Liverpool’s frustrating Premier League season took yet another twist on Sunday afternoon as Christian Benteke returned to Anfield to haunt his old side in a shock victory for Crystal Palace.
Despite Philippe Coutinho’s sublime free-kick, goals either side of half-time from the tall Belgian now leaves the Reds nervously looking over their shoulder as the race for the top four really heats up.
Currently sitting in third, three points clear of Manchester United in fifth, Liverpool’s fate is mathematically not in their own hands anymore; if either Manchester City or United win their remaining games – regardless of the result of the derby – they will trump Liverpool’s points tally.
Both sides have two games in hand on their Merseyside rivals, and with only a narrow gap separating the trio four wins in their last four games might not be enough for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Despite this, speaking after the defeat at Anfield, talkSPORT reports that Liverpool manager Klopp maintains his confidence that his side can achieve Champions League football for next season.
Defiant in defeat, the German said:
“I know there are a lot of people around thinking ‘Oh my God, Champions League slips through our fingers again’ but only if we let it slip.
“We have to try everything and we will try everything. Our job is to squeeze everything out of the season we can squeeze.”
Although the loss to Palace certainly makes the top four race more intriguing, Liverpool have the most favourable run-in in comparison to United and City – a huge advantage at this stage.
Trips to Watford and West Ham sandwich a home tie against mid-table Southampton, before finishing the season at Anfield against a – potentially already relegated – Middlesbrough.
On paper it looks like a tantalisingly good last few games, not having to play any other team in the top six of the league, but it’s common knowledge that Liverpool have struggled against the lower teams.
Sunday’s encounter against Crystal Palace epitomised this, and it’ll take a lot of mental strength for Klopp’s side to shrug off the pain of previous games this season and put their woes against bottom-half sides behind them.
Yet, whereas Palace were still playing for their Premier League safety – and came into the tie full of confidence after beating Arsenal and Chelsea in recent weeks– the likes of Watford, Southampton and West Ham could have nothing at all to play for other than positions in the middle of the league table.
Add to this that Middlesbrough, bar a miracle over the next few weeks, will already be on the road down to the Championship and things start to look brighter for the Reds.
Yet an astonishing stat to come from their season so far is that, out of their 42 goals conceded in the Premier League, 30 of them have come against teams that make up the bottom half of the table at present; a further seven of these have come against sides currently in the bottom four of the league.
We all know just how potent Liverpool’s attack can be – even in the absence of Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane – but it’s their defence that has let them down time and time again this year.
Benteke was allowed the freedom of the penalty area to latch onto Andros Townsend’s bouncing corner and head into an empty net, and Liverpool’s zonal approach to marking from set-pieces, as well as their general inability to contain big presences up front, has stalled their progress this year.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Fernando Llorente and now Benteke have all filled their boots against Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren; this duo are more comfortable with the ball on the floor, able to nick the ball away from quick attackers and anticipate the play, but it’s a different story when up against pure strength.
With this in mind, Troy Deeney, Andy Carroll and Alvaro Negredo could be licking their lips at potential match-ups with the Liverpool defence in the upcoming weeks, and Klopp would do well to prepare his centre-back pairing for more physical battles as another loss could prove fatal for their hopes.
Momentum is normally key during the latter part of the season, and Klopp needs to lift spirits in the dressing room again – and quickly – before Liverpool’s season completely unravels before his eyes.
The Reds are still in pole position, and will no doubt be keeping a keen eye on the Manchester derby on Thursday, but it’s certainly starting to get a little less comfortable up in Merseyside.
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