While it seems that every “neutral” is still aching for Liverpool to bottle it in the title race, there are some places where the desire to see the Reds falter will be more keenly felt than in others.
Southampton will be one of those places and that’s what makes Friday night’s trip to St Mary’s tougher than it would ordinarily be.
Saints fans loathe Liverpool with a passion. Understandable really since we have courted and seduced so many of their leading players over the past four years. Nathaniel Clyne and Rickie Lambert (what were you thinking, Brendan?) might have moved on, but with Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren still knocking about and Sadio Mane and Virgil Van Dijk spearheading a title challenge, south coast resentment still rides high.
“Theres a buzz isn’t there?
“Everybody’s going to be watching. They want to look spot on.”
— RedsBet (@Reds_Bet) April 3, 2019
Southampton supporters would love nothing more than to be the side who derail the Reds while saving their own Premier League skins. They currently have a five-point buffer between themselves and the drop zone courtesy of last weekend’s win at Brighton.
It feels like there’s a title nuance to practically every fixture at the moment and Saints’ victory over their local rivals perhaps takes the edge off their incentive to put one over Liverpool, while keeping Brighton in the mire with Manchester City visiting them on the last day of the season.
Jurgen Klopp and his players will barely give a thought to these fractional pros and cons and concern themselves only with their own business; allowing for the fact that they do need at least one favour from elsewhere. City might be top again but the manner of the Reds’ last two victories will doubtless be playing on their minds.
If James Milner’s late pen at Fulham was a kick in City’s guts, Sunday’s epic finale against Spurs had that “name on the trophy” feel that makes a mockery of studied analysis.
After Spurs, Klopp said “There are 500,000 ways to win a football game” and Liverpool are certainly exploring a plethora of the most uneven paths to victory.
The matches are an emotional rollercoaster but at the final whistle the benefit of victory at the last gasp with a slice of good luck, outweighs the momentum gained by emphatic wins. Anyone coming away from Anfield last Sunday not feeling this is still Liverpool’s year is carrying a back pack saddled with pessimism.
Liverpool must continue to ride the wave. Victory at Southampton, reclaiming top spot while City engage in FA Cup matters, is crucial. Then, City embark on a run which will test all of their physical and mental credentials.
Of their six remaining league games, four are away (Crystal Palace, Manchester United, Burnley and Brighton) with home clashes against Spurs and Leicester. It is a run-in laced with potential pitfalls.
The Reds’ closing phase isn’t without its complications but things are falling into place neatly; with Joe Gomez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain returning soon, Klopp has nearly a fully fit squad at his disposal.
The notion of pressure is a receding narrative – recent late winners have seen to that – and every message from the Anfield dressing room is decorated with the word “opportunity”. There’s still time for nerves to kick in if City slip but everything we’ve seen from a Liverpool side so determined, so gnarly, so bloody-minded suggests they’ll cope.
Among the most gritty is Mo Salah. He could do with a goal having gone eight with scoring but he exudes the same spirit regardless of whether he’s finding the net or not.
When he gets one, there’s a sense a glut might follow and at this stage of the season that could fire Liverpool to the title. Elsewhere, in Mane who will relish facing his old club, in Andy Robertson back at his rambunctious best, and in the imperious Van Dijk there are serious lads chasing this dream on our behalf.
Such is the points haul, and domination of this campaign by two clubs it is difficult to make comparison with Liverpool championship wins from the previous era. All or most of the omens are being thrown at us week by week. However, back in April 1982, the Reds went to Southampton and won 3-2 with six games to play.
The heart probably couldn’t suffer another nail-biter like that, but for old times’ sake we’ll take it.
*Odds are subject to change