It is the last game of the season, and Liverpool have their Top 4 destiny in their own hands. However, it is something that the Reds should have signed off and sealed a few weeks ago.
In the middle of the exertions in continental competition, Jurgen Klopp’s men have only picked up 6 points in the last 5 Premier League games – a record which needs setting right at Anfield on Sunday afternoon.
David Wagner’s Huddersfield did Liverpool a huge favour on Wednesday night by holding Chelsea to a draw, securing their own Premier League status for one more season, and ensuring that Liverpool only need a draw on Sunday to ensure a finish in the top 4.
For the Reds, this game is as much about the points as it is about building more confidence ahead of the Champions League final against Real Madrid. A flat performance at Stamford Bridge last weekend, in a 1-0 loss to Chelsea, was as infuriating as it was understandable, given the condition of the squad and the run of games that had been played.
On Sunday, there are no such excuses, as the Reds will have had a good week’s break between two games, for the first time in a few weeks.
Here are the key individual battles that could decide the outcome of the game.
MOHAMED SALAH v GAETAN BONG
Although Brighton have been strong defensively, they aren’t exactly the fastest at the back, and that could be a disadvantage for them against Salah. Bong generally tries to get forward and support Jose Izquierdo or Solly March in front of him, but in this game, he might well have to shelve that aspect of his game.
Salah should start on the right flank, and ideally a little wider than he did at Stamford Bridge last week. The narrower Salah goes, the more difficult he finds it to make room to do what he does best.
Salah doesn’t have a goal in the Reds’ last three games, which considering his lofty standards this season, can be classified as a goal drought.
There has been a pinch of selfishness to his game in recent weeks though – maybe it is that urge to get the Premier League record, and maybe even break Ian Rush’s long-standing season goalscoring record at Liverpool.
But for the Reds to be at their best, it is important that no single player outweighs the needs of the collective. Liverpool are at their best when they are firing as a unit, and not because of moments of individual brilliance.
Even with all of Salah’s goal this season, what has shone through has been the team-work in getting those goals. Whether by coincidence or just sheer habit, Salah has happened to be in the right areas of the pitch and doing the right things.
It has got to be a return to the basics for the King of Egypt on Sunday – we aren’t used to these goal droughts, you know, Mo?
ROBERTO FIRMINO v LEWIS DUNK
When Firmino plays well, he makes this Liverpool side tick. Dunk has been one of the revelations this season, and his ability to play out of the back is something that has gone under the radar.
With Dunk being comfortable with the ball at his feet, it is important that he doesn’t get carried away and dwell on the ball for too long because one can be assured that Firmino will pounce on any loose touch or lapse in concentration.
Only Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta has won more tackles than Firmino in the Premier League’s top six this season.
Firmino is a striker, but he is also a defensive midfielder, a creative midfielder, a centre-back and a full-back at the same time.
Firmino had a mixed game against Chelsea, with some of his touches and link-up play with Sadio Mane showing that touch of class that he has. But the Reds didn’t manage to get the ball to him nearly enough for him to have a consistent impact on the game.
Dunk has been the leader for Brighton, in every which way they’d have wanted him to be, particularly with Chris Hughton’s style demanding the team to primarily be strong at the back and then build from there.
It is going to be an interesting battle, for Firmino will know what is at stake and will have to set that intensity from the front, for the others in the team to follow.
JORDAN HENDERSON v PASCAL GROSS
The skipper has had a mixed last month. He has been absolutely outstanding in the knockouts of the UEFA Champions League, but nowhere near that level in the Premier League.
In the Champions League, he’s been shutting down the detractors by proving that he is well and truly the leader of this group, but he has been timid in the league games in between.
Even last week, after coming on at Stamford Bridge, Henderson’s passing was a little rough, to say the least. He either rushed things, and played a forward pass too early, or didn’t look to move forward with it at all. Playing as the no.6, it will be important that he sets the tempo with the passing.
Any early mistakes will only add to the nervousness around Anfield on such a big day.
Gross has clearly been one of the steals of the season. Coming in for 3 million pounds from Ingolstadt, he has been the creative lynchpin for Brighton.
His eye for a pass means that he cannot be left in too much space at any point of time, and it will be up to Henderson to ensure that the German is not allowed to dictate proceedings from the centre of the park.