Where should Liverpool's priorities lie for the rest of the season?
When Liverpool free-wheeled their way to within two points of winning the league last season, some pundits tried to qualify that unexpected title challenge by pointing out that their absence from cup and European competitions helped to fuel the charge for Premier League glory. Of course, the Reds’ second-place finish last term ensured that, even if they exited every knockout competition at the earliest juncture, they would still play three more matches than the 43 in which they participated in 2013/14. Liverpool had a very strong first-choice 11 in that ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of the title, but the lack of quality back-up was conspicuous by its absence. Witness how Iago Aspas was a desperate Plan B when the Reds needed a goal against Chelsea at Anfield in April. Brendan Rodgers knew that, with an impending and welcome return to the Champions League, his squad needed more depth. Hence the arrival of eight new players over the summer (a ninth signing, Divock Origi, was loaned to Lille for the season).
With Adam Lallana being the only indisputable success of the summer 2014 arrivals, and a gaping hole left by the sale of Luis Suarez, Rodgers and the Liverpool board have come under plenty of fire over their transfer dealings last year, but the glut of fixtures the club has faced, and will continue to face, over the first two months of 2015 vindicate the quantitative approach to a degree. From 17 January to 22 March, a time frame of nine weeks, the Reds could potentially play 19 matches. That is working on the assumption that they remain in the FA Cup and Europa League throughout that period, but it doesn’t take into account the possibility of replays in the fifth and sixth rounds of the FA Cup, which would be scheduled to take place in that time frame but would most likely be put back as the Reds simply wouldn’t have a free midweek date.
It is not a wholly unlikely scenario that Liverpool will get to the middle of March and still be in three competitions, either, so having played 43 games in nine months in 2013/14, they might have 19 matches in nine weeks in the opening months of 2015. The fixture pile-up would have been even greater had Rodgers’ side not been eliminated from the Capital One Cup in midweek. If they had beaten Chelsea, their league fixture against Manchester City on 1 March (which is a scandalously early midday kick-off) would have been postponed. As could have been expected at the outset of the season, Rodgers has had to manage his squad strategically to cope with the multitude of eggs he is trying to juggle. Even though Liverpool famously prevailed in three cup competitions, as well as finishing third in the league, in 2001, the reality is that the Reds may be left with little choice but to select their priorities over the concluding four months of this season.
Although a repeat of a title challenge and a top two finish is out of the question, a recent run of positive results in the Premier League has put Liverpool back in with a shout of achieving their minimum aim for the season, namely to be fourth or higher when the final whistle blows on 24 May. A look at league positions alone, with the Reds currently eighth, would suggest that there is some way to go, but on closer inspection, Manchester United in fourth are only five points away. Even a crack at finishing third, which would bring it automatic passage to the Champions League group stage, isn’t wholly unrealistic, with current occupants Southampton within seven points of Liverpool’s reach.
The Anfield club’s upturn in form, though, can be partially attributed to the relative charity of the opponents they have faced since Christmas. Burnley, Swansea, Leicester, Sunderland and Aston Villa has not been the most taxing of schedules, and even the 13 points hoovered up over those five games should really have been 15 considering the surrender of a 2-0 lead at home to basement club Leicester. Even with the accrual of 13 points since Santa deposited presents underneath trees, Liverpool are still eighth. The Reds’ next five league games are against West Ham, Everton, Tottenham, Southampton and Man City. All except Everton are currently ahead of them in the table, and for anyone thinking that the Toffees’ travails make them an easy target, a derby fixture at Goodison Park can operate outside of all form indicators.
Even without having to balance knockout competitions, that five-game Premier League run between now and 1 March would be daunting. It would be bordering on miraculous if Liverpool are still realistic contenders for a top four finish after they welcome Man City to Merseyside in five weeks’ time, but in this era when cash often speaks louder than cups, the Reds know full well that they cannot sacrifice any points in the league. The League Cup win in 2012 brought one day of enjoyment for Liverpool fans, but ultimately cut little ice with owners who were justifiably appalled at the club’s eighth-place Premier League finish that season to the point where it cost Kenny Dalglish his job. Rodgers realises that, unless the top four is mathematically out of reach, he needs to garner as many Premier League points as possible to keep Liverpool’s owners, and indeed supporters, happy.
On the night that Basel’s draw at Anfield confirmed that Liverpool would exit the tournament, the Champions League’s ugly cousin seemed about as appealing to Reds fans as double Maths does to school-goers. Frankly, though, the Merseysiders were simply not good enough in the Champions League, winning only one game out of six and that courtesy of a kindly-awarded stoppage-time penalty at home to Bulgarian debutants. Rodgers has managed Liverpool in the Europa League before, taking them to the last 32 a couple of years ago, but tears weren’t shed when the Reds bowed out at the hands of Zenit St Petersburg.
