No major surprise if West Ham derail Liverpool
New leaders will have to be on their guard against the type of upset suffered by Chelsea
Chelsea's surprise defeat by Crystal Palace is unlikely to be the last twist in the race for the English Premier League title and new leaders Liverpool will have to be on their guard against a similar upset on Sunday when they face West Ham and their old boy Andy Carroll.
"The manager has the full confidence of the board" may be the most dreaded phrase in football but not far behind is the well-worn assertion that a team "has its own destiny in their hands". That was applied to Liverpool after last week's turnaround, as they will be champions if they win their remaining six games, but the likelihood is that there will be more stumbles along the way.
Liverpool are on a winning run of eight, but extending that to 14 in a perfect end to the season would be an almost unheard-of feat. Only three teams have had a winning run of double figures in the past 10 seasons and the last (and best) was Manchester United with 11 in 2008-09. In the Premier League era, the longest streak is Arsenal's 13 in 2001-02.
The biggest stumbling blocks, and greatest opportunities, for Liverpool are their next two home games, against Manchester City and Chelsea, but that does not mean they will not throw in a poor result against a lesser team.
All of the title contenders have been beaten by a bottom-half team this season, though Liverpool have lost only once in that category (3-1 at Hull on December 1) whereas Chelsea have lost twice and City three times. Liverpool's three remaining away matches are all against bottom-half teams and they average exactly two points per game in that category, which suggests they will take six points from those three games.
Seven points seems a more realistic assessment of the likely return, as that is what they have taken from their three visits to bottom-half teams since the Hull defeat.
So, what chance an upset at West Ham? The odds give Liverpool around a 70 per cent chance of victory, a reflection of their rising status rather than the pure form figures - their overall away win rate is 50 per cent, going up to 60 per cent against teams outside the top seven.
Even against the worst six home teams, Liverpool have won four out of six (67 per cent) and drawn the other two, which is a significant measure as West Ham are the next-worst home side on the list. West Ham have the worst home record against top-half teams (seven defeats out of eight, with one win) and have lost all five against the top-seven teams to have visited Upton Park so far, conceding at least two goals each time.
The main imponderable is what damage Carroll might do to the Liverpool defence and there is no doubt he will be out to hurt his old club after being ditched by Brendan Rodgers.
West Ham have won two of the three home games he has started this season, although the exception was the recent 2-0 defeat by Manchester United (Carroll's only home start against a top-seven side).
Liverpool's defence is the second-worst in the top seven, however, and still the weakness that might let them down. Carroll will give them a serious test and it will be down to Liverpool's forwards to outscore the opposition again.
Twenty of Liverpool's last 22 league games have had over 2.5 goals and that seems the best bet again.
Manchester City v Southampton might be high-scoring too, with City's strong home record hard to dismiss, while Chelsea should have little problem at home to Stoke.
Everton play Arsenal on Sunday in a pivotal match in the battle for fourth place and the hosts look the handicap bet as they are unbeaten in three home games against top-seven sides and are second to Liverpool in the eight-match form table.
Their only defeat at Goodison Park this season came when they had goalkeeper Tim Howard sent off after 23 minutes.
Most of the mid-table or relegation clashes look too difficult to call. Norwich, for example, could beat West Brom but they do not score enough to back a win with confidence, while Aston Villa have much more ability than Fulham but are better suited to away games.