LONDON – Given Liverpool’s dreadful league form this year — three draws and two defeats — it is remarkable that victory over second-place Tottenham at Anfield on Saturday will see Jürgen Klopp’s team only one point behind the visitors.
Unless Chelsea implodes as the Atlanta Falcons did against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51, the Premier League title is a done deal, which means the chasing pack of Tottenham, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United are involved in the only realistic prize available — second place.
At the end of 2016 Liverpool was only six points behind Chelsea, having scored more goals than anyone else in the division. The title was still within its sights. The wheels have not exactly fallen off, but Liverpool is unrecognizable from the team that was running riot in the first half of the season, which is why Saturday’s game, while not quite do-or-die for Liverpool, but defeat would leave it seven points behind Spurs and trailing Chelsea by 16 if the leader wins at Burnley.
In what was expected to be an open race for the title, Liverpool was a realistic preseason contender, but with City and United on an upward trend Klopp’s target is more top four than top place.
A man whose glass is always half full, the German said: “We are still in a very good way, but we are not first in the table, we’re not even second. We are fifth. Come on. A lot of teams should feel worse. Everything is good at the moment.”
Well, good-ish. Poor league form and going out of both domestic cups in a run of one victory in 10 matches has inevitably seen the C-word — crisis — rear its ugly head with former players lining up to give their views.
Klopp made it clear on the day he was appointed that his style of play relies heavily on high pressing and fast attacking, though Jamie Carragher wonders if this has taken its toll on the players. He said: “Liverpool look like it has run out of legs and intensity. Is it about the intensity they train at?”
Jason McAteer thinks Liverpool lacks leaders and hard men. I always feel like Liverpool are a nice bunch of boys,” he said. “A nice team with players you could take home to your mum.”
It is always a combination of circumstances that dictates a team’s form. While Chelsea, as Leicester did last season, has avoided any serious loss of personnel so far, Klopp has been without Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Joel Matip — arguably Liverpool’s most influential players — for long periods. Captain Jordan Henderson is playing on despite another heel problem. One thing just about everyone would agree on is that neither Simon Mignolet nor Loris Karius is a title-winning goalkeeper.
As much as anything, Klopp and his players must find a solution for dealing with opponents who rely on disciplined defending and the counter-attack. Basement dwellers Hull and Swansea have beaten Liverpool in the past three weeks by stifling the Reds with organized defending and speed on the break.
Mark Lawrenson said: “Every team I’ve seen the Reds play since the start of the year has played the same formation — a 4-5-1 or near enough to it. They are basically saying to Liverpool ‘go on, try to break us down’ and, as good as Coutinho and Firmino are, it is very rare to see Liverpool get behind teams.”
Liverpool supporters remain firmly behind the charismatic Klopp because since taking over in October 2015 the team has been punching above its weight. Last season, Klopp took Liverpool to two cup finals and breathed life into the club. This time around, there won’t even be a cup final appearance.
Liverpool will win nothing this season which means the last piece of silverware remains the League Cup, which it won five years ago, but one man backing Klopp to succeed as he did with Borussia Dortmund is Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham manager. He said: “If you win, you are a genius; if you don’t win, you are criticized. You just need to be natural, spontaneous and believe in the way you play. Use your methods. It’s an easy answer: to work in the way you believe you can achieve big things.”
In contrast to Liverpool, Tottenham has moved up to second after seven wins and two draws. However, it has a poor history at Anfield, losing 15 of its 24 visits in the Premier League. Liverpool has an excellent record against its top six rivals so this may just be the game to get its season up and running again.
Watered down: Imagine switching on your favorite television series and discovering that 90 percent of the actors were stand-ins. Virtually all the familiar faces, the stars, were missing for whatever reason. Viewing figures would inevitably suffer if this continued.
Last Wednesday, at peak time, the BBC showed Leicester City reserves vs. Derby County reserves in an F.A. Cup fourth- round replay. Claudio Ranieri had made 10 changes and Steve McClaren eight.
The first half was numbing tedium, which even Gary Lineker and the pundits admitted. The second half was marginally better — it just had to be — but the game went into extra time, which meant the 10 o’clock news had to be delayed. The BBC would not have been happy, but it is contractually obliged to broadcast replays.
Leicester (reserves) eventually won 3-1 to secure a sixth- round tie it didn’t want at Millwall, the League One club looking for a third consecutive Premier League scalp in the competition.
The 18 changes made by Leicester and Derby underlined the attitude of virtually every club to the F.A. Cup. Managers are unwilling to risk injury to the tried and trusted and miss a league match. They say it is an opportunity to give squad players a chance.
No, it is simply that the league, be it the Premier League or the Championship, is all that matters. A manager will not be sacked for going out of a cup, but failing to win promotion or being relegated is unlikely to be tolerated. It is self-preservation time when it comes to the F.A. Cup.
The BBC and BT Sport extended their agreement with the Football Association, giving them the rights to carry on broadcasting the F.A. Cup until 2021 in a deal worth £820 million. The F.A. also agreed to a new six-season £1 billion overseas broadcast rights deal for the F.A. Cup — from next season.
Given the Premier League clubs’ attitude to the competition it will be interesting to see the figures when the next round of bidding begins.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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