There is a substantially different perspective on the competition this year, however, with UEFA trying to sex it up by offering a place in next season’s Champions League to whoever raises the so-called ‘tin flowerpot’ in Warsaw on 27 May. With Liverpool more unlikely than likely to gain access to Europe’s top table via their league position, there is a real incentive for the Reds to make a serious go at trying to win this competition. The round of 32 draw paired them with Besiktas, which could have been better but could also have been much worse. Liverpool memorably beat the Turkish side 8-0 at Anfield in 2007, but both teams have changed considerably since then – the upcoming Europa League tie should be far more competitive. Also, the first leg is at Anfield, so the Reds will in all likelihood need to win, and ideally keep a clean sheet, in order to preserve real hope in Europe this season.
The lure of potential Champions League football, as well as a decent chance at lifting what is still a European trophy for all its bad press, should be enough for Liverpool to treat the 2015 Europa League far more seriously than they, and other English clubs, have done in recent years.
The dream scenario has already been devised – Liverpool win the FA Cup at Wembley on 30 May, with captain Steven Gerrard, in his last game for the club he has served with such distinction, lifting the trophy on his 35th birthday. How wonderful and poignant it would be.
Alas, romantic visions tend not to come true all that often in the hard-nosed world of football. Any notions of an emotional FA Cup triumph can be flung into the nearest dustbin after watching the Reds fail to break down Bolton at home last weekend. A horrendously frustrating 0-0 draw has required a replay at the Macron Stadium next week, hardly what Liverpool needed during this glut of fixtures. Should the Premier League side find their scoring boots and prevail in Lancashire, a trip to Crystal Palace on Valentine’s weekend awaits. With the Eagles in flying form (that one was intentional) since Alan Pardew’s arrival, and with the cloud of last May’s Selhurst Park collapse still on many supporters’ minds, that’s not a fixture to savour, should it transpire. In fact, another 3-3 draw would necessitate a replay that would not take place any earlier than 7 March, a weekend that is currently fixed for sixth round ties rather than fifth round replays.
Of course I would like to see Liverpool being successful in as many competitions as possible this season, and the multiple shocks from last weekend have suddenly presented quite a few of the FA Cup’s survivors with a much-enhanced chance of winning it out. However, defeat in Bolton next week would not be wholly calamitous. Were Liverpool fans overly bothered at losing to Arsenal in last season’s fifth round when the Premier League title was tantalisingly within reach?
What to prioritise?
Firstly, the Premier League is the club’s bread and butter, and should remain the primary focus for the next couple of months at least. That said, the Europa League ought not to be mocked this season and Liverpool cannot be discounted from the list of potential winners. I would like to see Rodgers giving this competition plenty of respect.
So, while this viewpoint might seem like sacrilege to some, the FA Cup just isn’t Liverpool’s golden egg right now. Given the choice of Gerrard lifting the cup on his 35th birthday and an eighth-place league finish, or defeat at Bolton next week and a Europa League triumph with at least a push for the top four domestically, I would go with Option B every time.
Potential Liverpool calendar, 31 January-30 May
31 Jan: West Ham (PL)
3 Feb: Bolton (FA)
7 Feb: Everton (PL)
10 Feb: Tottenham (PL)
*14 Feb: Crystal Palace (FA)
19 Feb: Besiktas (EL)
22 Feb: Southampton (PL)
26 Feb: Besiktas (EL)
1 Mar: Man City (EL)
4 Mar: Burnley (EL)
*7 Mar: FA Cup 5th rd replay/6th rd
*12 Mar: EL last 16 1st leg
16 Mar: Swansea (PL)
*19 Mar: FA Cup/EL last 16 2nd leg
22 Mar: Man Utd (PL)
*25 Mar: FA Cup 6th rd/6th rd replay
*1 Apr: Potential FA Cup 6th rd replay
4 Apr: Arsenal (PL)
11 Apr: Newcastle (PL)
*16 Apr: EL quarter-final 1st leg
19 Apr: Hull (PL)/FA Cup semi-final
*23 Apr: EL quarter-final 2nd leg
26 Apr: West Brom (PL)
*29 Apr: Potential rescheduling of Hull (PL)
2 May: QPR (PL)
*7 May: EL semi-final 2nd leg
10 May: Chelsea (PL)
*14 May: EL semi-final 2nd leg
17 May: Crystal Palace (PL)
24 May: Stoke (PL)
*27 May: EL final
*30 May: FA Cup final
*Fixtures that could happen but not confirmed.
Potentially 32 matches between now and the end of May, currently guaranteed 19.