We’re entering the final phase of the season, and four possibilities remain; the agony of another campaign without silverware, victory in a sensational title race, the sweet consolation of Champions League glory or the outright euphoria of landing both.
There’s a sense, though, that Liverpool’s domestic and continental ambitions are independent, that the Reds might have to sacrifice their hopes in the Champions League to maximise their Premier League chances, especially given the close nature of the race and the supreme strength of Manchester City.
Gary Neville, the biggest name in English footballing punditry at the moment, has been urging his former rivals to actively prioritise the league since the autumn.
Liverpool are in a unique situation. The Champions League is the elite club competition and the ultimate silverware. But the Premier League crown has proven so elusive, and its absence is such a mark against the club’s great name, that it’s a significantly more important pursuit. In Europe, there’s relatively little to prove.
In recent interviews, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah have all admitted a preference for the league title when answering ‘both’ was rejected. Salah, most tellingly, revealed that it was his personal dream to win the Champions League, but that he understood what a long-awaited 19th crown would mean to Liverpool.
So will the Reds juggle the two competitions between now and season’s end? In this article, we’ll consider how Liverpool tend to fare in the league matches immediately following Champions League fixtures, relative to Manchester City. We’ll then ask how Jurgen Klopp might prioritise one competition, and whether he ought to.
Do our results suffer our Champions League outings?
We’re going to take last season’s quarter-final tie against Manchester City as our starting point since the Porto game in the previous round was followed by an international break.
The 3-0 first leg win was followed-up by a turgid 0-0 draw in the Merseyside derby, but after we battled over the line in the second leg, we managed to comfortably beat Bournemouth.
Our fortunes in and around our semi-final meeting with Roma were markedly worse, though. A stalemate at home to a doomed Stoke City followed the 5-2 rampage, then we were deservedly beaten 1-0 by Chelsea, extending the top-four scrap, after we held on in Rome.
This season, we have, on the whole, picked up good results after European encounters. With the exception of the 0-0 draw against City after our defeat against Napoli, we won every game immediately after a group stage fixture, though the performances at home to Fulham and Everton – which came after trips to Red Star and PSG – were far from convincing.
The closely-fought Round of 16 tie against Bayern appeared to take more out of Klopp’s team. After the first leg finished goalless, Liverpool turned in a lacklustre display at Old Trafford, which dealt a blow to their title hopes, and then, having prevailed in the second leg, they looked more lackadaisical than confident as they laboured past Fulham.
But if we take a step back and examine the results over this period, we see only a very slight drop-off. In Liverpool’s 69 league games since the start of the 2017/18 season, they have averaged 2.2 points per game. In the 12 we have consulted, they have averaged 2.1. It’s a significantly smaller than deficit than you might expect.
What about City?
If we take City’s post-Champions League games from the same time period, we see that they collect, on average, 2.4 points.
This does represent a slight drop from the 2.6 they have averaged since the beginning of 17/18, but it remains seriously impressive.
In fact, only twice in the fixtures picked out did they fail to collect maximum points: a 3-2 loss to Manchester United after we knocked them out, and the draw at Anfield in October after they snook past Hoffenheim courtesy of a late winner.
City’s strength-in-depth and, ultimately, their quality, has tended to prevent any European hangovers. An exit from Europe might diminish morale at the Etihad given that winning the Champions League is a critical step for the football club, but it’s clear that balancing the two competitions will be a bigger issue for the Reds. No surprise there.
How could Klopp prioritise?
Obviously, it won’t be a case of trying less in the Champions League, consciously at least. If Liverpool get past Porto and wind up facing Barcelona or Manchester United in the semi-final, the team will have little choice but to pour everything into it.
But you could argue that Klopp should seriously consider resting one or two players against Porto, even if this borders on a dangerous complacency.
Five days after the first leg at Anfield, Liverpool come up against Chelsea in what will be their toughest remaining test. Supporters don’t need reminding of their capacity to derail a title challenge.
Then, after the visit to Portugal on 17th April, the Reds head to Cardiff on the 21st. That may be a straightforward fixture on paper, but Neil Warnock’s side will probably be scrapping tooth and nail for survival at that point, and our wobble against Fulham suggests it’s very much a banana skin.
Porto are not to be underestimated – they navigated their way past Roma in the last round, have some dangerous players at their disposal and will be determined to avenge last year’s drubbing – but if we’re being realistic, Liverpool should be able to get the job done at around 80% of their full strength.
Keeping big players physically and mentally fresh could make a big difference in a battle which promises to extract every ounce of desire from these Liverpool players.
Resting players any later in the competition, even if we find ourselves leading the Premier League, seems unthinkable.
Liverpool could very feasibly find themselves in this quite remarkable situation:
Wednesday, 1st May: Barcelona v Liverpool
Saturday, 4th May: Newcastle v Liverpool
Tuesday, 7th May: Liverpool v Barcelona
Sunday, 12th May: Liverpool v Wolves
Just ponder that for a moment – Liverpool facing Lionel Messi & co. in the last four of the Champions League just days before games on which their title hopes may hinge. It’s as exciting a scenario as it is terrifying.
Klopp would be able to rotate his midfield, but would surely have to maintain his back five and front three for all four of these fixtures.
It would be a supreme test of fitness and mental fortitude.
How should we play it?
The Premier League is, clearly, Liverpool’s most important objective, but we should also appreciate just how good an opportunity we have in the Champions League.
We might just about miss out in our scrap with the best football team in recent English history; there’s a strong chance that City won’t drop any more points before the season is out, and you’d think Liverpool will themselves need to surpass 95 if they are to come out on top.
And even though that would be heartbreaking, clinching a sixth CL title would heal the wounds to say the least.
The mentality for the moment should be, and is, to go for both. Sacrifices ought to be made for Porto, because none can be made thereafter.
Four out of our last seven league matches will potentially be fresh off the back of European games. In those fixtures, it’s not going to be a matter of outclassing the opposition or blowing them away. It will be a case of grinding out the result by conjuring up one or two big moments.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a true Liverpool fan who isn’t swept up in the huge emotion of it all. The defining challenge for the players is to remain, amidst all this, calculated and ruthless.