This time last month, I discussed the run-in for Europe and our chances of qualification. At that time, we were six points off fifth place and nine points off fourth. The prospect of finishing in either position, particularly the latter, was considered to be very slim and we knew that we had to win the vast majority of our remaining games if we were going to have any chance at all.
Shortly after writing that article, we went on to lose our home game against West Brom and although we have won both games that followed, I think it is safe to say that the defeat to West Brom may have all but ended our dream of a fourth and indeed Champions League football because Tottenham won all three of their games and now sit twelve points clear of us in third place. Chelsea are ten points ahead of us in fourth but time is running out and despite their poor run of form, ten points is a massive gap to close when there are only thirty points left to play for.
So, fifth place?
We have closed the gap slightly in this respect and we currently sit five points behind fifth placed Arsenal. So, with this in mind, fifth could still be a possibility. As we can see from our league performance chart, we have improved recently and momentum is certainly on our side.
Fan opinion has been split this season in terms of Brendan Rodgers and the progress he may or may not have made. The fact is, in terms of the league, Rodgers has, so far, steadied the ship. We now have the exact same amount of points as we did at this stage last season and we have scored twenty more goals. We may have conceded eight more but the fact that Rodgers has been able to steady the ship and get more goals in a season where we lost attacking players in the form of Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez, Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy without sufficient replacement is some achievement. Things could certainly have turned out worse and the fact we are still in with a shout of qualifying for Europe after our dreadful start can only be a good thing.
However, we need our momentum to continue throughout our remaining ten games if we are to stand a chance of qualifying for Europe. League form is crucial now, especially when we consider the fact that we are out of the Europa League and can no longer qualify through that route.
Spurs game: crucial.
This weekend we face Tottenham at home. This fixture is a real six pointer to us. I’m not saying that because I believe we can catch Tottenham. I’m saying it because it is one of the most difficult of our remaining fixtures and if we could get a result, it would give everybody a massive confidence boost and give us that belief that we can get results against anyone.
Recent results vs. Spurs
Getting a result against Tottenham is far easier said than done and we cannot underestimate them. Let’s look at our recent results in this fixture:
As we can see, Tottenham have become somewhat of a hoodoo side to us, particularly in recent times. We have only managed three wins from our last ten meetings, the most recent of which came back in January 2010.
Interestingly, the opening fifteen minutes (19%) and the final half hour (61-75 minutes: 31% & 76-90 minutes: 23%) have been goal scoring hotspots during our last ten fixtures against Spurs.
The opening goal has been scored inside the first ten minutes on five occasions since 2008 and on four of those occasions, the team that scored the early goal went on to win the game. Also, in those last ten fixtures, we have never gone on to win after conceding the first goal. Similarly, we have failed to win a game where we conceded the first goal in the league this season. This places extra emphasis on the need for a bright start from Liverpool on Sunday. If we don’t come out firing then there’s a high chance that Tottenham will and by the time we wake up, we will already be behind. This was the case at White Hart Lane last November, where a poor opening twenty minutes cost us the game.
Another key area that on paper, could go against us, is the final fifteen minutes. We tend to score the majority of our goals in the opening half hour of the second half (46-60 minutes: 26% & 61-75 minutes: 21%). However, we rarely score in the final fifteen minutes, a period which accounts for just 8% of our goals this season. Tottenham have scored three 90th minute goals against us since 2008 and two of these were match winners that stole the three points. With this in mind, we have to ensure we take our chances and remain on guard defensively until that final whistle.
Statistics from previous meetings will not determine the outcome of Sunday’s game though. We are at home and hopefully we can make that count. We have been excellent at home recently.
Tottenham will fancy their chances though. They currently have the second best away record in the Premiership, having taken 26 points from a possible 42. They are also on a twelve match unbeaten run at the moment; their last league defeat came at Goodison Park on 9th December. Their spirits will have been boosted further by their North London derby win against Arsenal last weekend too.
We can win the game if we win the key battles. Of course, the first two names that come to mind in this respect are Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale.
Both Luis and Gareth are tremendous players who are indispensable to their clubs. Luis, as we know has scored 21 league goals this season and Gareth isn’t too far behind with 16. Both players are currently in lethal form so this game has the potential to be very open. Both defences will need to be in top form to stop these two from stealing the show.
Gareth Bale has scored 11 of his 16 goals away from home, which proves how lethal Tottenham are on the counter attack. At White Hart Lane, teams are less likely to push forward as much and this reduces the chances of hitting teams on the break. The story is different away from home though and Anfield will be no different. We will hopefully come out and attack from the first whistle, even if this leaves us vulnerable to Bale on the break. Pepe Reina had a great game last weekend and we will need him to reproduce that form this weekend against Bale and co.
There will be other key battles aside from Suarez and Bale. The midfield battle will be very important. Mousa Dembele and Steven Gerrard are two key players too. I do not need to explain the impact Gerrard has on our team because we already know after watching him week in, week out for the past 15 years. Dembele however, is an instrumental part of the Spurs team. He is quite often, at the heart of their attacks but his credit is usually overshadowed by that given to Bale. He has started 19 games and made 2 substitute appearances so far this season and in those 21 games, Tottenham have taken 50 points from a possible 63. They have taken just 4 from 21 without the influence of Dembele. That statistic says enough and hopefully, Steven Gerrard and Lucas will be aware of this and can help the other lads tilt the midfield battle in our favour and keep Dembele quiet.
Another key battle will take place between the two defences. Ours in particular will need to be solid to cope with Tottenham’s attacking quality and there will be no room for individual errors. If Jamie Carragher plays, he could struggle with Bale’s pace and Daniel Agger will have to be on maximum alert. As always, the contribution of Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique will be crucial.
Spurs have a mixture of youth and experience in their back line. Although Kyle Walker is a very good defender, he has shown on the odd occasion that he can be outmuscled off the ball and this could be something Jose Enrique could expose down that left hand side. One man we will need to watch carefully is the highly versatile Jan Vertonghen. He has a strong presence in the Spurs defence and will no doubt, be keeping a close eye on Luis Suarez. Vertonghen is very dangerous at the other end of the pitch too and has a lethal left foot, so our boys will need to keep an eye on him, especially during set pieces.
Tottenham faced Inter Milan last night in the Europa League and although they gained a moral boosting 3-0 win, their squad could still be tired come Sunday. On the contrary, our players head into the game having had a week to rest. If the game remains deadlocked into the second half, the midweek game could begin to take its toll on the Tottenham players and we have to be ready to take advantage.
We should have Daniel Sturridge back this weekend too. His presence could make a huge difference and relieve some of the pressure off Suarez. Even if he does not make it, I’m sure we are still capable of getting a result. We are capable of beating anybody when we’re at our best. It may be very early days but Phillipe Coutinho has looked promising too and if Steven Gerrard and Lucas can win the midfield battle, Phillipe could find himself playing a very important role for us on Sunday.
Everton are in FA Cup action this weekend before facing Manchester City in the league next week. City will be desperate to win every game from now to the end of the season after falling twelve points behind Man Utd. With this in mind, Sunday’s game is an excellent opportunity for us to close that three point gap on Everton. Similarly, Arsenal do not play this weekend but they have a difficult trip to Swansea next week which will be far from straight forward.
There isn’t time for excuses now; the Spurs game is pivotal in our ten-game quest for European football so hopefully our boys will be ready to come out and take the game to Spurs from that very whistle to the last. It’s a big ask but it’s certainly not impossible.