Why third is the new fourth and Liverpool’s new Holy Grail

Date published: Thursday 20th April 2017 11:58

Dave Tindall has this week “tied himself himself in knots” with UEFA’s rules, highlighted a key defensive stat, while bracing himself for the final five games, all in his weekly Liverpool blog.

If Chelsea complete their campaign with a victory, four draws and a defeat, we can still win the Premier League!

If we take five points from our final five games, we could still finish seventh.

You would have thought that the picture would be clearer by now. After all, we’ve played 33 (87%) of our 38 fixtures.

But it isn’t and, if you’re of a nervous disposition, this final leg of the journey which ends with a home game against Middlesbrough on May 21 could be incredibly harrowing.

No favours from Chelsea

Every time it appears we give ourselves a bit of breathing space, I do the math and the margin for error is actually minimal.

This last week was typical. The hands that formed clenched fists after the excellent 1-0 win over West Brom on Sunday afternoon needed wringing again by Monday night.

Manchester United had unexpectedly and frustratingly beaten leaders Chelsea and Arsenal had stumbled past Middlesbrough.

The former, in particular, just won’t go away. Jose Mourinho admits United may let their foot off the gas and focus on Champions League qualification via the Europa League if the gap grows too big. But after the Chelsea win he declared: “While it’s mathematically possible we have to go with everything we have.”

Well, it’s more than mathematically possible. Quite simply, if United win their two games in hand they’d be on the same points as us. If Arsenal do the same, they’d be only three back.

Jeez. We’ve averaged exactly two points per game for 33 matches, an excellent haul, and still I’m poring over everyone’s fixture lists to see who might do what.

Even if I mentally get myself to the point where I’m happy we’ll do enough in our remaining games – Crystal Palace (h), Watford (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a), Middlesbrough (h) – more levels of doubt creep in.

Nightmare scenario averted

Thankfully, one nightmare scenario was removed when Atletico Madrid ended Leicester’s European journey on Tuesday night. Had United won the Europa League and Leicester the Champions League, it would have meant heartbreak for the team finishing fourth in the Premier League.

A single country can’t have more than five teams in next year’s Champions League so Leicester and Man Utd would have joined the Premier League’s top three, leaving the team in fourth (probably us!) feeling that they’d been the victims of one of the greatest injustices in the history of football.

Sigh of relief for that then even though Leicester conquering Europe was unlikely. However, the concerns don’t end there.

Finishing fourth means you still have to play a qualifier to get through to the draw for the Champions League group stages when all the big guns come in. Imagine seeing the dream go up in smoke at the final hurdle! It happened to Everton once. Please, please don’t let it happen to us.

The holy grail

Jurgen Klopp: Delighted with Liverpool win at WBA

Having started to regard fourth as the ‘holy grail’, I’m now thinking third is the new fourth and that’s the place we should be chasing.

Achievable? Why not. If we won all our remaining five games and Man City threw in a draw at any point in their final six (home to Man Utd a week on Thursday perhaps?) we’d take a top-three spot.

To be totally honest though, if I was offered a deal now I’d settle for fourth and let us take our chances in a qualifier. Incidentally, I tried to work out who we might face but tied myself in knots reading UEFA’s rules and stipulations.

Reds in form

I expect the vast majority of Liverpool fans are dealing with these battling emotions of positivity and negativity.

What encourages me most is the collective return to form of many of our players.

Has Simon Mignolet played better this season? The guy in goal making crucial saves and dominating his area against Stoke and West Brom appears a different fella to the bungling Belgian who was dropped earlier in the campaign.

Boosted by Mignolet’s more reassuring presence, our defence is looking as good as it has been in ages. Another big part of that is the simple fact of our two best centre-halves actually being fit at the same time.

Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren have only started 13 Premier League games alongside each other this season but when paired together we’ve been unbeaten, winning eight and drawing five. Continuity breeds confidence. Both are in fine form.

Emre Can steps up

Emre Can, after a difficult campaign, is playing some of the best football of his Liverpool career and has really stepped up in the absence of skipper Jordan Henderson.

Further forward, Philippe Coutinho is sparkling again after a real dip in form while compatriot Roberto Firmino has netted winning goals at Stoke and West Brom. He too had lost his mojo but the Brazilian now has 11 goals and six assists this season.

You can also argue that Lucas and Gini Wijnaldum are “in a good place” as Jurgen Klopp might say, while the two full-backs and Divock Origi are hardly letting the side down.

It’s all a bit chicken and egg but when over half your team are playing at, or near to, their best level of the campaign, it’s an awful lot easier to carry out instructions from the boss.

Confidence is the ‘X’ factor

Confidence is the ‘X’ factor in football and after those wins at the Britannia Stadium and the Hawthorns I feel we have plenty. It’s arrived at the perfect moment and we can now approach these final five games from a position of strength.

Not that I expect an easy ride, especially as Crystal Palace are the visitors on Sunday and have tripped us up repeatedly in recent years. It’s certainly a boost that Mamadou Sakho won’t be playing due to being ineligible against us, his parent club. Well done to the person who invented that clause!

No doubt, I’ll continue to oscillate between thinking the best and fearing the worst and perhaps I should just relish the feeling that it’s all to play for and enjoy the ride.

As Klopp said at the end of the West Brom win: “LFC. Full excitement until the end. Pretty much always when we are involved.”

Dave Tindall

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