LONDON, September 18 – Rafael Benitez's Liverpool side travel to West Ham United hoping this will be the weekend when they recover some of the ground they have already lost in the Premier league title race.Two defeats in their opening three games undermined the Reds’ early claims to be genuine contenders although three successive victories — including the mid-week Champions League win over Debrecen — have helped restore confidence at Anfield.
Championships are never won or lost in September, but Benitez and his players know they can ill afford another defeat so early in the campaign and they already sit six points behind leaders Chelsea, who have so far enjoyed a 100 percent record in their opening five games.
But the fixture list has been kind to Liverpool, with Benitez’s side kicking off at Upton Park the day before Chelsea entertain Tottenham and United meet City in the Manchester derby.
And that means the Merseysiders will face West Ham with the added motivation that there is a real possibility of their main rivals dropping points and that the gap between themselves and the leading clubs could be significantly smaller when the latest round of matches are complete.
Striker Dirk Kuyt, who claimed the match-winner against Debrecen, believes normal service is slowly being resumed.
"Everyone knows we had a bad start, losing against Spurs and Villa, so we had to try and get the confidence back, try to change things," he said.
"That’s what we’ve done by winning three games in a row, and now we’re looking forward to Saturday.
"Every game is difficult – everyone knows the Premier League is a very hard league. But we have the quality to win these kinds of games on Saturday. At this stage we just have to look at ourselves, win our games and then in a couple of months see where we are."
Jamie Carragher echoed his team-mate’s view but warned it is too early to claim Liverpool are back to the form that took them to second place last season.
"We have to keep going and if we go 15 games unbeaten then we can say we’re on a great run," said the defender.
That target will be immediately tested by an improving West Ham side anxious to mark the first anniversary of Gianfranco Zola’s reign with a win.
Zola has made an outstanding start to his managerial career after succeeding Alan Curbishley, transforming a side that looked in serious danger this time last year into one that fully expects to be challenging for a top-six finish this season.
The former Italy international has achieved this by a combination of intelligent man-management and a shrewd eye for a player.
Under Zola, Carlton Cole has gone from a frustrating example of unfulfilled potential to an England international while the manager’s willingness to blood youngsters from the club’s excellent youth set-up has helped strengthen the squad from within.
The obvious weakness this season has been up front where there has been no obvious partner for Cole, but Zola this week moved to plug that gap by bringing in former Villarreal forward Guillermo Franco.
The manager will make a late decision on whether to include the Mexico international in the squad to face Liverpool but his arrival brings experience that could prove invaluable in the months ahead.
"The main motivation was to play in the Premier League," Franco said. "I had the possibility of joining (Argentine side) Estudiantes and two Spanish clubs, but it was the Premier League that drew me here."
Zola’s options are also boosted by the return of left-back Herita Ilunga following a broken jaw, while Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami could also make his first start since injuring knee ligaments last season.