So, our big trips to Old Trafford, the Emirates and the Etihad are finally out of the way. Are we relieved? Of course. Are we happy with our return of two points from a possible nine? Not at all. Our first half no show at Old Trafford was very disappointing and ultimately cost us the game. But our trips to the Emirates and the Etihad were very different and we should now be talking about two brilliant wins that have left us in a great position going into our final thirteen games. This wasn’t to be though as we squandered the lead in both games and succumbed to two consecutive 2-2 draws.
A top four finish and a return to the Champions League was always going to be a hopeful dream as opposed to a realistic objective this season. Our realistic aim this season was to progress on last years’ 8th placed finish and hopefully, qualify for the Europa League again. However, if we are going to achieve the latter, we are going to need a strong finish to the season, or, failing that, we will need to win this years’ Europa League because the route from last season is now closed having been knocked out of both domestic cup competitions. The fact that two unlikely clubs in Swansea City and Bradford City have reached the Carling Cup Final this season has made our task of qualifying for Europe that little bit harder as 7th place is now out of the equation. If the same happens in the FA Cup then 6th place will not be enough either. So realistically, we have to aim for 5th place if we are going to guarantee European football without winning the Europa League.
Failure to qualify this year wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world but European football is very helpful when it comes to attracting players to the club and indeed, persuading key players like Luis Suarez to stay with us.
The fact that we dropped those four points at the Emirates and the Etihad means that we’re still six points adrift of fifth placed Everton and nine adrift of fourth placed Tottenham with thirteen games left to play. A fifth placed finish is a very difficult ask. Fourth is more of a dream but considering we have had a relatively poor season, nine points doesn’t seem impossible. Not yet anyway.
Let’s compare our final thirteen games to those of our rivals and assess whether we have a realistic chance of playing European football next season;
*”Top 10 opposition” refers to the 10 clubs currently occupying league positions 1-10: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal, Liverpool, Swansea, West Brom & Stoke respectively.
**”Top 4 opposition” refers to the 4 clubs currently occupying league positions 1-4: Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea & Tottenham respectively.
***”Teams in the bottom half of the table” refers to the 10 clubs currently occupying league positions 11-20: West Ham, Sunderland, Fulham, Norwich, Newcastle, Southampton, Reading, Wigan, Aston Villa and QPR respectively.
Who are our rivals?
If we look at the league table, we will notice that both Swansea City and West Brom are only two points adrift of ourselves. However, I have not included these two clubs in the table of rivals because they are below us in the league and we should be looking up, not down. Our fate with regards to these two is entirely in our own hands.
The same cannot entirely be said for those directly above us though. Arsenal and Everton are our main, realistic rivals for European qualification. Fourth placed Tottenham and third placed Chelsea are blurry figures in the distance, being nine and ten points ahead of us respectively and including these two could be seen as hopeful, as opposed to realistic but they are not completely out of sight just yet.
Our recent 2-2 draw against Arsenal will definitely be seen as a missed opportunity for us because we were just three points behind them heading into this game and a win would have taken us level on points. Unfortunately this did not happen and the three point gap remained before extending to five points last weekend.
However, Arsenal now have a similar run-in to us in that they have five games against top ten opposition remaining; Tottenham (A), Everton (H), Swansea (A), West Brom (A) & Man Utd (H).
On paper, this could suggest that we will fall short of reaching them, given the fact that we are yet to win against a team in the top half of the table ourselves. However, one of their upcoming games is away to north London rivals Tottenham and everybody knows that form goes out of the window when it comes to local derbies so this one will not be easy for them.
Arsenal have to play Everton at the Emirates and given the fact that Everton have a decent record against top ten opposition so far, this will not be easy for Arsenal either. Manchester United are yet to visit too so it is almost inevitable that Arsenal will drop points, especially when we consider that their record against top four opposition is almost as bad as ours; having taken just four points from a possible eighteen.
