LONDON, February 27 – Buoyed by their Champions League victory at Real Madrid in midweek, Liverpool this weekend have a chance to breathe new life into a Premier League title battle that most pundits have already awarded to Manchester United.
With United otherwise engaged by a League Cup final date with Tottenham on Sunday, the Reds have the chance to cut the champions’ lead at the top of the table back to four points, provided they can collect three on their trip to Middlesbrough.
Recent history suggestes that may be a tall order for Rafael Benitez’s men (Liverpool have not won at the Riverside under the Spaniard) but there is no doubt that morale in their camp has been greatly bolstered by the relative ease with which they secured a precious away win in the Bernabeu.
Benitez’s attempts to quash speculation that he is set to leave the club have also lifted spirits, even if some of his ambiguous comments have only served to further encourage the rumours that prompted bookmakers to stop taking bets on him quitting before the end of this month.
Benitez is due to hold further contract talks with Liverpool’s American owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, in the aftermath of the Boro clash although the Spaniard’s players appear far from convinced that the uncertainty over his future will be resolved by him signing a new long-term deal.
"I cannot say what is going to happen, but with him Liverpool is doing a great job," said the Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano. "If we want to keep going in the Champions League and Premier League it is important to have him with us."
On the pitch, Liverpool are equally dependent on the combined talents of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, both of whom may not feature at Boro because of foot and hamstring injuries respectively.
Gerrard appeared for the final few minutes in Madrid but Liverpool’s medical staff remain concerned about the risk of him suffering a more serious setback than the one which has kept him sidelined for the last three weeks.
Elsewhere, Chelsea will be hoping Guus Hiddink’s revitalising impact will carry them to a third successive win under his stewardship, at the expense of Steve Bruce’s Wigan, the visitors to Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Hiddink’s arrival as a temporary coach has had a particularly galvanising impact on Didier Drogba and the Dutchman will be hoping for more of the same from the Ivorian striker after his match-winning display against Juventus in midweek.
Saturday’s curtailed programme also sees Everton take on bottom side West Brom while Arsenal, like Chelsea, will be hoping for a European spillover effect following their 1-0 defeat of Roma on Tuesday.
Arsene Wenger’s side remain six points outside the top four but a home clash with Fulham offers an opportunity to pile the pressure on to faltering Aston Villa, the side they must overhaul to secure a return to the Champions League next season.
Villa’s 2-0 UEFA Cup defeat by CSKA Moscow in midweek — albeit with a very weakened side — means they have now gone four matches without a win in all competitions and failure to overcome struggling Stoke on Sunday is likely to have a highly demoralising impact.
Sunday also sees Craig Bellamy return to his former club West Ham with Manchester City while Bolton entertain
Newcastle in a battle of two teams desperately trying to retain a margin for error between themselves and the relegation zone.
Hull, the most successful of this season’s top flight newcomers, will find themselves right in the heart of the survival battle if they slip-up at home to Blackburn on Sunday.
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)
Arsenal v Fulham, Chelsea v Wigan, Everton v West Brom (1245 GMT), Middlesbrough v Liverpool
Aston Villa v Stoke, Bolton v Newcastle (1300), Hull v Blackburn (1230 GMT), West Ham v Manchester City (1230 GMT)