Despite crashing out of the Europa League yesterday evening, courtesy of a Dejan Lovren penalty miss that’s likely still in orbit somewhere, we at Football Fancast have high hopes for Liverpool returning to the European stage next season – by going one better and qualifying for the Champions League.
That may seem a bold prediction to some, but the sixth-place Reds are just two points off the Premier League’s fourth spot, currently held by Manchester United, and possess more than enough quality to overcome that miserly deficit by the end of May.
And just to prove we’re not plucking out predictions out of thin air, here’s FIVE reasons why Champions League football will return to Anfield next season.
There is perhaps no catch 22 greater in the Premiership than participation in the Europa League. Although it offers the chance of continental silverware, it’s a competition split between European minnows defending for their lives and some Champions League-relegated fish that, quite frankly, just don’t want to be there.
In the words of MOTD2’s Mark Lawrenson, something about playing on Thursdays and Sundays just doesn’t work, and it often results in a congested fixture list that only amplifies fatigue during the business end of the season.
So it’s a good job the Reds lost in a penalty shootout to Besiktas last night, freeing up their mid-weeks and Saturdays, whilst top four rivals Arsenal still have the small matter of preparing for a trip to Monaco in which they need to score at least thrice to avoid elimination.
Likewise, Manchester City, whom Liverpool face this weekend, will still be recovering from their humbling 2-1 home defeat to Barcelona.
There’s been plenty of focus on Liverpool’s defensive performances this term, especially amid the arduous start to their Premier League campaign, but frailties at the back have always been a problem under Brendan Rodgers, and in comparison to last season it’s attacking form the Reds have lacked most.
Indeed, Liverpool scored over 100 Premier League goals last year but this season they’re on just 38 – the joint lowest return in the division’s top eight – and some, but not all, of that can be directly attributed to Daniel Sturridge’s six month absence through injury.
Finally however, Liverpool’s attack is heading back towards full strength. Sturridge has a few games under his belt, and the Reds’ 3-4-2-1 formation is proving hugely effective in cramming him, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho – by far the Reds’ most consistent threats going forward – into the same starting XI.
Even the wayward Mario Balotelli is beginning to come good on his £16million transfer fee, netting twice in his last four outings and providing the free kick that lead to Adam Lallana’s goal against Crystal Palace.
Following on from my last point, Liverpool appear to be hitting form at just the right time – as the Premier League’s top sides often do.
How you start a Premier League season is irrespective of how well you finish, and Liverpool have now been defeated just twice in their last 19 fixtures across all competitions, Besiktas last night and Chelsea in the Capital One Cup semi-final, spanning back to their 3-0 loss to Manchester United in December.
That includes an impressive run of five straight clean sheets away from home in the Premier League and six wins in their last eight. If the Reds can continue that form over the next few weeks, they’ll easily close the two-point gap between themselves and fourth-place Manchester United.
Which brings us nicely onto…
The race for the top four is certainly heating up in the Premier League, but that isn’t good news for all the clubs involved.
Whilst Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham have all been enjoying relatively strong league form of late, the cracks are beginning to show at Manchester United and Southampton.
For the latter club, a shock inclusion in the battle for Champions League qualification, it appears the highs from earlier in the campaign are inevitably catching up with them, and the Saints are now amid a run of just one goal in their last four Premier League outings, including a 2-0 defeat at Anfield, whilst star striker Graziano Pelle has scored just three times across all competitions since the start of November.
Meanwhile, although Manchester United’s results have remained relatively consistent, losing just twice in their last twenty, the Red Devils’ laboured style of football is causing quite the stink around Old Trafford.
Even centre-back Johnny Evans has commented on it, and despite being many pundits’ favourite to clinch third spot, the Red Devils’ continual inability to hit top gear could see them miss out by just a couple of points come May-time.
Whilst every Premier League fixture between now and May will be vitally important to Liverpool’s Champions League bid, some are more important than others – particularly those six pointers against other top four rivals.
And fortunately for the Reds, despite a current two-point deficit, clashes with Manchester United and Arsenal in the space of a fortnight puts Liverpool’s fate firmly in their own hands.
Losing will cost Liverpool dearly, but two wins will completely transform the landscape at the top end of the Premier League table.
Of all the Champions League batters, Liverpool have only lost to Manchester United this year, beating Spurs twice, Southampton twice and drawing against Arsenal at Anfield in December, so results suggest the Reds are more than capable of taking maximum points from their campaign-defining fortnight.