How Liverpool are facing a European dilemma

Last week it was Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United who were expected to fight it out for the final Champions League spots. But after their defeat on Sunday at the hand of Manchester United, Liverpool’s charge for Europe has faltered somewhat and they need to pick up the pace again.

Last season, Liverpool didn’t start as slowly as they did this time around, but they did leave themselves with too much to do to win the title in the end. They needed an unbelievable run of consecutive victories and they just couldn’t manage it.

This season, they again started from too far back to mount a title challenge in the final few months of the season, but the defeat against Manchester United on Sunday was their first in the league since the last time they played Louis van Gaal’s side on 14th December.

But maybe what that shows is that Liverpool have this season left themselves with too much to do to clinch a Champions League spot. Defeat leaves them five points behind United who currently occupy the all-important fourth spot, and with games running out, Liverpool will need to pick up the pace if they’re to catch up to their fierce rivals.

But that’s actually a less pressing concern for Brendan Rodgers right now.

Champions League football is hugely important these days, and the elite European competition is a fattened, grass-fed cash cow. And I’m sure Liverpool would love another crack at the big time next season after not giving a distinguished account of themselves this time around.

But a first league defeat in over three months has left them with an awful lot to do, and that shows just how much their poor start to the season has hurt them. Any team would struggle for a few months while trying to replace Suarez, cover for the injured Sturridge and gel together a host of new players, though.

But the problem isn’t just the potential for no Champions League next year. Liverpool may be five points behind United now, but they’re only one point ahead of Spurs and Southampton just below them.

After United beat Spurs two Sundays ago, most people were ruling the North London club out of the running for the Champions League spots, and many have been ruling Southampton out for even longer than that. While it isn’t inconceivable that either of those teams can put together a run and claw back the 6 points they need from United, it is unlikely. And so you’d have to say it is now similarly unlikely that Liverpool can do the same.

What is more likely is that Liverpool could end up playing no European football at all next season.

Their league position is perilous at the moment, and even though they have only lost once in a very long time, they still need to make sure that they don’t lose any more games. The first defeat after such a long run unbeaten can knock the confidence and morale of a team, and Liverpool will have to guard against that.

They also have a tough FA Cup replay away to Blackburn to negotiate, and then would need to beat Aston Villa at Wembley to book their place in an FA Cup final, where they could face Arsenal. If they manage to make it to the final and play the Gunners, then even finishing 7th in the league would guarantee Liverpool a Europa League spot.

Failure to get through, though, could adversely affect their form right when it matters most in the run in to the end of the season.

Liverpool will still have their sights set on tracking down Manchester United and qualifying for the Champions League next season. But they would be forgiven for throwing a glance over their shoulders too.

Focusing too much on what’s above them on the ladder might well allow those below to sneak up and overtake, leaving Liverpool’s mid-season revival in tatters.