As Ricardo Pereira’s ridiculous rocket-strike flew spectacularly past the right hand of the flailing Ederson, Liverpool Football Club found itself seven points clear of Manchester City last Wednesday evening.
Christmas had come early, and late, for the Kop.
The Abu Dhabi-backed current English champions suffered a double blow as Jurgen Klopp’s band of Gegenpressing men extended their lead at the top of the Premier League table – whilst the Cityzens were also leapfrogged by Tottenham, now six points behind the Merseysiders.
After years of disappointment, is the championship just around the corner? Could it be that the Holy Grail is heading back to the Anfield trophy room? After nearly three painful decades hunting that elusive title, is it possible that the end is nigh?
No Kopite needs reminding that Liverpool’s last title success was in 1990. So long ago is that triumph, that most of Liverpool’s current squad weren’t born.
So long ago was it that ‘Home Alone’ was a stand-alone movie starring a cute, blonde kid.
Such a different world was 1990, that Osama bin Laden was a friend of America – yes, you read that right.
It’s been that long.
A different world. A different time.
But putting history and politics to one side – what do we do now?
Klopp’s men are six points clear. Its nose bleed territory.
Realistically speaking, this wasn’t in the game plan.
Pep Guardiola’s gold-plated squad was supposed to effortlessly blow all other contenders out of the water, weren’t they?
All other Premier League clubs were supposed to be ironing their frocks and practising their curtsies, in preparation for the inevitable Manchester City guard of honour next Spring.
It was only a question of how big the gap would be to second – according to most British journalists.
“Jurgen, you mad German, didn’t you get the memo?”
Liverpool, to their credit, have refused to follow the script.
Under the extraordinary pressure created by Klopp’s Red Army, City have shown, in the last month, far from being imports from Krypton, indestructible and beyond reproach, they are in fact mortals, from our own planet – when they are cut, they bleed.
Haven’t you guys seen Rocky IV?
“The Spaniard is cut – and it’s a bad cut.”
City are human; they aren’t machines.
They can be beaten, if attacked. Guardiola’s men have now lost three of their last four games, having lost only two games in the whole of last season.
Against all the odds, Liverpool are top, ahead of two more enormous games: Arsenal at home and then City away.
So how do Klopp and his men, most of whom have never been in this position, handle the pressure?
As the old saying goes, it’s tough at the top.
Well, we will see how tough Liverpool can be in response.
In the last ten years, every team who has been top of the Premier League on Christmas Day has gone on to become champions – except for the two occasions when Liverpool found themselves at the summit of English football.
Not a good omen, if you believe in omens.
The two failures were in the 2008/09 season under Rafael Benitez and the 2013/14 season under Brendan Rodgers.
If Liverpool are to succeed this time, certain rules and norms must be adhered to.
No messing around.
Firstly, and most importantly of all, the Liverpool players must remain focused on the next game and little else. Looking at games in twos and threes might be obligatory for the manager and his coaching staff, in order to rotate his squad with intelligence and wisdom – but the players themselves cannot afford to put the cart in front of the horse. At the highest level, no player can afford to switch off in ‘this’ game because he thinks the ‘next’ one is more important. It is not for him to decide.
Mentally, he will lose something – and we cannot afford to lose anything, not even a millionth of a per cent.
Football has a habit of kicking arrogant people in the teeth – so Liverpool must kick against any potential arrogance.
For example, any player caught talking about how he is looking forward to a title decider against City should be dropped for the match against Arsenal. Whilst it’s unlikely that any Liverpool player would be so ostentatious, anybody who is not focussed must be pulled back into line immediately. Klopp, despite his constant grinning and one-liners, will be ruthless with any squad member who doesn’t understand the significance of focus in the coming weeks – rightly so.
Secondly, the interviews of both players and management staff must be keeping in line with the Anfield tradition of humility and respect for the opposition. Liverpool FC, over the last three decades, has become more famous for its daft quotes than for its trophy haul.
Anfield has heard some crackers over the years: “We are ten games away from greatness,” according to Gerrard Houllier, before the inevitable 2002 demise.
“Danny Murphy reminds me of Platini,” was another way of guaranteeing leaden pressure on young shoulders. Another Houllier beauty from the same era.
“Joe Allen is the Welsh Xavi,” was Brendan Rodgers’ Anfield version of foot-in-mouth syndrome in 2012.
“This doesn’t slip,” said Gerrard in 2014.
