It is easy to spot a Liverpool fan these days. In pubs, parks, and workplaces, they can be spotted talking about how Mohamed Salah is going to get the Premier League Golden Boot and how the Egyptian is one of the best players in the world, at least on current form. You can find these passionately optimistic souls finding historic reasons of why the Reds will beat Manchester City to reach the Champions League semi-finals. Or you might stumble upon a fan already talking about what miracles Klopp can perform next season.
If you are getting a feeling of slight déjà vu, you are not alone. Four years ago, around the same time in the season, Liverpool fans could be found gushing about Luis Suarez’s prowess in front of the goal. The Uruguayan indeed won the Premier League Golden Boot as well as the European Golden Shoe. The Reds were also almost sure of winning the Premier League and how they were going to reign in Europe in the 2014-15 season.
But we all know how those hopes were dashed. It was a tough run in in 2013-14 – Liverpool had to play Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea in their last seven games. But, as we all know it was only two second-halves against Chelsea and Crystal Palace, that brought the Reds’ expectations crashing to the ground. This season, Liverpool fans (most) are not dreaming of winning any silverware. However, there is a strong undercurrent of optimism at Anfield and a place in the next year’s Champions League group stages is indeed believed to be very achievable. Other than that tangible target, the other benchmark the Reds can aim to achieve is a points tally of 84, what they managed four years back. Let us take a detailed look at Liverpool’s run in to see how and if the Reds can go about achieving these targets.
What the Stats Say
Whether one takes a look at ELO Ratings for the club or at the predictions from FiveThirtyEight.com, both models suggest that Liverpool should be able to reach the top-four target without too much trouble. Not just because Liverpool themselves are in great form but also because the other teams fighting for top-four have more congested and tougher run ins. Club ELO predicts that Liverpool will finish third with 78.1 points, while FiveThirtyEight predicts that the Reds will end with 79 points, one point ahead of Tottenham and one below Manchester United. Moreover, both models predict that Chelsea will finish fifth with 70.9 and 71 points respectively.
Clearly, both the models assign a very high probability for Liverpool’s chances of making it to next season’s Champions League group stages. FiveThirtyEight even gives a number for it – 96%. But both models also predict that Liverpool will fall short of their 2013-14 points tally. But that target is of academic interest at best. To achieve 84 points at the end of the season, the Reds would need to win all seven of their remaining fixtures. This is extremely difficult. Instead, both models predict that the Reds will drop 5-6 points in these seven games.
The Run In – Each Opponent
Crystal Palace (A) – While Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea is considered the iconic moment of how Liverpool’s title charge faded away four years back, it was an extremely bad second half at Selhurst Park that confirmed that Liverpool will not be able to win the title. This season, the Reds visit Selhurst Park a bit earlier than that season, but both the venue and the opponent are among the least favourites for Liverpool. Further, the Eagles are fighting for their survival, which makes them even more dangerous.
Everton (A) – Although Liverpool are unbeaten in last seventeen games against Everton, Sam Allardyce relishes the opportunity of putting one past the big six teams and his Everton side did not lose the reverse fixture earlier in the season, even when they were playing badly. Of late, Everton’s fortunes have seen an upturn.
Bournemouth (H) – Bournemouth were one of the few teams that Liverpool could not beat in the entire season last year. This season, Eddie Howe’s team overcame an indifferent start to the season to be in contention for a top-half finish. As Bournemouth amply showed last season, Liverpool cannot afford to take the Cherries lightly.
West Bromwich Albion (A) – West Brom finished the last season in eighth position but their fortunes have fallen away this season, as they sit 20th in the table this season with little hope of staying up. However, they have not been an easy team for Liverpool to deal with. The reverse fixture at Anfield earlier in the season was a scoreless draw and West Brom was the team that knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup in January.
Stoke City (H) – Stoke are another relegation-threatened team this season and will be more difficult than usual to win against. While the Reds did beat the Potters away from home earlier in the season, but the Reds should expect Stoke to come hard at them at Anfield as their Premier League survival could depend on it.
Chelsea (A) – Chelsea’s season has been mired in infighting between Antonio Conte and the board but still the Blues are in slight contention to finish in the top four. FiveThirtyEight.com believes they have a 15% chance of doing that. Mourinho’s Chelsea was the team that undid Liverpool four years back. But that was at Anfield and a certain winger named Mohamed Salah started for Chelsea in that game. This game will be at Stamford Bridge and Salah will be itching to prove his worth to the club that did not believe in him.
Brighton & Hove Albion (H) – Reds will end the season by hosting Brighton, who could be safe from relegation or fighting against it – depending on how their run in goes up to the final game. In the reverse fixture, Klopp was accused of showing disrespect by Chris Hughton, the Brighton manager as the German forgo to shake his counterpart’s hand after the final whistle. On the field, Liverpool beat Brighton comprehensively. This could be the easiest game of the run in for the Reds.
Indeed, a top-four finish seems very achievable for Liverpool. Most predictive models have the Reds marked for a Champions League group stage place next season. However, no team knows it more than Liverpool, that a slip up in this final run in can cost them a lot. Four years back, it cost them the title.
This year’s last seven games will see Liverpool play against relegation-threatened teams, as well as Chelsea who are battling for top-four themselves. None of the next seven league opponents are likely to play with the indifference that Watford showed at Anfield before the international break. While it is indeed possible for the Reds to beat Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals but progress in Europe beyond this point is a bonus target, not the primary one. Klopp and his men have done very well to reach 63 points in the third position at the end of 31 games. Now, they must learn from the 2013-14 season and ensure that the primary target is achieved this season. They do owe that much to their ever-optimistic fans.