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AFC Bournemouth
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 By Dave Usher

Barring a letdown, Liverpool's path to second is clear

Liverpool can climb to second in the Premier League with a victory over West Ham at Anfield on Saturday. With Manchester United not playing Chelsea until the following day, a win over the Hammers would see Jurgen Klopp's men go above their biggest rivals -- for 24 hours, at least.

The next three games could be pivotal for both clubs in the battle for second. Jose Mourinho's team have occupied that spot for most of the season and never really been pressured from the chasing pack, but stuttering United form has seen the gap between them and fifth-placed Tottenham cut to just four points.

With Manchester City running away with the title, it is the four-way battle for the three remaining Champions League places -- along with the fight at the bottom to stay in the division -- that should provide the most interest between now and May.

If Chelsea win on Sunday it would set things up for the run in, especially as Liverpool also face a trip to Old Trafford in a couple of weeks. Collecting six points from home games with West Ham and Newcastle would see the Reds visit in good shape and a win on March 10 would put them in pole position not only to finish in the Champions League places, but as runners-up.

But regardless of Sunday's result, there will be positives: A United win would see Chelsea lose ground, while a Chelsea victory strengthens Liverpool's challenge for second. A draw, meanwhile, would see the Reds make up two points on both, providing they beat West Ham.

And that's the key; Liverpool need to take care of their own business and avoid the kind of silly slip-ups that have plagued them over the years.

They did beat the Hammers comfortably in November. The Londoners had briefly threatened to make a game of it when they got back to 2-1, but Liverpool went straight up the other end and restored their two-goal advantage before eventually running out 4-1 winners.

Klopp switched his tactical approach that day, reverting to a 4-4-2 formation with Mohamed Salah playing as a central striker. Much of the damage was done on the counter, but that tactic is unlikely to work as well this weekend as there is less onus on West Ham, as the away side, to attack in this game.

David Moyes will set his team up to defend deep and counter attack if and when possible. It's an approach Liverpool are used to but it is also one that they often struggle to overcome.

Jurgen Klopp during Liverpool's Premier League game against Swansea.
Jurgen Klopp's side have had difficulty beating West Ham at Anfield in recent years.

Some supporters are already bracing themselves for a letdown after hearing Loris Karius talking about Liverpool's defensive improvement and Dejan Lovren revealing that he has been helping Virgil Van Dijk adapt to what Klopp wants from his defenders.

Things are going very well at the moment but that is often when Liverpool are at their most vulnerable. Having beaten runaway leaders City in January, for example, they lost to then bottom-of-the-table Swansea in their very next game.

And so, having destroyed Porto in their last outing, Liverpool must guard against that all-too-frequent letdown performance; West Ham at home has all the makings of one of those "trap games" if they are not careful.

Though they have won 4-0 and 4-1 on their last two visits to West Ham, Klopp's side have had difficulty beating Saturday's opponents at Anfield of late.

Two seasons ago, Manuel Lanzini inspired the Hammers to a shock 3-0 win on Merseyside and, when the teams met later that season in the FA Cup, West Ham won a replay at Upton Park. Last season's meeting at Anfield ended in a 2-2 draw.

With Nathaniel Clyne back in training and on the way back to full fitness, Klopp has virtually a full squad at his disposal. This is significant given the concerns many had about how his players would be able to cope with his high-intensity style of play.

The Liverpool manager has made more changes than any other Premier League manager this season and so far you'd have to say it has worked.

With no injury problems and everyone looking to be in good form, Liverpool have an opportunity to push on between now and May, but how high they finish in the table could depend greatly on how they perform over the next three fixtures, starting this Saturday vs. West Ham.

Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.


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