Whenever Liverpool lose it is disappointing for their fans. Losing to Manchester United is even worse. Yet regardless of the result at Old Trafford, the Reds are looking good for a place in the Premier League’s top four and delivering Champions League football for next season.
Of course all Liverpool fans want to finish above their greatest rivals, especially when one has a net spend in the hundreds of millions and the other has actually brought in money (albeit that will change when Naby Keita joins Liverpool in the summer) in the last couple of years.
However, Liverpool have not secured successive top four finishes since 2009, which was also the last time that the Reds managed to navigate into the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
A 5-0 aggregate win over Portugal’s FC Porto ensured a place in the last eight of Europe’s premier competition, a stage which Liverpool feel they belong as five-time European Cup winners.
Jurgen Klopp and his men will hope they can take the club even further, but any more progress would be a bonus.
Last summer, if you offered the club and the Liverpool fans another top four finish and a run to the Champions League quarter-finals, on their first attempt under Klopp, they would have gladly taken it.
A trophy is another target to underline the progress the Reds are making under their charismatic German manager, but it is unlikely this season and can wait another year anyway.
If Liverpool are to challenge for the biggest titles again on a consistent basis, they need regular Champions League football, not seen since the days of Rafael Benitez.
Therefore, whilst another top four finish may seem the same as last season, to back up the previous achievement in the following season is progress given the fierce competition around them.
Chelsea, last year’s Premier League champions, are the team who are set to miss out on the top four to Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, with Manchester City running away with the title this season, and Arsenal suffering their latest diabolical demise.
Chelsea may gain ground, especially after Liverpool’s loss at Old Trafford, but their overall fixtures for the rest of this season are tougher than the three teams above them, and the fracturing of Antonio Conte’s reign at Chelsea looks to be slowly ending their top four hopes.
If Liverpool soon feel comfortable about their place in the top four for this season, thoughts will turn to how high the Reds can finish in the table, perhaps to send a statement of intent about their ambitions for next season.
Manchester City need a challenge, and both Manchester United and Liverpool in particular will be out to prove for the remaining months of this campaign that they will represent the biggest threat to Pep Guardiola’s side defending their title in 2019.
Everyone is well aware of Liverpool’s barren Premier League record since 1990, but the club has also struggled to finish inside the top two in the last three decades. The Reds were runners-up to Arsenal in 1991 and 2002, then finished second to Manchester United in 2009 and Manchester City in 2014.
Hardly a buffet of silver medals in recent times for the team that used to claim gold so regularly in the league in the 1970s and 80s.
Therefore, second should not be shrugged off, but equally Liverpool’s season will not be a disaster if the Reds fail to achieve this new target, or if Manchester United finish above them, or both. The most important target, by far, in the Premier League this season is to ensure they qualify again for the Champions League.
Liverpool’s remaining Premier League fixtures are fairly kind. Following the encounter with United, Liverpool take on Watford at Anfield, before travelling to Crystal Palace. A Merseyside Derby at Goodison Park kicks off April, followed by an eminently winnable trio of games against Bournemouth and relegation candidates West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City, with West Brom away from home. Liverpool’s Premier League season concludes with a visit to Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea may have imploded by then or could be in a shoot-out for the top four, and a meeting with Brighton at Anfield, when Chris Hughton’s side will surely be safe.
Top four is there for Liverpool again – whether it is second, third or fourth, they cannot loosen their grip on a Champions League place. Bill Shankly’s famous line of “first is first and second is nothing” still rings true, though now with the added caveat of ‘but fourth is something’. That is what Liverpool must focus on in order to ensure another progressive and successful season.