There are various ways of viewing the end of season run-in. If you’re lucky, it’s just about tunnel vision, focusing intently on one major prize (if you’re really lucky, it might be more than one). On the other hand, you could be constantly changing objectives, as the plan goes awry, for better and for worse.
Liverpool, having fully engaged with the first scenario last season, are now in the thick of the second one. Having endured a poor start to the campaign, Brendan Rodgers’ team had hauled themselves firmly back into contention for a Champions League place once more. Unfortunately, from a Reds perspective, the home defeat to Manchester United in late March has grown from a setback into a pivotal moment in this term’s success or failure.
They entered that match in tremendous rhythm, and the reverse has seemingly created a climate of panic around Rodgers and his players. They have won just two of five Premier League fixtures since – against two of the division’s biggest turkeys, Newcastle and Queens Park Rangers, both at home – and with United’s three straight losses, the reality is that just a few more points registered in that period would have the Reds making Louis van Gaal’s life seriously uncomfortable.
It is not impossible that Liverpool could still steal fourth spot from their Mancunian rivals (and if you fancy them, they are very well priced at [8.8]), but it will need everything to go right for them, and pretty much everything to go wrong for United ([1.11] on to make the top four), with a four-point gap and three matches to go. The upcoming fixtures are not easy for United, with trips to Crystal Palace and Hull – with the latter almost certainly to need something, in an echo of 2008-09’s final day – coming up. There is, in case you’d forgotten, the visit of Arsenal to Old Trafford sandwiched in between.
The sticking point is that Liverpool’s own remaining games are no cakewalk. They must visit Chelsea – an occasion that always matters to both clubs – and Stoke, with a home game with a dangerous Crystal Palace in between. The bar is especially high when one considers that realistically, Liverpool must win all three and hope for United’s opponents to do them a favour.
It is hard to imagine not just in the context of the recent mixed bag, but at the climax of a season in which Rodgers’ team has endured something of an on-pitch identity crisis. The 3-4-3 shape which had worked as at least an intermediate solution has been shelved in the wake of the FA Cup semi-final defeat to Aston Villa. If a return to a four-man defence suits Dejan Lovren better (and one has to assume that Liverpool will persevere with such an expensive signing), it leaves Emre Can, clearly the best of the season’s signings, shifted into a right-back role where he can’t offer his very best to the team.
That Rodgers seems to be chasing his tail to find the right attacking blend is more understandable, in light of the exit of Luis Suarez and the baffling signing of Mario Balotelli. An emphasis on getting the best out of Philippe Coutinho is sensible, but it was interesting that the team looked far more dynamic against QPR after the introduction of Jordon Ibe’s pace.
It made one yearn for last year’s Liverpool, full of dizzying speed and power. Yet given the turnover, and that false start, maybe fifth wouldn’t be too bad after all. Certainly those behind the ridiculous ‘Rodgers Out, Rafa In’ banner flown over Anfield on Saturday would do well to remember Benitez’s own struggles to follow up Liverpool’s runners-up finish of 2009.