AND the rain will come down. We’re going to Leicester. We will drive into the wet and windy night for the Reds. It is all about Leicester. And we won’t get home ’til tomorrow. And we are doing it all for Leicester. Not for City. For what the Reds must do. The Reds must win in Leicester. Our season will begin. In the blackness of a storm lashed February night. In fucking Leicester.
We are in a nowhere place in the league. Somewhere in the void. I haven’t looked at the numbers on the left of a table for weeks now. Not the ones below fourth. The right-hand side is a different matter. We are eight points off where we need to be. We need to be in the top four. Not because there is a qualification prize. Not for the riches that follow.
We need top four because it makes sense of everything else we do. The top four are in a league of their own. Just like Norwich or Bournemouth, or even Leicester, view themselves through the prism of membership of the Premier League, Liverpool must judge itself relative to the elite of the elite. Norwich don’t want to play in the Championship. Nor do Leicester City. Liverpool want to play in the best league they can, too.
We want to win the league. We want to win the European Cup. Most teams do not achieve those things as uninvited guests. Most teams achieve those things from a base camp near the top of their domestic league table. The Liverpool team of 2013-14 was a near-glorious exception. Brendan Rodgers’ and Luis Suarez’s team climbed that greasy pole in 13-14 like spiderman on the lemo. It was the rarerest of transitions. From seventh-placed no hopers to the cusp of the greatest title win in living memory.
Leicester City have now taken up the mantle of rulebook re-writers. They shouldn’t even be in our league. Literally. They were all but relegated. Now they might win the thing. We’ve never seen the like.
There’s therefore some kind of loose symmetry or role reversal that pits us as their rivals this week. Them as us. Us as them. They’re starting to believe they might be champions. It is an amazing feeling. They have to beat Liverpool this week really to demonstrate that they have a right to that flight of fancy. We believe — purely because we always believe — that we can regain our place at the highest table. That we can finish in that top four.
To make the transition from delusionists to men on a mission we need to beat Leicester. No half measures. Just do them. Reduce that gap to 10 points. Give ourselves a chance of reigning at least one of them or Tottenham in.
Traditionalists will lament that there’s little worthy in finishing fourth. That only pots count. They easily forget. What put a cherry on the cake of those three trophies in 2001?
What made all that effort, all those miles, seem so much more meaningful? It was finishing third in the league. It created a context for all the other achievements.
Compare with the Middlesbrough team that got to two cup finals in the 90s but also got itself relegated. Or Kenny Dalglish’s side that won the League Cup and reached the FA Cup final in 2012. Kenny’s team also finished eighth in the league and the King was sacked. His cup and the journeys to Wembley counted for nothing.
The league isn’t just the holy grail or the bread and butter. The league is also always the context.
It does matter whether you finish third or eighth. Bill Shankly was wrong. First maybe first but second and third aren’t bad. They stand you in good stead. They gain you respect. They are platforms from which to win leagues from.
We are in shock and awe over Leicester precisely because teams that go from anywhere to there are exceedingly rare. Liverpool FC have routinely been finishing sixth, seventh and eighth. It has to stop. We don’t have to combust just because we can no longer be champions this season.
A big fortnight beckons in this regard. Our next three league games are Leicester, Sunderland at Anfield on Saturday and Aston Villa away. If we beat Leicester we will win the other two. We will take nine points from nine and we will be a serious proposition again. We will go to Wembley at the end of February as one of the contenders in our league.
This is why Jürgen Klopp has played fast with the FA Cup. He pitched the kids in against West Ham on Saturday to give the grown ups the very best chance they can have of beating Leicester.
We will drive through the night to watch these rested lads. We will shiver in the cold and the rain on plastic seats behind a goal in Leicester to see the best of the Reds give everything Klopp knows they’ve got. It should become apparent why the manager saw it as correct to make 10 changes at the weekend. You simply can’t gegenpress on an empty tank.
Liverpool beat Leicester a month or so ago because they treated them as equals. The win looks narrow at 1-0, but the performance was strong.
Klopp’s team systematically dismantled the team at the top of the table. Liverpool looked comfortably the better team.
Fate and necessity should converge again to see Klopp sending out a team that picks itself in a 4-4-2-like reprise of the side that was something of a model of efficiency in beating Leicester the first time round. Adam Lallana shadowed Divock Origi centrally, and then later Christian Benteke, following the former’s injury. That day Emre Can and Jordan Henderson were able to alternate anchoring and pressing, with Phil Coutinho and Roberto Firmino given licence to attack from nominally wide positions.
This time around, the security that four across the middle of the park provides will again be key. Given the mass restings at the weekend it’s hard to see past a quartet of Henderson, Can, James Milner and Lucas Leivas.
How they will be configured is anybody’s guess. Lallana and Firmino then, the front two.
At the back, Nathaniel Clyne, Alberto Moreno and Mamadou Sakho look certs. Dejan Lovren to join them a pretty solid bet, too. Any possible surprises then? A start for Benteke in a formation that saw Firmino further back would represent one.
Either way, Liverpool have to show up. It’s never a fun journey up and down the M6 in the dark in the winter. Spare a thought for us, Reds. I’ve convinced myself that this is the big one. The no-looking-back moment. Humour me. We’re on the edge of a season here and it can yet be a mighty fun one.