Liverpool will look to the past and future this weekend when they commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster before duelling Manchester City for supremacy in the Premier League.
Next Tuesday marks 25 years since a fatal crush that would claim the lives of 96 Liverpool fans occurred during an FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough stadium in the northern city of Sheffield.
As a mark of respect, all professional matches in England this weekend will kick off at seven minutes past the hour, to mark the sixth-minute abandonment of the fateful game at Hillsborough.
Liverpool’s game against City on Sunday will also be preceded by tributes, with legendary figures from the two clubs exchanging wreaths on the pitch at Anfield before those inside the ground observe 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 the victims’ families that led to the publication of a new independent report.
Two investigations are also under way into the police’s handling of the disaster, amid mounting evidence of a cover-up that prompted British Prime Minister David Cameron to issue an official apology.
The sense of occasion on Sunday will be heightened by the knowledge that victory over title rivals City will take Liverpool closer to a first league crown since 1990.
Brendan Rodgers’s side go into the game four points clear of City at the top of the table and although the visitors have two games in hand, their destiny will no longer be in their own hands if they lose.
However, Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson believes that it is still too soon to view Sunday’s encounter as a title decider.
“We’ve got five games left. It’s not one, it’s five,” said the England international, whose side are on a run of nine consecutive wins.
“We’ve got to take each one as it comes and it is City – it is a big game, but so are the other four.”
City cruised to a 4-1 win over Southampton last weekend and midfielder James Milner says that his side will have no trouble finding focus for the trip to Merseyside.
“We know that if we win all our remaining games, we would win the title, and the same applies to Liverpool, so it’s definitely one of the biggest games of the season,” he said.
“It’s still in our hands because if we win seven games, we’ll be the champions, but Liverpool are in the box-seat because they are top and have the points already on the board so for me, they have to be favourites as things stand.”
Second-place Chelsea visit Swansea City later on Sunday and they are likely to keep an attentive eye on proceedings at Anfield.
Manager Jose Mourinho declared his team’s title challenge over after their recent 1-0 loss at Crystal Palace, but the Champions League semifinalists will take over at the top of the table if they win and Liverpool lose.
Everton, meanwhile, will look to exploit Arsenal’s inactivity due to their FA Cup semifinal against Wigan Athletic by stealing a march on Arsene Wenger’s side in the race for a Champions League place.
Everton overwhelmed Arsenal 3-0 last weekend and will move above the London club and into the top four if they avoid defeat at bottom club Sunderland on Saturday.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez has given his backing to the decision to honour the Hillsborough dead with delayed kick-offs, saying: “It is a very important gesture from the whole league and everyone in world football to pay their respects to what happened 25 years ago.”
With a five-point gap having opened up between the bottom three and the rest of the league, this weekend could also prove pivotal in the battle to avoid relegation.
Fourth-bottom Norwich City sacked manager Chris Hughton this week, replacing him with youth-team coach Neil Adams, and they will hope to avoid being sucked towards the drop zone when they visit third-bottom Fulham.
“It is a battle of who wants it most,” said Norwich winger Robert Snodgrass. “It doesn’t come any bigger than this.”
Crystal Palace v Aston Villa
Fulham v Norwich City
Southampton v Cardiff City
Stoke City v Newcastle United
Sunderland v Everton
West Bromwich Albion v Tottenham Hotspur
Liverpool v Manchester City
Swansea City v Chelsea