Enough with the bloody soundbites!
Enough with the mind games!
When Benitez launched into his ill-timed ‘fact’ speech in 2009, he fell – hook, line and sinker – into Sir Alex Ferguson’s trap. The Scot always wanted his rival managers to be thinking and talking about matters not directly related to football – Keegan being the obvious example. Ferguson loved dragging others into the gutter with him. What the Spaniard failed to see was that the most important challenge is to pick up points on the pitch, to storm ahead and to leave your bemused opponents scratching their heads.
This is the greatest mind game of all – and this is what Jurgen Klopp understands like no other manager at Anfield since the first incarnation of Kenny Dalglish.
After all, we are talking about football managers here – not Skywalkers.
There’s a limit to what can be achieved through Jedi mind tricks.
When dealing with the media, the players must be less Houllier and Benitez, more Klopp. The German cannot praise the opposition enough, and he talks only about the next game.
If Liverpool were playing the Pakistani Codgers Samosa XI, the Liverpool manager would eulogise about their spicy attack and their meaty defence.
“BOOM! They will give you heartburn, these guys.”
Klopp doesn’t talk about titles or mind games, or just about anything else which will add to the weight already on his players’ shoulders. As he said when unveiled as the new Kop boss: “You can’t carry history around with you in a backpack.”
Klopp is a football manager managing a football team who are playing football on a football field.
Each game is a football challenge; let’s work hard and try to win.
Naturally, we will end up where we deserve.
The German doesn’t even want his name sung – he wants the fans to back the players.
Going back to the failed title bids, Klopp himself can learn from them, if he so wishes.
The 2009 bid faltered halfway through the season. Despite a recovery around Easter time, the damage had already been done and Manchester United could not be caught.
This brings me to my third point: Liverpool made a fatal mistake that year by letting Robbie Keane, the victim of a power struggle between Benitez and CEO Rick Parry, leave the club. This meant that Liverpool had one recognisable striker in the squad, Fernando Torres, not a man known for his excellent fitness record. Whilst Keane was no Gerd Muller, he was better than the other options in the squad and Torres’ injury record cost Liverpool dearly that year. He played only 24 out of 38 games of the league campaign at a time when he was arguably the world’s best striker.
This egregious error, to let a more than respectable striker leave, should serve as a lesson to Liverpool today – when January comes, we should be looking to keep our squad intact, letting nobody go even if we feel that they are not needed at the moment.
Everybody might be needed – it’s not worth risking their departure and missing out on the title. If anybody wants to leave, let them wait until the summer, whoever they are, whatever their circumstances.
The stakes are too high. Saving a few grand here and there – it means nothing at the moment. We have bigger fish to fry.
Yes, some people may be bored of Lallana’s obsession with meaningless Cruyff turns and others may feel that Nathaniel Clyne is not needed. But most Liverpool fans would have been happy to see Divock Origi leave Anfield last summer – a fair enough point of view – but look at his winner against Everton now.
Seen in the cold light of day, Liverpool were seconds away from going four points behind City. The Belgian sniffed out a goal in bizarre circumstances and now, Liverpool are seven points ahead of City.
Origi’s goal could prove priceless.
If the three above-mentioned principles are abided by, there is little to fear.
The players must remain focussed, not losing the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ as the title race continues to unfold. The interviews must be low-key and not bombastic. The word ‘invincible’ should be swallowed, not spouted.
Lastly, no soldier must be allowed to leave the battlefield until the war has been won.
In any walk of life, when you deal with the small details seriously and professionally, the larger matters and the greater successes – well, they usually take care of themselves.
They come naturally.
It is inevitable. It is the way of things.
What Liverpool fans must take encouragement from, though, is that unlike the 2009 bid, where a couple of injuries meant disaster – or the 2014 bid where Liverpool were conceding regularly – this current team has a maturity and solidity about it, rarely seen since 1990.
We are not fighting for the title under a ‘Third Party, Fire and Theft’ insurance policy. This time, Liverpool FC is fully comp.
It looks like a real football team, not a basketball team who just happen to be on a football pitch.
No more 5-4 jobs.
No more 4-3 jobs.
Not even 3-2 jobs.
Bloody Nora – even 2-1 jobs are rare.
A real team, finally.
But Liverpool aren’t 19 games from greatness.
No – it must be that Klopp’s men are 24 hours from an important football match against Arsenal.
As a recently-departed Portuguese philosopher once said: “Respect, man, respect.”