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Dec 13, 2013

Time for Brendan Rodgers' juggling act

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

Liverpool looking threadbare

There is a danger Liverpool could sink to their knees. Nine goals scored in two home games against Norwich and West Ham United have swelled belief a return to the Champions League or better is in the offing for Anfield. Luis Suarez starred in both of the Reds' recent shellackings, but not even such a gifted footballer can do it all on his own.

News of Daniel Sturridge's absence until late January with an ankle problem was exacerbated when Steve Gerrard tweaked his hamstring versus the Hammers, meaning the skipper is out for up to six weeks with an injury that cannot be rushed.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers only recently spoke of his concerns about the depth of his squad. He said in The Guardian after their loss at Hull City: "There's no doubt the quality in our squad, with all due respect, isn't big enough to cope with two big players [Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho] like that missing." Now follows a run that starts with a trip to Tottenham Hotspur and includes matches against Manchester City and Chelsea before the new year -- boy, will the onus rest heavier on Suarez's shoulders.

Among the Reds' summer signings were Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto, but so far their respective impacts have been negligible, leading to a greater reliance on Rodgers' key players -- which perhaps has been the cause of an injury like that suffered by 33-year-old Gerrard, who has started all 15 of his team's Premier League matches this campaign. It is up to Rodgers to manage the squad better, particularly with the congested schedule they face. With the luxury of eight days' rest, Liverpool travel to White Hart Lane on Sunday, where they have struggled in the past.

Off the back of Europa League action on Thursday, Tottenham go in search of a third league win on the spin. For all the talk of Armageddon at Spurs, a triumph against Liverpool would see them level on points with Rodgers' positively-spoken-about side. Following a suffocating amount of pressure, of which only a fraction was merited, Andre Villas-Boas' men have battled back from their humiliation at Manchester City with two morale-boosting away victories that have demonstrated a bounce-back ability that's led to Villas-Boas using rhetoric such as "back on track," "absolutely outstanding" and "fightback." Beware the animal that was wounded but is now healing, Liverpool.

Chelsea susceptible in defence

The comparisons with Jose Mourinho's first Chelsea side and this one continue in earnest, because it is human nature to reference what we've experienced before. There is a wonderful statistic doing the rounds that goes thus, courtesy of Opta: "Chelsea have already conceded more Premier League goals (17) than they did in the whole of Mourinho's debut season in 2004-05 (15)." Granted, it was highly unlikely there would be a repeat of such solidarity, but the fragility of Jose Part II is cause for concern, no matter if the Portuguese prefers to point to a lack of chances put away.

"Am I going to change the style and play more defensive players? No," said Mourinho in The Telegraph, in what was possibly a dig at former interim Chelsea boss Rafa Benitez. The fact is the Blues' troubles have not been due to a lack of defensive mindset, rather due to individual errors, in particular on set pieces. For example: the hesitancy of Petr Cech for Peter Crouch's goal at Stoke last weekend. Mourinho has put it down to misfortune, claiming the bounces aren't going his side's way. Let's see whether their luck changes against Crystal Palace, who, under Tony Pulis, might just target this weakness/misfortune.

Under-the-radar strugglers

One of Cardiff City or West Bromwich Albion is about to go six matches without a win, for both teams head into this weekend's meeting in Wales having failed to record three points in any of their previous five top-flight fixtures. Now just a point separates the two in the table, as they hover precariously above the relegation zone. Not a great deal has been said about their respective slides, maybe because a win over Manchester City for Cardiff and one over Manchester United for West Brom are etched deeper into the brain than a loss to Crystal Palace for Cardiff or one to Norwich for West Brom.

Arsenal aim to protect cushion

That Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was disappointed his side extended their lead at the top of the division to only five points with their draw versus Everton spoke volumes about how expectations at Emirates Stadium have shifted this season. However, the frustration perhaps also had something to do with knowing that a seven-point cushion would have been mighty handy, as the Gunners travel to Manchester City's fortress on Saturday lunchtime before hosting Chelsea nine days later. After the Frenchman admitted his men had one eye on the City meeting when in Naples, they had better deliver in the northwest.

Reasons not to be jolly

Both West Ham United and Sunderland are out of form. Both struggle to score goals. Bottom-of-the-table Sunderland have averaged an alarming two conceded a match, five of which were own goals. Sunderland have not won away from home in the league this season. West Ham manager Sam Allardyce is the bookmakers' favourite to be the next boss sacked. Needless to say, it will be tense at Upton Park.


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