With just two games to go in Liverpool’s season, results against Brighton and Real Madrid will determine just how successful Jurgen Klopp and his players have been in 2017/18.
Liverpool have undeniably progressed this season with their memorable and unexpected run to the Champions League final, where they will face the formidable challenge of Real Madrid.
Understandably, Liverpool’s run in Europe has affected their recent domestic form, and a twelve point lead on Chelsea had been shortened to three after Antonio Conte’s men defeated the Reds 1-0 at Stamford Bridge last weekend.
Liverpool now have two shots at claiming Champions League football next season – either avoid defeat on Sunday to Brighton at Anfield, or defeat Real Madrid in the Champions League final. The first option appears markedly easier, but this is Liverpool Football Club, who seem to love making matters difficult for themselves and revel in the unexpected.
However, should Liverpool miss out on Champions League football, the progress that has built under Klopp in nearly three years at the club will be adversely affected. Liverpool’s march to Kiev only highlights the love that the Reds have for the European Cup, and the club cannot afford being outside Europe’s elite competition if they wish to consistently challenge for major honours.
Liverpool possess strength in depth in defence and midfield but are light in attack, even with their magical front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. The sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January did not help in that regard, but the team has evolved since the Brazilian’s departure and Klopp decided to keep his powder dry for his top targets to arrive in the summer, taking the risk that the post-January squad would be good enough to secure a top four finish.
The German should have been proven right weeks ago, yet Liverpool have slipped up too often in recent weeks, regardless of their incredible European results.
The Reds were fortunate to escape the Merseyside Derby at Goodison Park with a point, after Everton laid siege to Liverpool’s goal in the closing stages of that match.
Relegated-in-waiting West Bromwich Albion managed to claw back a 2-0 deficit to claim a draw against Liverpool, ensuring that arguably the worst team in the Premier League managed to avoid defeat in all three encounters with the Reds this season.
Liverpool huffed and puffed against Stoke City at Anfield but to no avail, and then repeated the trick against Chelsea, only the latter had the quality to find the net and condemn Liverpool to the loss of nine points from their last five matches.
Liverpool have lost focus in the Premier League as the squad has become stretched due to injuries and fatigue, emphasising the risk Klopp took in January. However, their form in the Champions League this season underlines the potential this squad has if they can qualify for next year’s competition and strengthen with qualify to compete both at the top of the Premier League and in Europe.
Klopp has also been unfortunate to lose three midfielders to long-term injuries, with Adam Lallana, Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all falling victim in the latter stages of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Salah, Firmino and Mane keep playing because the alternatives are Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke – both good players, but not close to replicating the level of the front three.
Nevertheless, there is so much to be positive about with Liverpool heading into their final two games of the season.
Thanks to Chelsea’s slip-up on Wednesday against Huddersfield – managing only a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge – Liverpool now only need a draw against Brighton to secure another top four finish. The three point lead on Chelsea has become two, but it could have been a lot worse had Chelsea managed to win the final home game of their disappointing Premier League campaign.
Brighton have already ensured another season of Premier League football after beating Manchester United last Friday, but had to play midweek against Manchester City, so Chris Hughton’s side will surely be feeling the physical and emotional strain of a long and unprecedented season at the highest level.
By contrast, Liverpool have enjoyed a rare week off since the Chelsea defeat, with another two weeks to follow between the closing of the Premier League season and the Champions League final.
For once, Liverpool should represent the fresh outfit against the tired legs of Brighton, unless they rotate heavily – in which case Liverpool would be going for top four against an under-strength Brighton team instead.
Liverpool are also yet to lose at Anfield in the league this season, and last went a whole season unbeaten at home in 2009. Sunday would be a perfect time to add another record to the collection, while Salah will be desperate to beat Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane to the Golden Boot, with the Egyptian currently holding a three goal leading in the race to be the Premier League’s top goalscorer.
Liverpool may only need a draw against Brighton, but they will immediately put themselves at a disadvantage if they approach Sunday with such a mentality.
Chelsea’s draw with Huddersfield was a bonus, and provides Liverpool with an extra layer of security for Sunday, but they need to go out for the win and nothing else. Klopp usually knows no other way, while third place, whilst relatively meaningless, remains in reach if Tottenham fail to beat Leicester City.
Chelsea still have to beat Newcastle United at St James’ Park, which is certainly no guarantee – Rafael Benitez will want to win against his former club, while helping another, and end Newcastle’s season on a high.
Regardless, Liverpool cannot think of anything else other than three points at Anfield. Kiev still awaits, and Liverpool will want to go into the Champions League with a win, so that they have the form and fitness ready to challenge Real Madrid and prevent them from a third successive European crown.
However, the pressure will be off in Kiev if the Reds travel to Ukraine knowing they already have another season in the Champions League to look forward to.