After the Europa League exit at the hands of Braga last week, Liverpool’s sole route back into European football next season must come via a fifth place finish in the Premier League. Though seventh place last season was enough for the Reds to face continental opponents this term such as Napoli and Sparta Prague, Birmingham City’s League Cup triumph and the guarantee of either Stoke City or Bolton Wanderers appearing in the FA Cup Final in May means that England’s top league will this season contribute just one place to the Europa League for the 2011/12 campaign – fifth place, which is currently occupied by Tottenham Hotspur.
Given that even Liverpool spent much of the latter months of 2010 hovering around 15th place in the table under Roy Hodgson – even as late as the end of October the Reds were in the relegation zone – even the prospect of finishing in the top six has to be viewed as some sort of achievement, and is even an improvement on last season’s seventh place finish, all of the credit for which must go to current caretaker manager Kenny Dalglish.
But a sixth place finishing would indicate no European football for Liverpool next season, something which hasn’t been the case since Gerard Houllier’s first full season in sole charge, back in 1999.
So it is possible that King Kenny can take Liverpool one giant step further and sneak the fifth place finish which would at least see the Reds compete in the second-tier of European football again?
Is it even something Liverpool fans want? The Reds are all about challenging for honours and playing the biggest sides in the world. That is where we want to be; that is where we must be. And some have argued that, while admittedly a winnable trophy, the Europa League could provide a distraction from seriously challenging for a top four spot next season; a sort of second League Cup in disguise.
For what it’s worth, personally I would very much want to be in the Europa League next season. I would argue that we should always try to win each trophy we can, and our record in European football – nobody has won more Europa League/UEFA Cups than Liverpool – is something which we should proudly defend, not be irritated by.
Those who think differently should muse on this: as a result of being in the Europa League this season, Liverpool’s European coefficient will have dropped significantly, especially going out at a relatively early stage of the competition. Should we not be in any European competition next season our rating will drop even more alarmingly, quite possibly putting the Reds out of the top seeds should we manage to qualify for the Champions League in a years time.
Might I add further, for any prospective signings this summer – the name of Liverpool FC is and will always be a draw, but might it not be even brighter a light if European football can be offered immediately?
So can we do it? Can King Kenny lead Liverpool to an unlikely fifth place finish? A brief look at the fixtures remaining suggests it is possible, if not probable. Liverpool and Spurs are just four points apart at present, though the London side have a game in hand. Liverpool have to travel to The Emirates to play Arsenal as well as receiving Manchester City and Spurs themselves at Anfield, with the remaining five games against sides in the bottom half and therefore in the large group involved in this season’s relegation battle – just six points separate Newcastle (11th) from Wigan (20th).
Spurs on the other hand face four similarly struggling teams, mid-table Stoke, a home derby against Arsenal and three difficult trips to Chelsea, Manchester City and of course Liverpool.
Given Man City’s involvement in the fixtures between the Reds and Spurs, it is not inconceivable that Roberto Mancini’s inconsistent Citizens could be part of the battle, but they have an extra four points on Spurs and five victories in their final eight matches would almost guarantee them to finish above Liverpool.
Now to take a closer look and see just what the Reds need to do to take fifth place.
The first game in April sees Liverpool travel to West Brom to face the man Dalglish succeeded on the Anfield throne, Roy Hodgson. West Brom are a decent footballing side and showed just last week against Arsenal that they can match the big guns at home, but Liverpool have improved markedly under Dalglish away from home (three wins from five away league games under Dalglish, one win from nine under Hodgson) and if the squad comes through the international break unscathed we should be hopeful of taking all three points. The returns to fitness of Steven Gerrard, Jonjo Shelvey, Fabio Aurelio and Martin Kelly may come at different times throughout the month but if any of the four come back for the West Brom game it would boost the Reds’ options considerably.
Spurs meanwhile face Wigan at the DW Stadium. Though Wigan are bottom, they have caused Spurs problems in the past couple of seasons. Then again, Spurs also beat them 9-1 in 2009. In addition, Spurs face Real Madrid in the Champions League just three days later and I fancy they may rest one or two players after the international break and before this big fixture. I’m going for a Wigan victory.
Next up, a home game to Manchester City. This could go either way – the reverse fixture saw City win 3-0 though Liverpool did play well up to a point that day and certainly deserved a goal at least; a three goal defeat was harsh. The lesser-evil-half of Manchester are certainly more functional than spectacular this season, though the returns from injury of Carols Tevez and Adam Johnson will give them a big boost in the attacking areas. A win in this game would be a big boost for the Reds in the run in, and nine days to prepare between the WBA game and this one it is certainly a possibility, but it is a close game to call and I will go with a draw.
Sandwiched between the two legs of the Real Madrid game, Spurs face Stoke. Regardless of resting players, Stoke’s away form is poor – eleven losses this season in the league – and I think Spurs will beat them.
