THIS is one of those articles that will definitely be retweeted back to me when Liverpool finish sixth.
There, I’ve acknowledged the fact. That should take care of any risk of jinx… but hang on, by acknowledging it does it now become re-jinxed? Can you even re-jinx something? Is it not like double jeopardy, you can’t be jinxed for the same thing twice?
Sorry, I’ve managed to digress before I’ve even told you what my point is. I’ll get on with it.
Liverpool were dynamite on Saturday. A very good Tottenham team were made to look very ordinary by Jürgen Klopp’s rejuvenated Reds. Fears that the wheels had fallen off the season were put to bed in 20 glorious first half minutes where it would not have been unreasonable for Liverpool to have bettered what they did to Arsenal in the same amount of time in 2013-14.
Now, this is not an article making an overly optimistic shout that ‘It’s still on lads!’ because it isn’t, assuming ‘it’ is the title.
However, something that has been bothering me even before the Spurs game is the general language used around Liverpool’s new aim of finishing in the top four. The vast majority of people who asked the question ahead of Saturday was not as it should have been.
‘Will Liverpool be satisfied finishing top four?’ or ‘Would top four represent a successful season?’ or even just ‘Is there a danger Liverpool won’t finish in the top four?’
No, the question almost always seemed to be ‘Do Liverpool still have a chance of finishing in the top four?’
A chance? As if Klopp’s team were as far behind Arsenal as they currently are behind Chelsea.
I understand that it came at a time where you couldn’t see where Liverpool’s next win was coming from, and of course the general urge in today’s society is to sensationalise and exaggerate (which literally EVERYBODY does!) but it still seemed unfair that this Liverpool team weren’t considered more likely to finish top four than not.
The Reds have their faults, absolutely they do, but with barely the width of a cheap hastily bought Valentine’s Day card between second and sixth at the moment, all that’s important from here is how they and their rivals do in their remaining 13 games.
So where can Liverpool find an edge over their rivals? I’ve compiled a mini-analysis on each one to tell you why they’re more like to struggle than the Reds.
First and foremost, there’s the uncertainty. I’m not sure Ian Wright appreciated the can of worms he was opening when he said he felt ‘the Gaffer’ has decided to call it quits at the end of the season, but it’s raised all sorts of questions at the Emirates.
And it’s not just the future of Arsene Wenger. Mesut Ozil has apparently said he’ll only stay if the boss does, while Alexis Sanchez is looking more and more frustrated with each passing week that he’s having to keep Arsenal in the conversation for top four practically single-handedly. He’s been looking like a lad who really wishes he was back in Barcelona of late.
Then there’s the remaining games. As well as having the daunting task of their annual Champions League last 16 exit to Bayern Munich to go through, there is the fact that they still have a fair few big games in the league. The Gunners still have to travel to Liverpool and Tottenham, as well as hosting both Manchester sides. Their record in games against close rivals suggests that they won’t be getting many points from those four games, which make up almost a third of their remaining fixtures.
They’re still a good side of course, and their newly found habit of scoring crucial late goals could still see them over the line.
In fact let’s face it, they’ll get top four. They always do by hook or by crook, but there’s no reason to think Liverpool can’t still finish above them, especially as they still have to come to Anfield.
There, that should give Arsenal Fan TV plenty of material for their next episode.
Remaining games: Southampton (a), Liverpool (a), Leicester (h), West Brom (a), Man City (h), West Ham (h), C Palace (a), Middlesbrough (a), Sunderland (h), Tottenham (a), Man United (h), Stoke (a), Everton (h).
‘Lads, its Tottenham’. Okay that out of context and probably fake quote from Alex Ferguson isn’t entirely applicable here, especially as Spurs did finish in the top four last season, albeit still managing to finish third in a two-horse race, but there should be a bit of concern at the Lane.
They are still a very good team, which makes Liverpool’s neutralization of them all the more impressive, but they’ve never been the best at reacting to setbacks. How Mauricio Pochettino raises his troops will be crucial, but then there’s the Europa League. Everyone knows Spurs don’t have the biggest of squads, and they’ll likely find it tricky to juggle the two as they have in recent years.
That said, I do think Spurs will have a rejuvenation over the next month or so. Their next four fixtures are all very winnable, three of them at White Hart Lane and the other away at Crystal Palace, but their end to the campaign is, for lack of a better term, an utter arse.
Their last five games are away to Leicester, who will either have returned to form or be fighting for their lives, home to Arsenal which is never easy for them, away to West Ham (see Leicester), home to Manchester United who they never beat, and finally away to Hull, who may need something to stay up on the final day.
They can’t be discounted, but if I were a betting man I’d say Tottenham will be one of the five to miss out, unless they exit the Europa League very quickly.
Remaining games: Stoke (h), Everton (h), C Palace (a), Southampton (h), Burnley (a), Swansea (a), Watford (h), Bournemouth (h), Leicester (a), Arsenal (h), West Ham (a), Man United (h), Hull (a).
What an expensively assembled enigma City are. Are they absolutely brilliant or are they unbelievably vulnerable? Why are they still so fascinating to watch? Why do I kind of like them? Maybe it’s because they’re basically a sky blue Liverpool.
When they motor, there’s no stopping them. The quality and crispness of their midfield, the electric pace and movement of their front three, it can rip you apart before you’ve had time to calculate the collective value of their bench.
