The untold consequences if Liverpool fail to save their season
The last time Liverpool scored a goal, it was historic. It was also almost four weeks ago: not exactly history, but not particularly recent either. It was when Roberto Firmino made it Liverpool 7 Manchester United 0; it became the biggest victory in their meetings, replacing a 7-1 in the 19th century. It was by far and away Liverpool’s most memorable scoreline in March, but perhaps not their most significant.
If a trip to Bournemouth was sandwiched by the glamour games against United and Real Madrid, a 1-0 defeat told a story of a season in itself. A team who have often shown a capacity to beat the best under Jurgen Klopp can now lose to the worst: like Leeds and Nottingham Forest before them, Bournemouth kicked off in the relegation zone against Liverpool and won. If the evisceration of United had propelled Liverpool back into the position of the favourites to clinch fourth place, the setback on the south coast reframed the debate. They will have to do it the hard way. The last few years indicate Liverpool have the ability to go on extended winning runs. Now, consistently inconsistent, they veer between taking two steps forward and then one back or one step forward and two back.
Now there is the sense that a season with a false start and a troubled middle could come to a premature end. A triple header against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal could finish off their stuttering attempts to return to the Champions League, especially if Brighton, Newcastle and Tottenham pick up enough points in the meantime. It seems a case of three games to save their campaign, nine days to ensure it isn’t a wasted nine months.
If Klopp may relish that, his gift for positive thinking enabling him to see an opportunity where others may deem it a chance to fall flat on their face, it is a time of the year when a slogan can backfire. It is 22 years since Gerard Houllier’s infamous statement that Liverpool were 10 games from greatness; now they are three from ignominy.
Given Liverpool’s new-found capacity to lose to their supposed inferiors, the elite nature of the opposition could be deemed a positive. In between some chastening results, whether the 4-1 demolition at Napoli or the 5-2 hammering by Real Madrid, they have at least got a number of notable scalps this season: Napoli in the rematch, Ajax, City and Newcastle twice each, Tottenham and United. That they visit the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge in four days may not bode well for a team with fewer away wins than Southampton, even if two of them came at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and St James’ Park. The visit to Chelsea looks the battle of the underachievers – and perhaps it was appropriate that neither could strike a telling blow when they shared a stalemate in January – but the top two have put 19 and 27 points respectively between themselves and Liverpool so far.
The past suggests Liverpool are well equipped to prosper. Klopp has more wins against Pep Guardiola than any other manager. Arsenal have not won at Anfield in a decade and have conceded 19 goals in their last five league games there. Yet if the Gunners have improved, the enduring question on Merseyside is if it is still that Liverpool.
If they need to produce their best form of this season in April, arguably they reached a peak last April. Much of the fixture list was similarly demanding; it included a trip to City. When they went 3-0 up against Guardiola’s side at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final and then beat United 4-0 within four days, they arguably played as well as they had at any stage under Klopp.
But if standout results were surrounded by consistency, there were other significant differences. Last April was when Sadio Mane flourished most as a centre-forward; his reinvention was necessitated in part by the huge impact Luis Diaz had on the left wing.
If one theme of the season has been Liverpool’s struggle to adjust to life without Mane, whether his goals, pressing game or chemistry with his colleagues, it may have been rather better with a fit Diaz. The Colombian could feature against City, after almost six months on the sidelines. Klopp started four other forwards in the Bernabeu, both a sign of the desperation of Liverpool’s plight in the tie and of midfield injuries. But with Thiago Alcantara set to miss the City game and Stefan Bajcetic out for the season, they have hardly eased.
Everything, it seems, comes back to the midfield. It has been a regular problem, with the preferred solution all too evident and yet perhaps at risk of becoming unattainable. If Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson seemed to team up in a charm offensive on Jude Bellingham after England’s win over Ukraine, it remains to be seen if Liverpool have the budget and allure to attract him without Champions League football. The stakes feel high, the consequences considerable. Two years ago, Liverpool mustered a brilliant run, taking 26 points from their last 10 games. Now they may need a similar haul from their last 12. But take too few from the next three and a spring surge could be over before it has begun.