“FOOTBALL is fantastic when it’s a morning match. Football is fantastic when it’s an evening match. But football, is most fantastic when it’s played in the afternoon.” (Football Is Really Fantastic. Frank Sidebottom, 1984.)
I’m unnaturally excited about Saturday. All my personal excitement planets are aligning. The things I need to go right ahead of a Liverpool game are going right. The Reds are winning matches. Good players are returning from injury. It’s Anfield. It’s Saturday. 3pm. Fantastic.
The two-week international break has served to heighten anticipation. The longing, the aching. Saturday will bring sweet relief. Until 3.01pm, and the actual game commences, and reality dawns.
This is a game that simply must be won.
Yes, I’m calling it a “must win”. I think it’s the pivotal game of the campaign. The three points we must earn can become the rock upon which we build a temple of a season. Beat Southampton and it’s all before us. Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal will have already cannibalised north London’s threat to us in the early kick off. At least one of them will be dropping points.
Beat Southampton and we’ll be like pitbulls straining at leashes to bite Chelsea ankles next week.
Before the international hiatus we’d found a way to win again. And win, and win. This new habit needs to become an addiction. Southampton will confirm which incarnation of Liverpool is to take up the mantel for the remainder of the season. Let it not be the flakes that can devour Arsenal and Hoffenheim one week, but then look so supine as at Manchester City and Spurs.
The four wins on the bounce Reds are the main men. These braves will have seen off Huddersfield Town, Maribor, West Ham United and — god willing — Southampton in successive games. None of these opponents would worry Europe’s giants, but sides of this stature have been Liverpool’s Kryptonite for far too long.
Of course beating champions Chelsea in two weeks time would be “really cool”, but I’m all about the bread and butter. There are more Southamptons coming to Anfield than Chelseas. Unlock the code that enables us to break these makeweights routinely and we will have a platform from which special things can be achieved.
Arsenal fans may be desperate to dance to any tune but Arsene Wenger’s surefire song of 75-point seasons, but their truth is that what Wenger delivers is a paradise of sorts. Their hell would be our heaven. At least for a while yet.
Yes we want to win the league and European Cup, over and over again, but we so rarely get close. This season’s Champions League campaign is only our second in seven years. In that time, we’ve only once been in the league title conversation past January. I want us to put down roots among the Premier league’s elite, not just be occasional gatecrashers in the top four.
So beating Southampton becomes essential. Especially in the context of star players reentering the fray now. If Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Phil Coutinho and Adam Lallana can get on the same pitch then Liverpool are so armed to the teeth that failure to break down the likes of Southampton cannot be countenanced.
Klopp’s selection process for Saturday could yet be a pleasure or a pain. The Liverpool manager will sweat over the roadworthiness of Mane, back from Senegal with a thigh twinge. Coutinho, with just 60 minutes for Brazil in the past month. Lallana, fit but without a start since May.
Others have been nicely rested and hopefully will have retained appetite and sharpness. Jürgen Klopp granted brief holidays to the likes of Salah, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Daniel Sturridge in an attempt to preserve battery life for the big push to come. The Reds play two games a week from now until the New Year. This is such a decisive phase, it’s hard to overstate it.
I’m heaping on the pressure, aren’t I? That’s what we do though. Jürgen is getting used to it. It’s pleasing that he looked his first bona fide crisis at Liverpool in the face and came out swinging.
The recovery is far from complete. Klopp doesn’t need me to tell him that, but this Liverpool squad remains an outrageously talented one and it can’t be a crime to dare to dream that great things could yet be achieved, in the here and in the now.
Predicted 11: Mignolet; Gomez, Matip, Lovren, Moreno; Henderson, Wijnaldum; Coutinho, Chamberlain; Salah, Firmino.
Kick off: 3pm
Referee: Mike Jones
Odds: Liverpool 4-9, Draw 17-4, Southampton 8-1