the season, having beaten Manchester United and Liverpool while also losing to Wigan and Newcastle. They seem to follow every good, even great, performance with a display that can be considered abject and dismal at best.
They can’t afford a showing more like the latter today. A loss and the Hammers will be hard-pressed to get back into the European fight; they’d be hanging on by a thread. To their advantage, they still have games against Villa, Blackburn, Everton, and Pompey, fellow UEFA Cup spot contenders, but they would likely need to win three of those games instead of possibly earning a point, or even worse, losing, in a couple of those games and then making hay against the rest of their schedule.
Right now, these teams are like a fast-moving train and West Ham has to find a way to get onboard or risk being left behind for good. Today’s game is at Anfield, where the Hammers have not won since September 1963, so there is no time like the present to fix that. A draw wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for West Ham; they’d still be on the train, but they’d be the ones being dragged along on the tracks.
For Liverpool, this is an important game as well. Three points behind Everton for the fourth and last Champions League spot, the Reds and captain Steven Gerrard have come to terms with the fact that 4th place is what they’re playing for. This is a team that will play their next three league games, including today’s match, and four of their next five, at Anfield, so the opportunity to make up ground is right in front of them.
It all starts today though, and Liverpool lost at Upton Park 1-0 on January 30. They’ll need to reverse that scoreline and get a win because they don’t want to make things more difficult down the stretch of the league season than they have to be, particularly because one would have to say that a deep Champions League run will be a focus given their disappointing Premiership campaign.
I’ve got Liverpool winning 2-0, with Gerrard and Torres both scoring for the home team. We’ll see what happens though; both teams should come out desperate for these three points and that should make for a good game to watch. West Ham seems to come out for the big matches, which today’s game certainly is, but you just never know which Hammers team you’re going to get on a given day.