The majority of Arsenal’s remaining fixtures are against teams in the bottom half of the table and although their record is quite good, having taken away 69% of all points on offer in these games so far, their record is not quite as impressive as our 81%. If we continue to beat bottom half clubs then this could possibly give us a slight advantage over Arsenal and enable us to close the gap.
Arsenal are a fantastic side on their day but therein lies their problem; “on their day.” They lack consistently and at times, it is impossible to predict which Arsenal will turn up. It could be the Arsenal who thrashed Newcastle 7-3. Then again, it could be the Arsenal who struggled to gain a 1-1 draw with Southampton the following week and this is the reason that Arsenal are not in the top four. They could be there for the taking if we can gain some consistency.
It might be worth pointing out that Arsenal are still competing in both the Champions League and the FA Cup. With Arsene Wenger desperate to add some long awaited silverware to Arsenal’s cobweb filled trophy cabinet, perhaps this could distract them from their Premier League mission and if so, maybe we could take advantage?
Our neighbours from across the park are this years’ dark horse in the race for European football. They have been a consistent force at the top end of the table so far this season and we cannot underestimate them. That six point gap between them and ourselves does not seem a lot but as we can see from the stats, Everton have a very impressive record against the top teams so far this season. It’s a good job too from their point of view because they’ve got a really tough run-in. They’ve still got to visit Old Trafford, the Emirates, White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge, while Manchester City and Stoke City still have to visit Goodison Park.
Of course, Everton still have to visit Anfield too and we have to make sure that we are ready to take all three points from them. Easier said than done of course but we know we are capable. We were desperately unlucky to have Luis Suarez’s late winner incorrectly ruled out in this fixture at Goodison Park back in October so with this in mind, our boys will want to put that right this time around. We have home advantage this time and it is crucial that we make it count because a draw won’t be good enough if we are to stand any chance of closing that six point gap.
Everton are in great form at the minute if they continue in this way then they could have a real shot of achieving Champions League qualification and indeed, they will be very difficult to catch.
Nevertheless, Everton don’t quite boast the squad depth of most of their rivals and this is why they usually miss out on those European places. Generally, Everton have a poor start to the season and then finish strongly, like they did last year. They often lack the strength to maintain their good form over the course of a whole season. Although they’ve been brilliant so far, it will be interesting to see if they have enough left in the tank to keep it going until May. Similarly, it will be interesting to see if they can keep their star performers fit. If they do run out of steam or pick up an injury, they could begin to struggle and we need to make sure we are ready to take full advantage if this happens.
Like Arsene Wenger, David Moyes will be desperate to win a trophy. He has been in charge of Everton for nearly eleven years now and for all his good work in transforming Everton from relegation scrappers into possible European contenders, he still has no silverware to show for his efforts. As with Arsenal, Everton too, could be distracted somewhat by the FA Cup.
Only time will tell.
Ok, so labelling Tottenham as a rival may be a little optimistic. But nine points isn’t an unassailable lead just yet is it? The dream isn’t dead until it’s mathematically impossible….
They are in good form of late and are generally very strong against teams in the bottom half of the table. Unfortunately for them, their record against the top teams isn’t as good as they would like it to be. Fortunately for their rivals, they have to face quite a few of the top teams. They are yet to welcome neighbours Arsenal, Everton and Manchester City to White Hart Lane and they still have to travel to the Liberty Stadium, Stamford Bridge and the Britannia Stadium.
Like Everton, Tottenham still have to visit Anfield too and this game will be equally as important to us as the Everton game. We conceded two early goals in the corresponding fixture at White Hart Lane in November before dominating them for the remainder of the game. Unfortunately, we could not find an equaliser that night. We have to make sure we learn from that experience and make a bright start to the game when we meet again at Anfield next month. If we make our home advantage count, that automatically reduces the deficit to six points. The chances of them dropping another six points giving us an opportunity to catch them is extremely slim but we should aim to do our bit regardless.
Tottenham have been eliminated from both domestic cups but like us, they remain in the Europa League and it will be interesting to see how they approach this. The likelihood is, they will be hoping for Champions League qualification this season and therefore could place all of their eggs in one basket and focus primarily on the league. This isn’t great for everybody else but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will guarantee them success in the league.
