It has been a trying ten days for Liverpool fans.
As much as we cling to the notion that if we had been offered this position back in August we’d have been elated, the momentum in the title race has shifted back towards Manchester City. A win in Saturday’s home clash with Bournemouth is imperative if the Reds are to avoid a media whirlwind suggesting that the wheels have come off the championship bandwagon.
Since Monday’s draw at West Ham, Andy Robertson and James Milner have been at pains to insist that Liverpool are not succumbing to pressure, with Robertson rightly maintaining that recapturing the form that led to nine consecutive wins before Christmas is the sole focus. The full-back admits the Reds have temporarily lost their zest. “We just need to keep going, we need to keep finding a spark that’s been missing in the last two games.”
The reality is that Liverpool haven’t been at their creative best against Leicester and the Hammers but have still fashioned enough chances to have won both games. If there has been a dip in performance, it has manifested itself in a drop in intensity – the killer instinct absent after taking early leads – and concentration.
Harry Maguire and Michail Antonio have both benefitted from scenarios where the Reds’ attentiveness at the back hasn’t been at its sharpest.
Rather than in the dressing room, it is among the fans where the tension is most keenly felt. We’re never far from our schizophrenic worst; one minute hailing the team as Champions elect and the next predicting imminent collapse. Every mistake is scrutinised and little thought given to mitigating circumstances. The midfield has been unsettled by injury all season, and at right-back Jurgen Klopp has been forced to field Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Milner, Nathaniel Clyne and Jordan Henderson.
At the London Stadium the dual absence of Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum left Liverpool lacking in their normal midfield rhythm. The captain’s ability to switch play with raking passes is critical to the Reds finding width and Wijnaldum’s muscularity in shielding the ball and recycling possession quickly the key to a tempo which keeps opponents under pressure. Both men face fitness tests to be available against Bournemouth and may miss out again so Naby Keita will probably be afforded the chance to build on his improved showing in Monday’s second half.
Eddie Howe’s Cherries sit tenth in the Premier League, free of pressure from relegation but their open style of play and willingness to attack will be compromised by memories of the 4-0 drubbing meted out by Liverpool when the sides faced each other in December. They are deprived of Callum Wilson in attack and the slippery skills of David Brooks but Josh King – with three goals in as many games – will pose a threat, possibly alongside Dom Solanke anxious to prove a point after an unfulfilled spell at Anfield.
Bournemouth’s form on the road shouldn’t hold any fears for the Reds, having lost their last eight games away from home and scoring just once in their last six. The contrast in their mentality home and away is emphasised by a 4-0 win over Chelsea at the Vitality Stadium being followed by last week’s 2-0 reverse at Cardiff.
For all the dismay and gathering anxiety at the loss of top spot to City in midweek, Liverpool still hold the advantage and can reassume the position at the summit with an expected three points. With just seven home games to come, Anfield needs to raise its game. The last two matches have seen the anxiety levels rise to borderline hysteria and such frenzy has a debilitating effect on the team. So high are the stakes that emotions are bound to run high but the crowd has to channel the nervous energy into creating a raucous vibe that defines home advantage.
It is time to clench fists, kick every ball and strain every vocal chord. Anfield’s reputation is built on unswerving support for the team in Red and open hostility towards the opposition and referees. There is no room for catcalls and scapegoating with Liverpool’s quest in the balance. This team has given everything thus far and deserves a crowd that can carry it home.