Tomorrow, Tottenham Hotspur travel to Anfield to take on Liverpool in a clash that has got me a little more than nervous for a multitude of reasons. In many respects, I think the game might actually be important enough for us to draw a number of conclusions, both directly and inferentially, about where Spurs are headed in the near future. In a numbered list format to try and achieve some cogency, here's why.
1. It's going to be the toughest test of character our squad will face all season
Surely not, right? Liverpool are hardly setting the league ablaze right now all the way down in 7th. Their home form's been solid yet unspectacular and they've achieved little away from Anfield too. This can't be as hard as a face-off against a Manchester club, right?
Dead, dead wrong. First of all, I would never write off Liverpool at Anfield. This point should be almost self-evident and just because we did it last season we should view that more as a spectacular one-off than a sign of things to come. Secondly, I wouldn't write off Liverpool when Luis Suarez is playing. Though he hasn't really hit his form this season, Suarez is a master at causing havoc in the opposition box as he showed times and time again last season. He's back from his ban and will almost certainly line up against us tomorrow. Thirdly, I would certainly never ever write off Liverpool when Steven Gerrard is playing. Even though he's over 30 now he's playing this season like he's only just hitting his prime, with more energy and drive than any other player Liverpool can field. He's an amazing crosser, a clinical finisher, he moves all over the field and if we concede a penalty, that's an almost unquestioned goal to Liverpool. He's simply the best midfielder in the English Premier League on his day and he's going to make things very, very difficult for us tomorrow.
Lastly, Tottenham's problems will be compounded by the fact that we have very little idea of what squad Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish will put out tomorrow. He's been tinkering extensively with his first XI between games, with Craig Bellamy, Andy Carroll and Dirk Kuyt on seemingly constant rotation up front. All three players affect the style of football Liverpool play in different ways and I don't believe any of us can truly guess how things will shake down until the match is actually underway.
Taking all of these points into account, as well as the fact that Liverpool have started to hit their stride recently with a big win against Manchester City in the Carling Cup, I feel that Spurs are going to be tested tomorrow as much as or more than we will at any other point from now till the end of the season. If we can win at Anfield, we can win anywhere.
2. We'll get a glimpse at what our new signings can do
With Jermain Defoe, Emmanuel Adebayor and Rafael van der Vaart all injury doubts for tomorrow's match, it is almost a certainty that Louis Saha will feature at some point in the proceedings. Similarly, the club have also said that Ryan Nelsen will be travelling to Anfield tomorrow and, considering the constant ambiguity that seems to surround the fitness of Michael Dawson and Ledley King these days, I'd say there's an outside chance he might make an appearance too.
It's clear that we'll almost definitely get a look at what at least one of our new pair can do tomorrow. Again, this could be pretty season-defining because, with the aforementioned injury crises we're currently facing and the fact we've sold off or loaned out many of our stable backup players in the last window, I reckon both Saha and Nelsen will get more playing time (depending on their fitness) than many of us might have reckoned. Harry Redknapp's comments about his admiration for Saha and his seeming general lack of trust for Jermaine Defoe even when he's on form make this even more of a possibility. So, essentially, the performances we may see tomorrow will give us an indication of how the front and back lines of our squad might cope for much of the rest of the season.
3. Points, points, points
As I'm sure I don't need to point out, Spurs are currently lying 5 points behind our nearest title competitors in the league table. To have any chance of keeping up with the leaders, tomorrow is a must-win. If we take any less than 3 off Liverpool, I'd call our nearly-moribund title challenge officially over. Even more importantly, though we're a clear 7 points ahead of 4th and 5th as things stand currently, I would never rule out the possibility of Chelsea or even Arsenal slashing this lead if they go on a good run and we have our typical slide towards indifference for the rest of the season. Complacency will only see us lose what we're currently taking for granted this year.
On the flip side of things, though Liverpool are currently languishing in 7th, a win tomorrow would see them shoot up to nearly level with Chelsea and Newcastle, putting them in the mix for Champions League places again. We simply cannot afford to deal with another competitor snapping at our heels- we have to put down all threats whenever the power is in our hands.
All in all, it all looks a bit tense. I'll never be fully comfortable with Spurs ability to handle high-pressure situations, but I'll never be anything other than behind them throughout. Here's hoping they'll show us where exactly we're going to be come the summer, with a big statement tomorrow.