Liverpool would be perfectly suited to life in the Champions League, they just need to get there, argues Dave Tindall in this week’s Red Letter.
When Barcelona were having their pants pulled down by PSG on Tuesday night, someone in the office where I was working said to no-one in particular, “When did Barcelona last lose 4-0?”
Of course, as a Liverpool fan, I had an instant response. “Er, I think you’ll find we beat them 4-0 in August,” I said with a wink.
Naturally, I got shouted down due to it being a friendly but at least that massively enjoyable Wembley win in the (.. googles name..) International Champions Cup last August planted a seed that continues to sprout this season.
In short, we are bloody good against the top sides. Losing out on a Champions League spot wouldn’t just be gutting due to the financial losses and impact on our ability to attract star names to Anfield; it would also be hugely disappointing as we might actually have it in us to do very, very well in the tournament we’ve won five times. Last four perhaps? Maybe even better….
Let’s be honest, we’ve already shown we can thrive against some of Europe’s top teams. I’m not talking Barcelona here, I’m referring to last season’s European adventure which was Europa League by name but more Champions League in nature.
— LFC Transfer Room (@LFCTransferRoom) February 15, 2017
We produced the classic one-two knockout blow (gutsy 1-1 draw away, barnstorming night at Anfield) to eliminate Champions League regulars Borussia Dortmund, thumped Villarreal (finished fourth in last year’s La Liga) 3-0 at home in the semis and looked all set to sink Sevilla (currently third in La Liga this season) in the final before those 45 minutes of despair.
Klopp was still getting his feet under the table and yet we reached a European final and played Champions League-quality sides along the way.
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That ability to shine against the elite is also playing out big-time on the domestic front.
The mini-league of top six sides shows us leading the way on 16 points after an unbeaten run of four wins and four draws against our Champions League rivals. Chelsea are next with 13, ahead of Spurs (9), Man City (7), Man Utd (6) and Arsenal (5).
And it’s no fluke. In fact, look back at the four draws – 1-1 at Spurs, 0-0 and 1-1 v Man Utd and 1-1 with Chelsea – and it’s not far-fetched to say we could have won at least two of those.
The reason we do so well is obvious. In most of these games, those teams allow us space. They want to flex their muscles. They don’t want to adapt the mentality of a little team and therefore come out and play.
Interestingly, the two canniest managers are probably the exceptions. Jose Mourinho parked the bus at Anfield and got his 0-0 draw while Antonio Conte, having learned a lesson when we played them off the park in the first half at Stamford Bridge and won 2-1, made sure Chelsea’s first priority in the opening 45 minutes at Anfield was to keep their shape. It worked. We hardly had a shot on goal.
Spurs, by contrast, did no such thing. It was almost baffling how much they played into our hands and we absolutely killed them. The 2-0 could have been 5-0 on another day and this was the rampant Liverpool of earlier in the season.
Okay, you only get the same number of points for beating the top six as you do everyone else but the feel-good factor and confidence boost that comes from defeating a Chelsea, Arsenal or Spurs is worth much more.
That’s why the victory over Tottenham couldn’t have come at a better time after the dreadful start to 2017. The gloom was lifted and smiles returned. That awful feeling of ‘we’re going to blow this’ was replaced with a defiant ‘don’t’ write us off’. Top four remains well within our capabilities.
Klopp has now taken the squad off to La Manga for some winter sunshine. I’ve been and it’s a fantastic facility, especially if you like golf. The three courses (North, South and West) are superb so James Milner (huge golf fan) will be in his element, enjoying the serenity of strolling the fairways instead of having to bomb up and down Liverpool’s left flank for 90 minutes.
It’s a serious point actually. Clearly the congested fixture list had an effect on our ability to play lung-bursting football so this break in the action should be fantastic to clear minds and refuel bodies.
After watching PSG yesterday. I just thought to myself, we're a million miles away from being on that level. #LFC
— Timmy Robson (@WaveyTimz277) February 15, 2017
The next game (Monday 27th v Leicester) will come 16 days after the 2-0 win over Spurs. It’s as if Klopp has been handed the Winter Break he craved. It’s then one game a week until another two-week gap between the trip to Man City and the home derby against Everton.
Having Arsenal, Man City and Everton in our next five games is probably a very good thing given our record in big matches. And the lack of European or domestic Cup competition during that time must further tilt the balance in our favour.
That leaves the run-in of Bournemouth (h), Stoke (a), West Brom (a), Crystal Palace (h), Watford (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (a) and Middlesbrough (h).
Most of those look very winnable until we remind ourselves of this season’s travails against the lower-ranked sides.
The table showing the record of top six against the other 14 teams shines a very bright torch on our Achilles Heel.
Chelsea have taken 46 points against ‘the rest’ and it’s then Arsenal (45), Man Utd (42), Man City (42), Spurs (41) and, trailing in last by some distance, Liverpool with 33.
If we’d matched Arsenal’s haul in those matches, we’d be above Chelsea by a point! If, if, if.
My feelings about us making the Champions League continue to oscillate. They’ve been as high as ‘definitely’ to as low as ‘improbably’.
It would be a crying shame to miss out though. Our record at home and in Europe under Klopp’s management suggests we wouldn’t just be making up the numbers. No, we’d actually be live contenders.
While you laugh, I’ll just dig out that video of 2005 again. The one where Djimi Traore and Milan Baros start the final against AC Milan and we win.