It is remarkable how the narrative of the Liverpool’s quest for the title has changed over the course of the season.
For much of the early part of the campaign we waited impatiently for the team to click into gear and reprise the form of last year; to recapture the free-flowing football which cut a swathe across Europe and saw the Reds reach the Champions League Final.
Despite six consecutive wins in the league from the off there were concerns that the intensity and tempo which had become the hallmark of Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp were lacking. Pressing statistics were analysed to death looking for answers as to why the Reds weren’t firing on all cylinders. Doubts were cast on the continued effectiveness of Klopp’s famed front three and much was made of Mohammed Salah’s travails as he struggled to conjure last season’s wizardry.
Further questions were asked of Liverpool’s lack of inventiveness in midfield; the spectre of the departed Phil Coutinho resurfaced and the loss of Alex Oxlade Chamberlain’s thrust through the middle lamented by fans and pundits alike. The expensive acquisition of Naby Keita and the promise of an explosive box-to-box presence giving the Reds a cutting edge hadn’t materialised as expected while his fellow new recruit Fabinho waited in the wings.
With a record of 17 league wins and three draws as we embark on 2019, all that debate now seems moot.
What we hadn’t bargained for was that Liverpool were quietly evolving and embracing a subtle change of style. Klopp had reasoned that the high octane football which delighted the purists and set pulses racing on the Kop wasn’t sustainable for a title challenge and if something of the cavalier approach had to be traded in for new-found pragmatism then so be it.
Klopp cited last season’s victories over Roma and in the Anfield league encounter against Manchester City when the Reds shipped unnecessary late goals as the evidence that something had to give. His latest Liverpool creation still retained enough individual genius and firepower up front to allow his team to be built from a more solid base and in Alisson Becker in goal and the towering Virgil Van Dijk at the heart of the defence, the totems of a miserly unit were in place.
The autumn still felt like a slog as the Reds doggedly pursued a Manchester City side which took all the plaudits for attacking football.
Liverpool hung in grimly, still searching for fluency, but undaunted by the pressure of keeping the insane pace at the Premier League summit. The Reds were racking up the points but still the season was bound by an acute sense of frustration that even a record haul, easily eclipsing the tallies of great Liverpool teams, might not be enough.
How things have changed over the last month as – lo and behold – it is City who have been the first to crack while Liverpool have powered on relentlessly. It seems barely credulous that three December defeats – at Chelsea and Leicester and at home to Crystal Palace – have shifted the balance of power so emphatically in the favour of Klopp’s men. In the meantime the Red stars have begun to shine; Salah as slippery as ever and poaching goals for fun, Roberto Firmino back to his rampant, omnipresent best and Sadio Mane all pace and incision in an attack that is sprinkling stardust once more.
Lihttps://msports.redsbet.com/en/sports/football/liverpool-specials/verpool now go the Etihad Stadium holding all the aces with Pep Guardiola forced to resort to mind games and ham up the role of underdogs. A seven point lead over City is already the stuff of dreams but what potentially follows over the next five months is wrapped in fantasy for Liverpudlians everywhere. Contrastingly, City supporters – chastened by their recent malaise – have become disengaged as though they’ve already given up the ghost.
While Anfield now beats like a drum, the Etihad is blighted by silence and empty seats.
Klopp knows that avoiding defeat is Liverpool’s mission; preservation of the gap at the top paramount with all the insurance it brings with seventeen nerve-wracking tests still to come after this. City, for all their recent woes still, present a serious attacking threat so Xherdan Shaqiri might be the man to miss out if the manager opts for a solid trio in midfield and Jordan Henderson is likely to be recalled after missing out on Boxing Day.
The importance of this fixture cannot be overstated; this is without question the biggest league game Liverpool have faced since 2014 when the Reds came up just short in the title reckoning right at the death. However, Klopp’s men are made of sterner stuff and will relish the challenge of repelling City’s threat on Thursday and thereafter.
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