LONDON: Carried by a wave of raw emotion, leaders Liverpool will look to land a potentially decisive blow in the Premier League title race when they host Manchester City today.
Tributes to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster will frame the encounter and with Liverpool on course for a first title since 1990, Anfield is likely to be a cauldron of fervour and belief.
As with every other game in England this weekend, kick-off will occur seven minutes later than scheduled as a mark of respect for the 96 Liverpool fans who died after a fatal crush at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium during an FA Cup semi-final in 1989.
The timing reflects the moment at which that game against Nottingham Forest was called to a halt.
Former players from the two sides will exchange wreaths prior to the match, which will also be preceded by a rendition of the Liverpool anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, and a minute’s silence. Fresh inquests into the deaths opened recently after the original coroner’s verdicts of accidental death were quashed following a campaign by victims’ families, whose wounds remain as fresh as ever.
While no amount of on-pitch success will ever provide adequate consolation, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers says that his side’s title bid is inspired by memories of the Hillsborough dead.
“We can’t say too much about Hillsborough because the inquests are under way,” he said earlier this week.
“But as a manager coming into the football club, I know there are 96 people in the sky who will always be supporting this football team.
“If we are to achieve anything this year, they will always be in our thoughts -- the 96 in the sky and the families that go with them.”
The rawness of the occasion leaves City in an uncomfortable position, and manager Manuel Pellegrini has encouraged his players to approach the game with clear heads. “It will be a very emotional day, but the team that has the cold mind will win the game,” said the Chilean.
“It is easy in these big games to have the motivation, but it is very important to manage the anxiety. That is very important for all the players.”
Pellegrini has also claimed that it is “not a game that will decide the title”, but a win for either side would alter the picture significantly, as both sides know that they will be champions if they win all of their remaining matches.
City, who trail Liverpool by four points with two games in hand, received a huge fillip prior to the game with the news that top scorer Sergio Aguero will be fit to play after five games out with a hamstring problem.
Apart from centre-back Matija Nastasic, who has an ongoing knee complaint, Pellegrini has a fully fit squad to select from, while left-back Jose Enrique (also knee) will be the only absentee for the home side.
With 29 goals to his name, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez needs just two more goals to equal the Premier League scoring record for a 38-game season, but he says that the team’s requirements come first.
Chelsea’s looming Champions League semi-final with Atletico Madrid will be put to one side as Jose Mourinho’s side attempt to strengthen their Premier League title challenge at Swansea.
The Stamford Bridge club will head to South Wales today having been boosted by this week’s memorable victory over Paris Saint-Germain that took them one step closer towards clinching European football’s top prize for the second time in three years.
And they could receive a further lift immediately before kick-off when the outcome of Manchester City’s trip to Liverpool is known.
Chelsea head into the latest round of matches in second place, two points behind leaders Liverpool and two points ahead of third-placed Manchester City, who have two games in hand.