Liverpool’s Champions League dreams depend on Jürgen Klopp breaking the habit of a lifetime
Just when you think the top four race is effectively over for Liverpool, it sucks you back in again.
Chelsea’s last gap victory over Manchester City at the weekend followed by Leicester City’s win against a heavily rotated Manchester United side on Tuesday night dealt a double hammer blow to Liverpool’s Champions League hopes, to the extent that it seemed almost inconceivable for them to qualify.
What very few people saw coming, though, was Arsenal beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last night – a result which has changed the landscape quite considerably. Remarkably, a top four finish is back in Liverpool’s hands if they manage to win their remaining four fixtures, starting with tonight’s trip to Old Trafford.
It’s a very big if, of course, given that Liverpool haven’t won more than three Premier League games in a row since before Project Restart last season, and haven’t beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford since 2014 under Brendan Rodgers (and have almost always struggled to perform there under Jürgen Klopp). To end that dismal record will be a monumental task, especially with the dire injury situation at centre-back.
But there is at least a chance for Liverpool to salvage what would be an extraordinary achievement in the context of this most tumultuous of campaigns, and, as such, they must now treat these final four games as four cup finals.
If Liverpool win them all, they will finish on 69 points.
If Leicester beat Chelsea, then the maximum Chelsea could finish on is 67 points.
If Chelsea beat Leicester, then the maximum Leicester can finish on is 69 points.
If Chelsea and Leicester draw, the maximum Chelsea can finish on is 68 points.
A Chelsea win against Leicester would therefore bring goal difference into the equation if Liverpool also finish on 69 points. Liverpool’s currently stands at +18, with Leicester’s at +21, although Liverpool’s would increase to at least +22 if they win their final four games, and Leicester’s would drop to +20 (or less) if they lose to Chelsea, meaning the Foxes would have to win their final game by at least two goals to finish ahead of Liverpool in that scenario.
It’s worth noting, too, that Chelsea play Aston Villa on the final day of the season (with Jack Grealish likely to be back), while Leicester face Tottenham Hotspur – neither of which are the easiest fixtures.
Liverpool, by contrast, face West Bromwich Albion, Burnley and Crystal Palace, none of which have anything material to play for. All of them look very winnable on paper, although they are the kind of games Liverpool have repeatedly slipped up in this season, so they are hardly bankers.
Much will depend on how Liverpool fare against Manchester United tonight, as the psychological boost of victory at Old Trafford could provide the launchpad for a winning run. Lose, however, and the final three games automatically become damp squibs. A draw wouldn’t be a terrible result, as it would still leave open the possibility of Liverpool overtaking either Leicester or Chelsea depending on how those teams fair in their final two games respectively.
And while Liverpool’s record at Old Trafford is abysmal in recent years, they have only lost one of the last nine against United in the league both home and away, and all five of United’s league defeats this season have come at home – including against Crystal Palace and Sheffield United. Liverpool have had the much better preparation for this game, too, given United’s ludicrously packed fixture schedule over the past week (albeit, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did rest almost all of his key players on Tuesday night).
It’s make or break for Liverpool tonight. They know exactly what they need to do and what’s at stake. Whether they have it in them to grasp the opportunity, we must wait and see.