THAT Wolves game was hard work, wasn’t it?
A salutary reminder that however good this Liverpool are – and they are very, very good – that the baseline conditions need to be there for them to demonstrate their quality.
Compare and contrast the team in red that demolished title rivals Leicester 4-0 in their own backyard a week ago with the nervy version that just about gets over the line at home to Wolves on Sunday. One of those teams looked every inch the recording-breaking champions elect that they are, the other the palest of shadows.
I’ve read a couple of things in the days since the recent games suggesting that Liverpool should reorientate priorities now that such a massive lead has been established at the top the table.
There have been calls to even consider resting players against Sheffield United at home with a thought to the forthcoming FA Cup third round match against Everton. Some have said imminent team selections should be made with more than one eye on preservation of freshness for the European Cup last 16 game vs Atletico Madrid, scheduled for February.
While these arguments are far from universally supported, neither are they straw men. People, enough of them, are beginning to think this way. To an extent, who can blame them? If anyone had posited that we’d be discussing the merits of resting players, with the league title up for grabs, back in August, they’d correctly have received a punch in the face. For their own good.
Yet here we are. Folks are actually saying such things. The world has gone mad and that’s because Liverpool are insane. Teams don’t get to be 14 points clear (plus a game in hand) of their fiercest rivals (Manchester City) by matchday 21. This kind of lead is not entirely unprecedented but it is in the realm of Liverpool Football Club. We have not known such supremacy since the 1980s, and even then.
Second-placed Leicester can be backed at 125-1. Truer challengers, and currently third-placed, Manchester City are available at 16-1. We’re halfway through the campaign. The bookies are backing Liverpool at around 96 per cent to win the league.
The case, therefore, for Liverpool slightly easing off the gas in the league in deference to potential cup wins is not without some merit.
Jürgen Klopp hears the argument, listens to the counsel of his coaches who may be making a similar stand. Jürgen listens, looks into the middle distance, scratches his chin and then turns round. He says one word – “focus”.
Liverpool are top of the league by a ridiculous amount of points because they have shut out all background noise. They have remained implacably focused.
They have known since game one that to see off a team (Man City) who had delivered nigh-on successive 100 point seasons that, to take the title, they had to be perfect. Perfect in deed, perfect in mind. They need to be be blinkered, and focused. Totally focused. Liverpool’s season thus far has represented a masterclass in focus.
Klopp knows (fears) that if Liverpool drop the ball, they may never pick it up again. Or at least, as discovered last season, the cudgel can be gathered up again, but sometimes just too late.
Of course The Reds can now afford a blip of the type they suffered and couldn’t afford last spring, in drawing four out of six matches.
If this were to happen during the course of the next month or so, and Manchester City were to repeat the kind of winning run they went on during Liverpool’s dip last March, then Liverpool would reach matchday 26 with a good lead at the top of the league still, but one reduced from 13 points to six (albeit with a game in hand).
Let’s imagine how we’d all feel if this happened. Let’s imagine how the Liverpool players would feel. Such a fall off, despite the retention of an advantage, would be hugely anxiety inducing.
Having been on the ground, Manchester City would be growing taller by the week. They would be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of beating Liverpool at their Etihad stadium and reducing the lead to just three points. Suddenly, a title that was ‘done’ would be back in the balance and the momentum all with our rival.
This ‘nightmare’ scenario could occur regardless of what attitude Klopp or his staff take to towards cup competitions. Liverpool, though, are around 11 wins from the certainty of a league title. It surely doesn’t have to be reiterated what that signifies to a team and its people. Liverpool have won their last 10 games. They are one last big push away from getting over the line. No risks can be taken, no quarter given.
Sheffield United are a decent side. They’re not as good as Liverpool but players are weary at this fixture-filled time of year, and although the effect is equal to all sides, it does act as something of a leveller.
Witness the round of matches over Christmas featuring Liverpool, Man City, Wolves and Sheffield United. The eight goals scored in the four games between these teams have been shared fairly evenly between the would-be champions and the middle rankers.
Sheffield United’s form is decent but they were beaten last time out, at Manchester City. A defeat always tenderises a side. Liverpool were forewarned and hopefully forearmed by the test United gave us at their ground in October. In hindsight, our 1-0 at Bramall Lane was one of our hardest-fought three points won of the season.
As Klopp’s watchword will remain focus, do not expect wholesale changes for the Anfield game. Lallana for Keita was the only change last time and expect few more changes again. Naby himself will surely return and the battle weary Jordan Henderson could make way. Further forward we might see a change in the front three, with Divok Origi coming in.
I’m expecting a full-throttle Liverpool who will work to grind down a stolid Sheffield United. Now is not the time for thinking further ahead.
Eleven wins more or less wins the league now, so let’s chalk off another one.
Predicted 11: Alisson; Trent, Gomez, van Dijk, Robertson; Wijnaldum, Keita, Milner; Salah, Origi, Mane