By Mike Collett
EVERY senior match in England will kick-off seven minutes later than normal this weekend as football marks the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool fans died at an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.
Nowhere will the mark of respect carry greater significance than at Anfield, where Premier League leaders Liverpool face third-placed Manchester City in a match that will have a significant impact on who is going to emerge as champions this season.
The 1989 semi-final was abandoned at neutral Hillsborough in Sheffield after six minutes, and an additional minute of silence will complete the seven-minute observation.
Liverpool’s game will get underway at 1.37pm local time on Sunday, while every match in England’s senior divisions will start later between April 11 and April 15, the actual anniversary of the disaster.
With Liverpool now in sight of their first title since 1990, when the scars from the tragedy were still raw, emotions at Anfield will likely be running higher than normal.
Brendan Rodgers’ side, who have won their last nine league matches to go top of the table, can take a major stride towards the title with a 10th successive league win, and Rodgers is aware of what Sunday will mean to the fans.
“I know there are 96 people in the sky who will always be supporting this team,” he said following his side’s 2-1 victory over West Ham United at Upton Park last Sunday.
That win put Liverpool on 74 points with five games to play, two ahead of Chelsea (72) and four points above Manchester City (70), who have two games in hand.
“We want to do this (win the league) for the great support and football family of Liverpool, and if we are to achieve anything this year the 96 in the sky will always be in our thoughts, and their families,” Rodgers said.
“There’s a number of great teams in this league, big clubs with titles under their belts in the last 10 years,” he told reporters.
“We’re fighting them. Manchester City are strong and have every component to do well. They’re a wonderful club and they’ve invested well in top players. They’ll be looking to come to Anfield and get a result.”
Manchester City, clearly, will be intent on taking three points from the game, as they did when Manchester United observed the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster in 2008.
City were the visitors to Old Trafford on the day of that anniversary, and after then-managers Alex Ferguson and Sven-Goran Eriksson laid wreaths in the centre circle commemorating the 23 people who died in the crash, City went on to beat United 2-1.
A win for City on Sunday would keep the race wide open, as they would move to within a point of Liverpool with two extra matches to play.
Chelsea are not out of the race either, despite recent surprise defeats to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace.
Jose Mourinho’s team – on a high after reaching the Champions League semi-finals with a dramatic 2-0 win over Paris St Germain – travel to Swansea City for Sunday’s late match.
With Arsenal playing Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Saturday, Everton have the chance to leapfrog the Gunners and move into fourth place if they win at Sunderland on Saturday.
Sunderland are bottom of the table after being thrashed 5-1 at Tottenham Hotspur on Monday, with coach Gus Poyet admitting they now “need a miracle to survive”.
Everton are unlikely to be a route to salvation for them.
Roberto Martinez’s men have been in superb form, winning their last six league matches, with Martinez hailing last weekend’s stunning 3-0 win over Arsenal as their best performance of the season.
Everton are fifth on 63 points, one point and a place behind Arsenal (64) with a game in hand, and they also have a game in hand over Spurs, who are sixth on 59 points.
Spurs could keep their faint hopes of a top-four finish alive if they win at lowly West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, while Albion will be desperate for the points as they are far from safe despite last week’s 1-0 win at Norwich City, which cost Canaries manager Chris Hughton his job.
The key relegation battle is at Craven Cottage, where Fulham, who won 2-1 at Aston Villa last week, take on Norwich City under former youth team coach Neil Adams, who has five games to save them from the drop.