In theory, all is well. Liverpool, without a domestic title since 1990, sit three points clear at the top of the Premier League table with just thirteen games left to play. They’ve lost just one league game all season, and the team below them in second, Man City – the side everyone seemed convinced after last year’s triumph would go on to dominate English football for years to come – have lost four times.
At a glance – perhaps more than a glance, maybe even a prolonged gaze – Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool appear to have forged themselves an unbelievable opportunity to win the title. And they have. But delve a little deeper, dip further into the individual matches, take a little time to study the patterns, and you’ll come away with a slightly more pessimistic view on Liverpool’s title hopes.
Football is all about context. Sure, Liverpool have three points on City, but just a month or so back, that gap was seven. Three is good, but seven was better. If seven was zero, three would look delightful.
Klopp and Pep Guardiola are two managers who, it appears, would rather die than admit or play up to the praise their respective teams receive in the media. Liverpool and Man City are the only likely winners of this season’s Premier League title, yet it seems the manager of each team are the only two people who don’t want to admit it.
With Guardiola, it feels like a genuine modesty which often borders on condescendence. But when it comes to Klopp, it’s hard to ignore the sense the German wants to deflect any praise or talk of claiming the title for fear of speaking out of turn, or, as is starting to happen now, should his side start to stumble. He doesn’t want to look a fool in an industry where such a thing can happen all too easy.
In actual fact, it is a little harsh to suggest Liverpool’s title charge has taken a mightily significant stumble. Their biggest game of the season so far was against Man City in January, which they lost. But they responded with two wins on the bounce against Brighton and Crystal Palace.
So why, after two subsequent draws against teams in Leicester and West Ham who both on their day have the capacity to cause significant harm to the bigger sides, has the atmosphere changed?
It’s simple, really, like most things. But then again, it isn’t. Mohamed Salah is this campaign’s most potent scorer. There was a sense at the beginning of the Egyptian’s second season at Anfield that his rampant goalscoring exploits of the season before would not be replicated. It certainly hasn’t been, but in terms of numbers he is doing more for his side going forward than any other attacking player in the division. Throw in the eight assists he has provided and you find yourself wondering what more the former Roma and Chelsea attacker could possibly do to help his side.
It’s simple, really. Liverpool aren’t playing as well. But then again it isn’t simple, because Salah is the league’s top scorer and Virgil Van Dijk is the league’s best centre-back, and yet there is a sense it is slowly starting to come apart for them.
Squad depth is certainly what City find themselves heavily reliant on, and despite losing out on Kevin De Bruyne for a large chuck of the opening months of the season, they managed. And not just managed, they in fact got on rather well without the silky Belgian guiding the forward play in City’s midfield.
Liverpool look leggy, look tired and in need of a break. Yes, Salah has scored the goals but his all-round contribution has been severely lacking. Injuries to Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold means the clean-sheets have dried up.
Yes, Liverpool still lead, but Man City can pull themselves level with a win at Goodison Park on Wednesday, where recently teams have found it rather easy to get a result.
There is no doubt Klopp will now be feeling it. The nerves, the dread. The sense that something they possibly had for certain is starting to slip away. He’ll know just as well as any fan: second place is last place. It’s win, or nothing.
In theory, all is well. But when the time comes, theory always will step dutifully aside to make way for reality. Now is the moment for Klopp and all of Liverpool to embrace the reality of the situation, and continue forth as they have done, doing their utmost to suppress the fear that this, just maybe, could fall through their fingers.