Middle men inspire Grant

Avram Grant refused to think of what might have been as he contemplated lining up Mark Noble, Scott Parker and Thomas Hitzlsperger in a West Ham United midfield for the first time in the Barclays Premier League with Liverpool's visit this afternoon.

The trio first played together for the Hammers on 23 July last year, in a 1-0 friendly win against Greek double winners Panathinaikos that saw Grant's men dominate from start to finish despite facing a team that would go on to compete in the UEFA Champions League.

Parker had missed the first two summer friendlies after his England commitments but the Hammers fans that had travelled to Kitzbuhel were treated to a dynamic display from the midfield trio. It was a noteworthy win - thanks to a Hitzlsperger free-kick - as part of an unbeaten pre-season that left everyone on a high.

However, Hitzlsperger was to be injured three days after the end of that successful summer and four days before the start of the new season - while captaining Germany on his 52nd international appearance. Now, after last Monday's star turn from all three against Burnley, the manager will get a chance to unleash the trio in the top flight.

"In an ideal world without injuries if we had only 70 or even 50 percent of the players who were injured we would have more points of course," said Grant. "This is part of the game and of course if Thomas had been with us it would have been better. That's why we brought him here.

"We need to wait a little bit to see him at his best because the first game after so long is not easy. I don't know if he can play 90 minutes but in a very short time you will see a player that is intelligent, can score, can assist and work hard in the midfield."

The manager said he believed Hitzlsperger's presence would free up Parker from defensive duties. "In our system Scotty can also go forward and he has scored a lot of goals - more than the year before. Of course it is always good for him to play with a player like Thomas."

When the Hammers went to Anfield and lost 3-0 on 20 November for what Grant has described as one of the lowest points of the season so far, both Parker and Hitzlsperger were missing. Noble, who has five assists from the last two games, did play in a thoroughly frustrating evening for all. It will be a different contest all together on Sunday.

"It was our worst game but I'm very happy that we learned from this. If you see the games after Liverpool it was completely different. I often tell the players that sometimes the reaction is the most important thing."

Senior players will be significant for the final eleven fixtures of the Barclays Premier League season and the manager said captain Matthew Upson was "desperate to play". The centre-half trained on Friday and Saturday but the manager has a full complement to choose from and also the knowledge of ten more big battles for survival.

Standing in his way is his former assistant Steve Clarke, who has done well at Liverpool after his spell as the Hammers No2. "I worked with Steve, he is a very, very good coach on the pitch and I am sure he is good for Liverpool and is doing a good job there."

The manager will not be thinking about Clarke - or his former player Joe Cole - on Sunday afternoon, or what might have been with the Carling Cup final later in the day. All that matters is what his team do come 1.30pm - and that was certainly the message from the manager to the supporters at what will be a sold-out Boleyn.

"This afternoon will be a different test to the others we have had in recent weeks. We will have to be stronger physically and tactically but we have worked hard in training to be ready. We will also remember the experiences we have had this season - positive and negative - and use them to drive us on for the run-in.

"We will need you today like never before."