The days following the Arsenal victory were some of the most surreal days I’ve experienced as a Liverpool supporter. The prevailing theme wasn’t about a great victory over a top four rival, rather it was more about how disappointing it would feel when we eventually lose to Burnley at home the following week. In all of my life as a Red, I can’t seem to recall such negativity flood the mindset going into a home fixture against a relegation-worthy club. While the squad had one of the most abysmal first-half performances I have seen all season, they fought back to earn three points. Results matter. As I always say on the golf course, you don’t get bonus points for style. Even after surviving the weekend with three points, some fans continue to drown in their own misery insisting that Liverpool still won’t finish in the top four and qualify for next year’s Champions League. We can’t beat the dross, they claim. And after our next two fixtures against Manchester City and Everton, that’s all we will play. “We can’t beat the dross” is a strong statement, but is the truth?
Liverpool have ten games remaining on the schedule. Earlier this season against those same opponents, Liverpool won seven, drew two, and only lost one match (that miserable away 3-4 loss at Bournemouth). The seven wins were Manchester City (1-0 at home), Everton (1-0 away), Stoke City (4-1 at home), West Bromwich Albion (2-1 at home), Crystal Palace (4-2 away), Watford (6-1 at home), and Middlesbrough (3-0 away). We drew 0-0 away to Southampton and 2-2 at home to West Ham. Those are some convincing results, so I’m not sure this backs up the claim that “we can’t beat the dross.”
All teams will slump throughout the course of a season. For Liverpool that clearly coincided with the miserable month of January. During that time, the club played nine matches only winning once. We earned only three of a possible twelve points and were subsequently eliminated in both the EFL Cup and FA Cup. The league results were frustrating, dropping points to relegation-contenders Sunderland and Swansea City. Drawing against Manchester United and Chelsea were decent results, but by then the damage had been done. While I refuse to admit that one player makes a huge difference, it’s hard to argue that the common denominator to our miserable January was losing Sadio Mane to the African Cup of Nations. Liverpool’s inability to break out of the funk was detrimental, and Mane is an offensive catalyst that seemingly finds himself in the right place at the right time when the club needs him most. Just ask Everton fans.
Sadio Mane wants you to relax. With him in the lineup, we can beat the dross.
(Photo courtesy of the Liverpool Echo)
Everyone knows that only one goal remains achievable for Liverpool, and that is to finish in the top four at the end of the season. For all intents and purposes, let’s forget about Chelsea for the rest of this analysis. They are sixteen points clear of fifth place with only eleven matches remaining. Their ticket to the Champions League is punched. Beyond them are five clubs with legitimate claims to believe they could take one of the three remaining spots: Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United. Each one of these clubs have varying degrees of issues ahead of them, and no one is strongly favored over the others.
Before Harry Kane suffered his second serious ankle injury of the season, Spurs were looking like the most likely to secure their return to the Champions League. Now I am not so sure as Kane is expected to be out until the end of April at the earliest. Earlier this season he missed six Premier League games with his first ankle injury, and during that span the club only scored seven goals in those six matches. They won two matches, lost one (to Liverpool), and drew three (against Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, and Leicester City). Clearly their offensive output suffered and so did the points. Spurs have many winnable games down the stretch of Kane’s expected absence, but they have proven to be slightly inept in the goal-scoring department without him so nothing is guaranteed. Spurs then have to finish the season with challenging fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester United.
What about the other clubs in contention? Manchester City is likely to finish near the top. Pep Guardiola has them playing well in the league, and their recent exit from Champions League against Monaco will have them more focused on finishing top four. They still have to face both Arsenal and Chelsea on the road immediately after this next international break, so if Liverpool can manage to get a result against them on Sunday it would extremely help our cause. Next we look at Arsenal. They have to play a derby match at Tottenham and home matches with both Manchesters. Those won’t be easy, and besides… have you seen the Gunners play lately??? Although Arsene Wenger has a knack for strong finishes, at some point his 17-year streak of finishing in the top four has to end eventually. The other factor to consider is that Tottenham, Manchester City, and Arsenal are all still competing in the FA Cup, which could factor in congesting their schedule late in the season adding to the degree of difficulty.
Lastly I look to Manchester United, who has perhaps the toughest stretch of all the teams in contention. Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Manchester City still on the schedule (and only the Chelsea match is at Old Trafford). If they manage to beat Rostov at home on Thursday, they will be in the quarterfinals of the Europa League which will simply add to the mess. They already have two games in hand over Liverpool, and they are running out of weeks to schedule mid-week replays if they continue to advance in the Europa League. Fixture congestion may force an involuntary capitulation in the league, much like it did for Liverpool last season.
Back to Liverpool. Currently they sit at 55 points in the table with ten games remaining. Of those ten games, five are at Anfield. Against these same opponents earlier in the season, Liverpool earned 23 points. If they can mimic that stretch, which clearly isn’t out of the realm of possibility, they will finish the league with 78 points. Only once before has a club needed more points than that to finish fourth in the table (Arsenal in 2013-14, who finished with 79 points). But is that realistic to expect another run like that? Turns out that Sadio Mane started every one of those ten matches in the fall, so that helps. After we play Manchester City and Everton in our next two fixtures, our schedule is littered with mid-table teams. Most of them will have secured their spot in next year’s Premier League by the time we play them, with realistically only Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, and Middlesbrough fighting the relegation battle. Our matches against those three clubs will all be played at Anfield. Additionally, you could make a very strong case that clubs like Southampton and West Ham will be less motivated about football and more interested in their upcoming holiday when we play them in May. And you mustn’t forget that Liverpool is undefeated in matches where both myself and Dan Franklin are in attendance, so I feel pretty good about the Everton and Bournemouth clashes as well.
So back to the question at hand. Can we beat the dross? Not only am I reasonably confident that we can, I know we will. While we are doing that, our competitors for the last three Champions League spots will be taking points away from each other. And I will enjoy watching them do it. If I were a betting man, I’d tell you that Liverpool should be the house favorite to finish top four right now. As a matter of fact, I am indeed a betting man. So I’ll bet anyone a pint of Guinness that we do finish in the top four. If you actually have had the patience to read this article to the end, and you come to the pub on Sunday for the Manchester City match, you can accept that offer and we’ll bet a pint. I must warn you, though, it’s a sucker bet. And I hope you take me up on it. See you at the pub on Sunday!