One thing is for sure; April will be a key month for Tottenham. They face Everton at home, followed by Chelsea away, before hosting Manchester City. These three fixtures could really make or break Tottenham’s Champions League aspirations and determine their level of momentum going into the final few games.
Again, only time will tell.
As with Tottenham, classing Chelsea as a rival for European football is very optimistic and perhaps a signal of hope as opposed to being realistic. Still, they are only a point ahead of Tottenham and if catching Tottenham isn’t yet deemed as impossible, then neither is catching Chelsea, right?
Rafa Benitez was brought in to steady the Chelsea ship at the end of November but things haven’t worked out quite as they planned; results have been poor and they have thrown away a brilliant opportunity to gain some silverware in the Carling Cup.
Let’s not forget that they have been eliminated from the Champions League too. They were lucky to qualify for the Champions League last year after finishing sixth and in current form, they will be lucky to qualify again this season.
They will be desperate to avoid the embarrassment of missing out on Champions League football next season and their resolve will definitely be tested in the coming weeks. They face Manchester City at the Etihad in a couple of weeks in what will be a crucial fixture for Chelsea and one they will see as a must win. They also have to travel to Old Trafford and Anfield, plus, rivals Tottenham and Everton are yet to visit Stamford Bridge.
Although Chelsea’s record against the top sides is fairly good, their recent form has seriously damaged their season. Everton and Arsenal must certainly fancy their chances of ousting them from the top four.
Liverpool, in an ideal world would fancy their chances too. We generally have a good record in our games against Chelsea and most of our fans will fancy us to grab all three points off them when they visit Anfield in April. By the time that fixture arrives, more crucial games will have passed for both sides and we can see where we both stand then. If they slip up enough in the meantime and we manage to take advantage, then who knows what a win against them at Anfield could achieve. These are very big if’s though and we shouldn’t be too disheartened if we don’t end up challenging the top four. Our awful start was always going to make our dream extremely unlikely and success doesn’t happen overnight.
So, can Liverpool qualify for Europe?
Of course we can qualify but it won’t be easy. Three factors will determine whether we make it or not:
- Our results against the teams in the bottom half of the table. True, we have been very impressive in this department so far this season, picking up 81% of all points on offer in such games. This fact alone does not automatically guarantee us three points from our remaining games against Wigan, Southampton, Aston Villa, West Ham, Reading, Newcastle, Fulham and QPR though. We cannot get complacent and assume that these teams will roll over for us. Some of these will be fighting for their Premier League lives after all so there is still plenty of hard work to be done. Still, winning the majority of these games is crucial if we are to keep ourselves in contention for Europe.
- Home form. Anfield used to be a fortress. But most will agree that it lost that label over the last couple of years.Our recent form at Anfield has been encouraging though and will remind us of those old, glory days.
True, our recent opponents at Anfield may have been teams in the bottom half of the table but those were the teams we were struggling against last season, so in that respect, there is sign of progress.
However, we are yet to win against a top ten side this season and between now and May, we have five of them visiting Anfield. When we compare our run-in to those of our rivals, we have a massive advantage in the fact that all of our “big” games are at home and it is hugely important that we make it count because it is a brilliant opportunity for us. If we can take the majority of points from lower opposition and grind out results at home to West Brom, Swansea, Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton then this bad season could turn out to be a very good one. It would be great if the fans could play their part too and help suck the ball into the net like we did in the good old days!
- Other results. This one is beyond our control, unfortunately. We are chasing our rivals currently and winning every one of our remaining fixtures could still leave us disappointed this season if other results aren’t kind to us. The fact that the top teams still have to face each other could be a great advantage though, particularly if we see a few draws. We can hope on this one but once again, only time will tell.
A strong push for a top five finish is possible if our boys believe in themselves and want it enough. Let’s hope they can find the strength, starting with West Brom on Monday night.