JONNY GIBSON

KINGSTON-UPON-HULL, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 4, 2017: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp watches the warm-up before the FA Premier League match against Hull City at the KCOM Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

LIVERPOOL’S poor form since the turn of the year has posed a question that no Reds fan wants to consider. What if Liverpool finished fifth?

After a spirited performance against league leaders Chelsea last week, Liverpool fans were heading into the Saturday’s visit to Hull with a renewed sense of optimism.

After all, Sadio Mane was back in the starting 11 for the first time since January 2, alongside the Brazilian duo of Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino. Adam Lallana started in the deeper midfield role that we all wanted to see. It wasn’t to be, though. Liverpool failed to deliver and Jürgen Klopp’s side returned home still in search of their first league victory of 2017.

To make matters worse, the chasing pack of clubs outside the top four all picked up maximum points, with Manchester City’s win seeing Liverpool drop into fifth place and Manchester United closing the gap to one point with their victory over Leicester.

The reality of Liverpool finishing outside the top four wasn’t conceivable a few months ago as Liverpool downed Everton, slammed four past Stoke and grafted out a 1-0 win over Pep Guardiola’s City side to make it four Premier League wins in a row. But, football is a cruel game and you don’t need me to remind you of Liverpool’s never-ending January nightmare, which has now spilled into February causing Klopp to urge his players to “wake up”.

We need to put things into context. Last season Liverpool finished with 60 points and after 24 games were eighth with only 34 points on the board. Right now, Liverpool are fifth with 46 points to their name.

The view of this squad and league position has been somewhat distorted due to the phenomenal run that saw Liverpool emerge as mid-season title contenders. At the start of the season most Reds fans would be satisfied with being in the hunt for a Champions League spot and unbeaten against all the sides above them in the table by February. It’s possible to argue that Liverpool were slightly ahead of schedule in the early winter months and now find themselves in a place where many believe they should be.

KINGSTON-UPON-HULL, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 4, 2017: Liverpool players looks dejected as Hull City score the opening goal after a fumble by goalkeeper Simon Mignolet during the FA Premier League match at the KCOM Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

One thing that is for certain, Liverpool are crying out for consistency. In the last five seasons the Redmen have finished eighth, seventh, second, sixth, and eighth. As much as we hate to admit it, except for that anomaly in 2013-14, those finishes hardly resemble a team banging on the door of Europe’s elite. To get that much needed consistency Liverpool have to qualify for the Champions League, not just this year but every year.

If the season ended today the Reds would find themselves without Champions League football and back on the dreaded Thursday-Sunday Europa League shift next season. A year in the Europa League would no doubt see the likes of Ben Woodburn and Ovie Ejaria get some much needed first team experience, but that would be of little benefit to the club in terms of short term success — and likely no closer to what we all want.

Even as I write this, I can’t comprehend not hearing the famous Champions League music inside the packed atmospheric red cauldron that only Anfield can produce. But why is that? Liverpool have only finished in the top four once this decade, and it turned out to be a total waste of time. Brendan Rodgers played a heavily rotated team in the Santiago Bernabéu against a Real Madrid side, that at the time were the champions of Europe. Despite what Arsene Wenger believes, fourth place is not a trophy to shout about, mainly because it isn’t a trophy.

It could be argued that with our current squad a year in the Champions League could be a season too early, even if we were once crowned champions of Europe with the likes of Djimi Traore and Josemi in the squad. Maybe this current crop wouldn’t be immediately ready for it, but with a few additions and the right mentality this Liverpool squad can go far in either European competition. It will always be a Liverpool fan’s mentality to aim high no matter the club’s standing in world football.

The recent poor spell has raised familiar questions about Liverpool’s lack of depth, the same questions which date back to the inception of the Premier League. A lack of Champions League football undoubtedly reduces Liverpool’s pulling power in the transfer market, but it’s nothing to do with money. With the television deals pulling in more money each year, mixed with the positive net spend from last summer and lack of January activity, Liverpool should have the funds to reinvest in the summer. However, it’s not in FSG’s — or even Klopp’s — plan to invest heavily in the transfer market, so it wouldn’t be a great surprise to see minimal summer business regardless of where Liverpool finish.

Klopp backs himself and his coaching team to get the best out of players on the training pitch. I don’t think the targets they have in mind now will change the team greatly, if at all, even if Liverpool don’t make it into the Champions League.

KINGSTON-UPON-HULL, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 4, 2017: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp watches the warm-up before the FA Premier League match against Hull City at the KCOM Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Will Liverpool not being in Europe’s top club competition alter a player’s decision to come to Merseyside? History suggests it may well do. Too many times in recent years Liverpool have been beaten to a signature with the likes of Spurs and Chelsea muscling in and completed deals. Is that a pitfall of not qualifying for the Champions League or the powers that be refusing to stump up the premiums that top players command? Whichever it is, the best players want to play in the best competitions.

It’s fair to argue that spending isn’t always the answer. Just look at how much United spent last summer and they’re still only in sixth. While it’s true that Liverpool can’t compete with the financial punching power of the likes of Chelsea and United, the plights of both those clubs in years gone by shows that spending doesn’t guarantee immediate success — and Liverpool’s problems can’t be solved in one summer spending spree.

The early season form helped Klopp because it made us, the fans, dream. The doubters were turning to believers and everything looked promising. Reality has hit Liverpool hard over the past few weeks but I still think all is not lost. The Reds are in a good place and if you look at the bigger picture Liverpool are still on track to achieve big things under the German.

With renewed focus from the squad and fans alike there can still be a positive end to the season. It’s not over yet. If my experience of watching Liverpool has taught me anything it’s that we rarely win anything the easy way. There’s always a bump in the road, a spanner in the works, there’s plenty of metaphors out there just pick the one you like and run with it.

Liverpool always find ways to bounce back when the chips are down. In the coming weeks we’ll really see what this team and the manager is made of. Better days are coming. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour. Klopp is building something, something powerful, full of energy, passion and vigour.

Finishing fifth could be classed as progression. Albeit slow, but progress all the same.

@JonnyGibson33

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