After last weekend’s Derby draw, which left Manchester City a single point clear with nine games to play, a widely held conclusion among fans and pundits is that the destiny of the league title is no longer in Liverpool’s hands.
If perhaps there were half as many matches left, I’d have more sympathy with that reasoning but at this stage of the season it’s an entirely clinical view that accounts for none of football’s uncertainty.
All but one of the league championships I witnessed in the 1980s were Liverpool processions; the Reds’ closest pursuers snuffed out with games to spare. The environment surrounding football was radically different back then but the psychology of the game itself remains unaltered. Although a dominant Liverpool normally led from the front, we only have to look back at the 1985-86 season to realise that titles can be won from positions far worse than the one Jurgen Klopp’s team find themselves in.
When Kenny Dalglish’s men won at Southampton in March 1986 they trailed Everton by two points and the Blues still had two games in hand. This was an Everton team which had won the title the previous year at a canter confidently expecting to repeat the feat. That they didn’t – drawing at Nottingham Forest and Old Trafford and losing at Luton and Oxford – is proof that a pressurised run-in can mess with minds of even the strongest favourites.
If we want more recent evidence that nothing is decided in March, our own 2014 experience when five points slipped away right at the death is enough to understand that a one point deficit, while Liverpool and City still have eighteen games left between them, represents very little. And, before we start consoling ourselves with talk of progress and record points totals, we have to accept that this remains our best shot at the title.
There are no guarantees we find ourselves in a position as laden with opportunity next season.
Suffice to say, Burnley at home on Sunday is a must win, though it feels like we’ve been saying that since August. The game falls into the same category as recent home matches against Bournemouth and Watford when Liverpool have turned on the style, seemingly untouched by any notion of pressure. By contrast the cauldrons of Old Trafford and Goodison have seen the Reds crippled by conservatism, stifled as much by the identity of the opponent as the difficulty of the task.
If there’s a lesson in the dropped points at the hands of our fiercest rivals, it is that this is no time to die wondering. The Reds have added pragmatism and patience to their attacking virtues, something referred to by Klopp as “stability”, but there’s a danger a more measured approach accentuates a lack of craft in midfield. The front three are at their sparkiest when the Reds go for opponents’ throats.
Sean Dyche’s side have made life difficult for Liverpool in the past. Burnley’s organisation and physicality was enough to disrupt the Reds’ rhythm and secure a 1-1 draw at Anfield last season and at Turf Moor in December it took a late save from Alisson to deny a late equaliser before Xherdan Shaqiri sealed a 3-1 win. Shaqiri has since faded from the scene but might get the chance to remind Klopp of his worth against the Clarets.
Burnley come to Anfield off the back of defeats to Crystal Palace and Newcastle, but have still taken 18 points from ten games to ease five clear of the relegation zone. Their stand-out results recently were the home win over Spurs and a 2-2 draw at Manchester United. Tom Heaton has recovered his place in goal ahead of Joe Hart and up front Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood present enough of a threat to keep the Reds honest at the back.
Klopp’s selection is likely to be influenced by the midweek return leg against Bayern Munich. Along with Shaqiri, Naby Keita is in line for a recall. All season long the league has been Liverpool’s priority and although that remains the case, with the exits this week of Paris St Germain and Real Madrid, the Champions League suddenly looks a very winnable competition.
How ironic it would be if Liverpool were to be pipped at the post at home but carried off a sixth European Cup.
But for now our eyes should remain fixed firmly on the domestic prize which is as realistic a prospect now as it was when Liverpool stuck to the task throughout the autumn and first part of winter.
Trent Alexander-Arnold tweeted this week “The battle is far from over Reds! We will fight until the very end for this title.” While admiring the sentiment, it’s the kind of thing you might say when a few points behind with four to play.
Equally you could remember that it’s never over until the fat lady sings, or that with so much of the season left, she hasn’t even cleared her throat.
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