Mike Nevin Ident

I’VE just had a look at the weekend’s fixtures.

I already knew Chelsea were at Crystal Palace, but seeing their early Saturday kick-off time heard an expletive trip off my lips. Potentially, that means Chelsea could be nine points clear before the weekend and Christmas programme begins in earnest. And, of course, before we engage on Monday night in our bi-annual family feud with the scruffy side of the clan.

I’m in a bit of flap about that prospect. It’s not ideal going into a derby with “must-win” written all over it, against an Everton side buoyed by a midweek win over a hitherto emboldened Arsenal.

Then, I remind myself there are 22 games and a huge 66 points left to play for. A long, long way to go; the definition of the championship marathon over the sprint. Chelsea’s seemingly inexorable mid-season charge is more than a mild annoyance at a time when the Reds have encountered a winter blip, but as the festive period hots up, it is simply time to dig in and stay on their heels.

Wednesday on Teesside was a start; a renewed statement of a win laced with flair and beauty rather than the dogged, ground-out three points some pundits argue is the stock-in-trade of champions-elect.

Perhaps, part of the process in revelling in and understanding Liverpool’s enduring challenge is that, while the Middlesbrough clean sheet was a most welcome pre-Christmas gift, we’re probably not that kind of outfit. If the Reds are to prevail in May, it’s likely to be a triumph decorated by stunning goals and performances.

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 14, 2016: Liverpool's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet in action against Middlesbrough during the FA Premier League match at the Riverside Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Ole. Ole, Ole, Ole.

The pain of 2014 still resides in many of us. However, I’m now using that thrilling season at large as a blueprint for the Reds to follow. Lady Luck’s keenest kick in the testicles aside, we would have won that league.

This time, there is much to draw on in the merit of a Chelsea-like surge, but much later in the season. Being “handily-placed” come February or March – like we were in 2014 — has to be Liverpool’s new aim.

It is worth remembering our run of 11 consecutive wins in the spring of 2014 first blew Chelsea off course, before Manchester City emerged as the main rivals and eventual winners of a crown that really should have been ours.

Prior to that, despite topping the Christmas 2013 title tree, a Champions League place seemed the most realistic ambition through autumn and early winter, before the Reds embraced the business end of the season with a run laden with goals. Then, a Liverpool team inspired by an attacking trio of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling gathered and fed off momentum and, although the personnel is largely changed, there are many similarities this year.

Jürgen Klopp’s preferred front three of Phil Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are just as irresistible as an attacking trident, and all at various points have staked claims to be viewed as the Reds’ key player. Coutinho for his guile and invention, Mane for his unique pace and thrust and Firmino for his gold-plated, roaming nuisance value.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 29, 2016: Liverpool's Roberto Firmino celebrates scoring the fourth goal against Crystal Palace with team-mates Philippe Coutinho Correia and Sadio Mane during the FA Premier League match at Selhurst Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Goal-a-game Divock Origi, while not perhaps in the all-round form of last season, has filled the net-bulging breach, while the poise of Adam Lallana from central midfield contests any debate around question of Liverpool’s best and most important player.

With a fit, perhaps even rested, Coutinho returning in the New Year, the Reds’ abundance of goals can still provide the type of winning streak which will be required to top the May table. Chelsea currently have momentum, albeit of a different kind, but their winning streak has to end at some point. Injuries and absence, which have consistently plagued the Reds over the past few weeks, will eventually dog the Stamford Bridge challenge.

Students of season-long campaigns and mid-season winning runs identify a key trend. When these sequences end they can be psychologically damaging. Already this year, Man City’s faultless run of 10 wins in all competitions from the start hit the buffers after Celtic held them to a 3-3 Champions League draw. From apparently unstoppable, odds-on titles favourites in autumn, Pep Guardiola’s debut season in England has seen City drift out to 4/1 after three draws and three league defeats since.

Antonio Conte at Chelsea is made of stern stuff in contrast to the increasingly whiny Guardiola. But, he’s yet to face a real crisis, with Chelsea’s early season losses excused by the notion of a transition season and last year’s lowly Premier League finish. Expectation now surrounds Chelsea and they are up there to be shot at, most notably by a cluster of top sides vying for top four spots and more.

The points distance to Liverpool, City, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United is a nice cushion for now, but the sense of a lead being nibbled away can be corrosive in the extreme when it comes to the psychology of a dressing room. Conte is unlikely to lose his hair again, but his luscious weave can still sprout an artificial grey hair or two with the pack closing in.

That being said, we just to need to focus on our own business.

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 14, 2016: Liverpool's Adam Lallana celebrates scoring the third goal against Middlesbrough with team-mates, to seal a 3-0 victory, during the FA Premier League match at the Riverside Stadium. Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi, captain Jordan Henderson, Ragnar Klavan. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool’s next three fixtures are tough. The derby (away) is never an easy game – the last four have ended all square – so three points at Goodison Park would be a massive fillip. Stoke are improving ahead of the Anfield clash on December 27 but a win has to be expected there.

Then, Man City’s visit on New Year’s Eve – which has all our football widows kicking and screaming like no tomorrow — is another of the six-pointers that could well determine who wins out in this league.

So, there are three massive games coming up. Take each one as it comes. Definitely time to strap yourself in and try to enjoy the ride. Maybe lash down a bottle of Bailey’s and a mince pie before each one kicks off. Do not make my mistake of watching all abstemious (like I did against Bournemouth), as sobriety brings only defeat with no solace.

There will be time for our livers to recover in the New Year, and even then we’re only at the halfway stage in the Premier League. Unlike in Klopp’s native Germany, no-one is crowned as half-season Winterkönigs before the Bundesliga break.

No, the Reds must press on. Illuminate our bleak days and nights of winter, starting over Stanley Park at Goodison.

Any spares, lads?

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