LIVERPOOL have been on their holidays.
Jürgen Klopp’s recipe for reducing fatigue and stress on over-worked limbs is to win first legs of Champions League ties 5-0. It’s a natty trick. Liverpool Football Club may have a home fixture against Porto to come on March 6, but Klopp’s main men won’t be playing ball. They won two games in one in the Dragao stadium 10 days ago and their reward was a well earned warm-weather kip at a Spanish country club. Up the sun-on-their-backs Reds.
It has been a recurrent theme of this campaign — in my head, at any rate — that whenever I get a feelin’ on me like Liverpool might just keep on winning forever that we come a-crashing down. Someone up there is keeping my serotonin levels in check. God forbid I live in a state of permanent bliss till the end of the season. Is it that too much ask? There’s only a poxy three months to go.
So twice shy, I’m anticipating West Ham at home with superstitious caution. It’s a big weekend ahead, full of delicious possibilities. I’ve done some maths. If Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs all win — eminently possible — then just two points will separate second to fifth place. The Reds would sit narrowly atop this concertina-ed bunch.
In the league at least, we’re playing for the second-place cup. First is Manchester City’s, we all know that. I’d take fourth right now. I want Liverpool to win everything, but so do the fans of lots of other clubs (in terms of their own sides). Getting back into the Champions League last season was an achievement no one should have sniffed at. This season, the challenge was to combine staying there with having a decent showing in the competition itself.
That dual objective was never to be taken for granted. Of course, it would have been nice to be talking about adding some gratuitous silverware — in the form of a domestic cup — too.
It remains strange to me how our culture as a club is to crave Champions League football, to feel defined by it, to yearn for it when it’s denied, but when participation becomes a fact and a wish given or even potentially possible, it becomes instantly taken as a given. Despite having qualified for the world’s premier competition only once in eight years, last season’s fourth-place finish was deemed in too many quarters a “minimum requirement”.
It’s not. It’s the essential requirement.
When I was young and Liverpool were in the European Cup every year — usually winning it — the football people talked of a day when the continent’s best clubs would come together to compete in a “European Super League”. It was an exciting idea, though fraught with complexities. How would we maintain the integrity of own home league competitions alongside the demands of a parallel European league?
Quietly, and initially without too much undue pomp, in the early 1990s the problem got solved. It was something of a compromise but it worked from the off. The old European Cup format expanded and elongated to become the European Champions League. The new top tier, the top division, of European football.
As fate would decree, one of European football’s noblest aristocrats, Liverpool, would not participate in the competition until the 2001-2 season. After that debut, in the Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez eras, the club were to become mainstays in the competition until 2010.
Since then, we’ve barely featured. Relegated, if you will, from the top flight into the second division of European leagues, now known as the Europa League.
“Liverpool Football Club exists to win trophies.” As much, if not more than that, it exists to play at the pinnacle of European football. “Liverpool without European football is like a banquet without wine.” That is the birthright that our legendary forebears passed to us and asked that we hold dearest. We exist to win trophies, but only in the context of it being at the top level.
Fourth, or third, or second aren’t trophies, but they aren’t nowhere either. Nowhere is not being at Europe’s top table. Nowhere is not where where the best footballers want to be. The best play somewhere. It’s called the Champions League and our very modern history has seen it and Liverpool largely kept at arm’s length from each other.
Liverpool’s fourth-place finish last season represented promotion. It was like winning a Championship playoff. It was a massive step in the correct direction. We had repeated the mantra “minimum requirement” since 2010, but that didn’t make it happen.
I want my Liverpool to complete its European rehabilitation by going far and long in this season’s European Cup. Facilitating that will require that we put to bed the primary task — of qualifying for next year’s competition — as soon as is practicably possible.
West Ham will be spiky opponents this weekend. They have stabilised under David Moyes and he will see this as a special fixture, an opportunity within the context of his wider career. Liverpool are his nemesis. He knows it and we know it.
Klopp will view this game as something of a template for many of the season’s remaining challenges. Liverpool have six home league games left to play. All of them will be like this Saturday’s. The bottom half of the table should all succumb to Liverpool at Anfield. They usually do, but perhaps not quite often enough for our tastes.
Last season’s run in was characterised by The Reds being ruthless on their travels but insecure at home. This time round we are better equipped for our task. While we will endlessly bemoan Phil Coutinho’s departure, he was not that often the key to the door in these games. There is a sense that the abilities of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah to make the pitch bigger may stand us in better stead this time around.
We shall see. Things are starting to get really interesting. I’m strapped in for the ride. The destination may very well not be laden with silver but I think this time out it will be that bit better to travel than to arrive.
Predicted 11: Karius; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Can, Chamberlain; Salah, Firmino, Mane.
Kick off: Saturday, 3pm
Referee: Stuart Attwell
Odds: Liverpool 1-4, Draw 13-2, West Ham 16-1
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“It feels big, business end of the season, chance to go second, and put pressure on those other two.” 👊
“Under this manager, right here right now you can start to sense that something really special could happen.” 🗣
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 23 February 2018