For Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool, it has been a week to forget, to put mildly.
Three defeats in a week, all at home, and eliminated from both domestic cup competitions. The trickle of poor form has become a torrent.
Swansea City inflicted Liverpool’s first defeat at Anfield for a year, before Southampton deservedly knocked the Reds out of the League Cup with a 2-0 victory on aggregate in the semi-finals.
To finish it off, Championship strugglers Wolverhampton Wanderers comfortably saw off Liverpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup, with three successive losses for a stunned Anfield.
January has now gone from disappointing to dire, and any trophy hopes for this season now rest on winning the Premier League.
Going into 2017, that remained a seemingly possible scenario, but with no league victories since beating Manchester City on New Years’ Eve, Liverpool now find themselves ten points behind Chelsea, who they meet at Anfield on Tuesday.
Klopp’s record against the ‘bigger’ teams in the league has been extraordinary since he took charge, but they have continued to stumble against the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley and Swansea. Any potential champions cannot afford frequent slip-ups against sides you would expect your rivals, and yourselves, to beat.
Nevertheless, Antonio Conte’s side cannot arrive on Merseyside expecting a comfortable victory, as they look to avenge their 2-1 defeat to Liverpool in September. Even during this awful run, Liverpool nearly claimed three points against Manchester United at Old Trafford, before Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s late equaliser, and defeated Pep Guardiola’s City prior to Liverpool’s January collapse.
They prefer the bigger teams, who offer more space on the pitch for the Reds to exploit in behind and for quick attacks from their ‘gegenpressing’ style.
However, Chelsea will probably follow the successful tactics of Swansea, Southampton and Wovles by defending deep and utilizing the counter-attack on Liverpool’s fragile defence.
If Sadio Mane is back in Liverpool and feeling fit, then he should start on Tuesday as his pace has proven to be indispensable given the team’s recent struggles.
Joel Matip’s fitness is also of major importance – the defence is far more reliable when the Cameroonian is at the heart of the backline and playing well. With the likes of Eden Hazard and Diego Costa leading the Chelsea charge, Liverpool will need to be far more solid than they have been of late.
Philippe Coutinho has yet to reach peak form since his return from injury as the Brazilian continues to strive for full fitness, but his creative spark will be vital, particularly if Mane is playing. Liverpool have been unable to field their front three of Roberto Firmino, Mane and Coutinho since November. Should the trio start, Coutinho will then have more time, space and movement in front of him to pick his passes to devastating effect.
Chelsea will undoubtedly be confident – a trait Liverpool currently lack after their January results. However, the Reds can still finish the month with a flourish, sending hope to all Liverpool fans that the season may not turn into a disaster just yet.
The time to stand up and be counted is now.
Lose, and Liverpool’s place in the top four is under serious threat. No one would know when the negative spiral would end, and where it would leave them in the table.
Moreover, there are only six points between Arsenal in second and Manchester United in sixth in the Premier League, so if Liverpool are not already looking over their shoulders nervously, they certainly will be if they suffer defeat on Tuesday. The title would not even be worth thinking about.
Win however, and not only would the Reds remain in the top four and with a great chance of securing Champions League football for next season, but they would cut the gap at the top down to seven points.
Chelsea would remain huge favourites, but at least Liverpool would remain on the fringes, ready to capitalize on any unexpected collapse from Conte’s men.
Liverpool’s season arguably rides on this one result, not simply because of the three points, but due to the form that would likely follow each result. If Liverpool want to salvage their campaign, they need the win – if not, then January may prove to be fatal for their title and top four hopes.