AT Old Trafford they’re talking about this being the day they re-join the title race. It’s a bigger game for them than it is for us.
If we win in Manchester our chests are puffed, but the league will be far from won. A defeat would see heads go, but it is a far from unlikely result. Manchester United are a good side. This is a time for calm nerves and taking rough, smooth and points, as they come.
I’ve been doing maths. Let me show you how we win the league from here, and why it doesn’t really matter if we lose to Manchester United this weekend.
We’ve got 44 points on the board already (from 20 games). Our last nine games of the season are all winnable. Unless our form is disastrous going into them, and even then that run of games must yield at least 23 points from 27 available. Given that there’s a title at stake.
Five of the nine are at home. Let’s win all of these and then just two of the four away games. Job done. Seven wins, two draws. That gives us 67 points from 29 games (44 of them real and the 23 imagined above).
Would you take 85 points now? I would. This is a competitive league. It should be enough. We can all agree on this. This makes our target 18 points from our next nine games. Two points per game. It’s always a tough average to maintain but it’s a lower average than title winners need. Lots of hard games in this next nine it must be conceded – United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City. But five of the nine (again) are at Anfield.
Anfield is our key asset. It will be especially so in the big face-offs.
Me and Jürgen Klopp are targeting maximum points from Swansea and Burnley at Anfield and Hull away. That’s nine of the 18 we’re looking at, accounted for. We therefore need to find nine more points from home games against Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea, and away games at Leicester, United and City. Nine points from six games. That’s what we need to win the Premier League. Just nine points from six games.
Picture it. Six (theoretical) games to go. We’ve got 76 points on the board. We can see that 85 points will win this league. Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea at home. Leicester, United and City away. We’ve seen easier run-ins, but still, nine points from six games isn’t a lot. Two wins, maybe? A few draws? Three wins and three defeats, even?
Three defeats. We are allowed three defeats. Not from now until the end of the season. We’re not losing any of our last nine games, remember. Just not happening if we’re going for the title. Let’s take this much as read. Three defeats allowed in our next nine games then. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Sounds very manageable. Then, remember Swansea, Burnley and Hull (two of them at Anfield) – we’re not losing any of these.
And then there were six.
Six games of which we can afford to lose three. One of those games is at Old Trafford. As fate would have it, it’s our very next fixture. And this is why we will erroneously view a match that we can regard as a bonus game, as ‘make or break’. Just because it is what’s immediately in front of us. We can’t see past it. It is not a must-win. It’s not even a mustn’t lose. It is a match from which any points taken can be seen as a bonus. As an improvement on our par target. We lose, we’re still getting 85 points. We win we’re getting 88 points. The league will be won by the end of April.
Liverpool don’t need to be afraid. Many of the hardest yards have been put in. We’ve already played three of our biggest five rivals away from home. We’ve only had nine home fixtures so far. We have a further 10 to come. We’ve already put some other tough aways behind us – like Everton and Southampton. And, crucially, we have 44 points secured already.
I’m not interested in Chelsea’s five-point lead or in United closing the gap on us. Let’s look only at targeting points. Let’s win when we should win. If we do that, we will be very close in May.
I’m not saying this is my team talk for the lads in the dressing room at 3.55pm on Sunday afternoon. Me and Jürgen are trying to calm them down, though. We want them to be cool in the heat of battle. To treat adversity as an imposter and to be ready to seize upon any good fortune thrown our way. Manchester United will be pumped. They were in that second leg in the Europa League back in March. They fair flew at us. We kept our heads then. Phil Coutinho sprinkled some stardust on proceedings and by half-time the travelling Kop were correctly in disco mode. The tie was won.
Jose Mourinho has been bullish with his selections recently. He has not taken opportunities to rotate his team to any great extent. Paul Pogba and the rest got a workout against Hull in the week. But for illness, Zlatan Ibrahimovic would have played too. The United manager, after a fraught start to his new job, is surfing a wave. He’s clearly becoming evangelical about the momentum his team have established. He thinks it is the key to everything. He may be right, or he may find Liverpool a staging post too far.
Klopp and The Reds will be without Sadio Mane for the first time in a league game. He will be missed, but there are new options. Liverpool have stayed in the title hunt without Coutinho. He has been missing for seven weeks. Liverpool have found ways to play without him. With him, things will be easier. What we will lose in Mane’s pace we will regain in Coutinho’s guile. He makes the whole team function. He makes Roberto Firmino function particularly well. He has always brought the best from Daniel Sturridge too. All three may represent Liverpool in attack at Old Trafford, unless Klopp fears exposing Sturridge’s finely tuned physicality in back to back games. He may hold him back for the game’s last quarter and start instead with Divock Origi.
The manager says that Jordan Henderson is ready to return. That won’t please United. He will anchor behind Gini Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana in the strongest midfield permutation Klopp has. In defence, Joel Matip could step back in. He has been the best of Liverpool FC’s back four this season, and has the temperament to be able to deal with all that a baying Old Trafford has to offer.
The home team will not be slow out of the traps. Mourinho will see it as his only option. He will have been lured from his cosy compact and defensive comfort zone by United’s winning streak. Make no mistake – this Mourinho team will attack us. Klopp will not be daunted by this. He will ask his Liverpool to ensure that they at least go toe-to-toe with United from the first whistle. He will tell his men that United’s eagerness and determination will be their achilles heel. They will make mistakes in the heat of battle. Liverpool must be concentrated in these moments and take the opportunities that will be proffered. Coutinho will be crucial. Firmino will be essential, and I suspect Lallana may be decisive.
Into the belly of the beast, Reds. You have nothing to be afraid of.
The fear-free Reds to maim the Mancs: Mignolet; Clyne, Lovren, Matip, Milner; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Coutinho, Firmino, Origi.