However, when they’re not quite on it, or when pretty much anyone decides to attack them, they concede goals. They’re even worse than the Reds for conceding from nearly every shot that goes anywhere close to their goal.
As with the others, there’s also how they manage European and domestic commitments. They’re now the closest team to Chelsea at the top, just eight points behind, but they’ll also feel the need to put their all into the Champions League, and their last 16 clash against a brilliant Monaco side will not be easy. A shock elimination could bring the wheels off an already rocky season.
We’ll be able to tell a lot about City’s credentials over the next six league games as they play Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea in that time (depending on when the derby is rearranged for). If they’re still in a good position after that then you have to fancy them, but it’s a big ‘if’.
That said, personally I do fancy them. They appear to be getting back on course now. A brilliant start to the season was derailed in the middle part of the campaign, but recent performances have been good and despite some doubters, Pep Guardiola is an exceptional manager.
Remaining games: Man United (h), Sunderland (a), Stoke (h), Liverpool (h), Arsenal (a), Chelsea (a), Hull (h), Southampton (a), West Brom (h), Middlesbrough (a), C Palace (h), Leicester (h), Watford (a).
United are puzzling me this season. Not just because their manager has the audacity to claim referee bias against his team when no-one has benefited more from incorrect decisions than the Red Devils, but because I can’t quite figure out whether the praise and general good feeling about United is justified.
Don’t get me wrong, they have looked very good at times this season. The football is without doubt better on the eye and played with better intentions than it was under Louis van Gaal. But they’re sixth. A team that cost more to assemble than most medium-sized countries is sixth, behind several teams who have come in for a lot more criticism than Jose Mourinho’s men this season.
In my personal opinion, at best, Mourinho is doing okay, though I do think there is an argument to say he’s performing below average considering what he is supposed to be capable of and the quality of players he has at his disposal. If you put Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba into Southampton’s team for example, you’d expect them to be at least sixth. Throw in David De Gea, Eric Bailly (injuries permitting), Juan Mata, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney and surely anything less than second is fairly inexplicable.
There is still every chance that they will grab second, of course. They currently lie just four points off their ‘noisy neighbours’ in that position, and have recently put together the sort of winning run that will surely see them reach top four if they can get close to replicating it.
They also have match winners all over the park, and unlike Spurs, do have the depth of squad to be able to play two entirely different teams in the Europa League and Premier League.
However, like City, they have a lot of rivals still to play. The Manchester derby at the Etihad is still to come, while they also have to host Chelsea and then play away to both North London sides in their last three games. They have also dropped several points at home to smaller teams as recently as Hull just the other week, and seem to be as likely as Liverpool to lose silly points in games like that at the moment.
It’s hard to predict what United will be capable of between now and the end of the season, and on paper they should be more than capable of reaching the top four, but inconsistencies seem to be creeping back into their game in recent weeks, and they have the hardest run-in of any of the top six.
Winning the League Cup could be enough of a boost to see them over the line, but I’m just not as convinced about them as I am the others.
Remaining games: Man City (a), Bournemouth (h), Southampton (a), Middlesbrough (a), West Brom (h), Everton (h), Sunderland (a), Chelsea (h), Burnley (a), Swansea (h), Arsenal (a), Tottenham (a), C Palace (h).
And I suppose it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t also look at Liverpool’s run-in, and reasons why I’m backing them over at least Spurs and United.
The Reds have stumbled badly of late. It’s no secret, and it appears to be no secret how to stop them (unless you’re Pochettino, who appeared to have not watched any Liverpool games from the last six weeks).
However, after their impressive win over Spurs, belief seems to have returned to Anfield, and Klopp now has a ‘mini pre-season’ in La Manga to set his team up for the 13 games they have remaining.
It’s become a bit of a cliché, but it is absolutely massive that Liverpool are the only one of the five teams without any European football to negotiate. That’s because out of all of those teams, they have shown just how much of a difference having a gap between games and time on the training field makes to them.
Let’s not forget, for all the more than fair criticism they have received for not being able to beat smaller teams in recent times, earlier in the season when they had one game a week they were mostly beating them comfortably. 4-1 against Leicester, 5-1 against Hull, 6-1 against Watford. It can be done, it has been done, but fresh legs and confidence makes a big difference.
They’ll need to figure that side of things out as, unlike most of their rivals, they have mostly teams in the bottom half to play from now on, with just a home game against Arsenal and a trip to the Etihad to come in terms of clashes with rivals, and they could well win both of those anyway if their record in big games is anything to go by.
What I will say is that Liverpool can’t afford many, if any, more silly hiccups. The only way they’re going to finish top four is by putting a run together in their last 13 games, but with nothing but time to prepare for each match and the likes of Sadio Mane, Gini Wijnaldum and Roberto Firmino hitting form again, I dare anyone to bet against Kloppo and his gang of hungry Reds.
Remaining games: Leicester (a), Arsenal (h), Burnley (h), Man City (a), Everton (h), Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a), West Brom (a), C Palace (h), Watford (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Middlesbrough (h).
Whatever happens, it promises to be a fascinating last three months. The five of them could end up in any order and it wouldn’t surprise me.
Liverpool need to be back in the Champions League. A Tuesday or Wednesday night under the Anfield lights with Klopp leading his Reds out to play a Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or even Apoel Nicosia is the next chapter in this story, and they’re still on course to make it happen.
Of course they’re 11 points behind Chelsea, so there’s no point in analysing the Blues’ run-in…
Up the La Manga-bound Reds.