By Mike collett
FORMER Liverpool striker Andy Carroll can dent his former club’s Premier League title chances and virtually seal West Ham United’s top-flight status for next season when the teams meet at Upton Park on Sunday.
Carroll did not fit into manager Brendan Rodgers’ plans when the Irishman took over at Anfield and 18 months after becoming the most expensive English player ever following his £35 million move from Newcastle he joined West Ham on loan before signing permanently last year.
Carroll, 25, faces Liverpool for the first time since leaving for £15 million and if he turns in the type of scoring performance he produced in a 2-1 win at Sunderland on Monday, his old club’s title hopes could be jolted.
A win would also leave West Ham in a secure position, with the Hammers currently 11th on 37 points, 11 above the drop zone.
With the end of the league campaign fast approaching and most sides having only six games to play, the outcome will have a crucial bearing on the title race along with Chelsea’s game at home to Stoke City and Southampton’s visit to Manchester City.
Everton face Arsenal at Goodison Park in a game that could determine which one of those two finish fourth and grab a place in next season’s Champions League qualifiers.
Liverpool thrashed hapless visitors Tottenham 4-0 on Sunday for their eighth successive league win to reclaim top spot for the first time since Christmas. They have 71 points from 32 games, two more than Chelsea.
Manchester City, who have two games in hand, are third on 67 points, followed by Arsenal who have 64 from 32 games.
Everton, who have a match in hand on Arsenal, have 60 points, followed by Spurs on 56 and outgoing champions Manchester United with 54.
At the other end of the table, relegation battlers Cardiff City and Crystal Palace meet in South Wales, Norwich host West Brom and basement side Fulham go to Aston Villa.
Second-bottom Sunderland visit Tottenham on Monday.
But the two biggest games of the weekend are on Sunday when the 6ft 4ins (1.93metre) Carroll hopes to prove a point to Rodgers, who has based his team plan on using Luis Suarez as the focal point of his attack rather than Carroll, with handsome dividends.
Suarez became the first Liverpool player to hit 29 league goals in the Premier League era when he scored against Spurs.
His all-round link-up play with Daniel Sturridge and the improving Raheem Sterling in attack has contributed to Liverpool’s top spot and league tally of 88 goals.
If they win their remaining matches, including at home to title rivals Manchester City and Chelsea later this month, they will be champions for the first time in 24 years.
City have their destiny in their own hands too and will be champions if they win their final eight games. They dropped two points but played well in a 1-1 draw at Arsenal on Saturday but cannot afford to slip up again against the tricky Saints.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said his team, who were beaten 3-1 by Paris St Germain in their Champions League quarter-final first leg on Wednesday, were out of the title race after they surprisingly lost 1-0 at lowly Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Yet no-one else seems to think so.
“It is very, very close at the top and I think any one of the top four sides can win it,” City coach Manuel Pellegrini said after his team’s draw at the Emirates.
“I think all of the top four will drop points, it is still very open. Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and us are all in it and all we can do is keep fighting.”
Chelsea will go back on top, for 24 hours at least, if they beat Stoke at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, a ground where the visitors have not won a league match since April 1974, although they did beat the west London side 3-2 at home in December.
Although Manchester United are out of the title race, they boosted their confidence with a 1-1 first-leg draw at home to holders Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals on Tuesday and a win at erratic Newcastle would keep them in the hunt for at least a Europa League place for next season.
United manager David Moyes’ old side Everton are striving for better than that and can take a big step towards a Champions League qualifying spot if they beat Arsenal, who have won only one of their last five league games, at Goodison.
Exciting young midfielder Ross Barkley is a doubt for Everton who are seeking a sixth successive league win.