Arsenal away is third in April and is the one game during the last two months of the season which I could see the Reds slipping up in. Arsenal are strong at home and of course one of the best sides in Europe; on their day they can beat any team convincingly. Of course, if Almunia plays in goal for Liverpool there is always a good chance of being gifted a goal…. Nonetheless, I don’t imagine Liverpool will go through the remainder of the season unbeaten so I will elect this game as being a defeat, with the proviso that I will be very happy to be proven otherwise!
Spurs also play Arsenal just a few days later in a midweek North London derby. Arsenal usually beat Spurs late on in these games and though I would like it to be the case again as the Reds seek to overcome the white half of North London, I feel Spurs will win this game. From here on in, Spurs fixtures may be changed or re-arranged depending on their progress in the Champions League.
Liverpool finish April with a home fixture against Birmingham – battling relegation or not, the Reds should win this game at a canter. We have been generally strong at home and barring further injuries most of the squad should be available by this time. Birmingham have struggled for goals this season and I would expect Liverpool to win this game comfortably if they are at their best. As with all the games in April, the Reds will have a full week to prepare for the fixture as a result of being out of the cup competitions.
Roy Hodgson rears his head in this blog again here as he takes his West Brom side to White Hart Lane. Reds supporters know all about Roy’s away form – Tottenham win in this one.
In the final month of the season, Liverpool will first receive Andy Carroll’s old side Newcastle United. Though I hope he has opened his account for the Reds before this game, it would be rather poetic if he was to net the winner in this match, given he cost us three points in the reverse fixture when he was still wearing black and white! Again, at home this is a fixture I would expect Liverpool to win; Newcastle have struggled somewhat under Pardew and few sides can cope with Liverpool in full flow at home.
The day before the Liverpool-Newcastle game, Tottenham face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Another London derby, though less intense, Chelsea will by this time hopefully be in full flight as they storm back to rob Manchester United of the Premiership title! Even if they don’t, only very, very good sides beat them at Stamford Bridge (nudge nudge, wink wink) and I have to choose a loss for Spurs.
The visit to Fulham I also expect Liverpool to win; though they are just three points off the relegation zone at the moment, between now and this fixture Fulham face the likes of Blackpool, Wolves and Sunderland and I expect they may have taken enough points to secure their status for another season, making this fixture something of a dead rubber for them. Hopefully of course Liverpool will still be aiming for fifth place, and I would back Dalglish to outfox an old adversary in Mark Hughes, once a player of Manchester United while Dalglish was the same for Liverpool.
Spurs face Blackpool at home on the same day as Liverpool-Fulham and though the Tangerines are inherently unpredictable, this has to go down as a home banker.
Then Spurs take their extra game in hand – a very difficult trip to Manchester City. The two sides met in a similar fourth/fifth place battle one year and five days previously to when this tie is due to take place – Spurs won that game 1-0 at Eastlands and in doing so won their shot at the Champions League. This season, it is City who have the edge at this moment in time and who will surely be determined not to repeat their mistakes of last season. This game truly could go either way – Spurs are sure to attack and hope to outscore City, similarly to how they approached the game last season, while City’s style is not so rash or gung-ho. With Spurs’ porous defence away from home (24 conceded in 15 games) and City’s strong home record (2 defeats in 15) I’m going for a home win, putting Manchester City in the Champions League in the process.
That takes us to the penultimate game of the season when Spurs visit Anfield in what could prove a crucial fixture in the battle for fifth place. Should the games beforehand go as I have predicted (highly unlikely I know!) at the start of this game Liverpool would have 58 points and Tottenham 61 points – the Reds having made up ground of just 1 point between now and then. With a lot riding on the outcome of this game, and with it being played at Anfield, I have to again go with a Reds win. We have a good record at home against Spurs and I can see this continuing. That puts us level on points with Tottenham – with just one game apiece to play.
At this point of course, goal difference would come into play. At this moment Tottenham have a slight advantage over Liverpool, +7 compared to the Reds’ +5, but if the likelihood of my guesses of match outcomes being all correct are slim then predicting the goals scored and conceded in each one would be mostly futile. But let’s guess anyway. I’d imagine Liverpool could add a further +6 to their goal difference with the 3 wins over Birmingham, Newcastle and Fulham. The draw vs Man City and a win and a defeat against West Brom and Arsenal respectively could easily come out at 0 – leaving the game against Spurs to add another +1, giving a total goal difference of +12 come the end of the Spurs game.
For their part, Spurs could even out the loss vs Wigan with the win vs Stoke, and likewise the loss vs Chelsea and the win vs Arsenal. Home wins over West Brom and Blackpool could easily add +5 to their difference, with defeats to Man City and Liverpool lowering that to +3, giving Tottenham a total of +10.
That would put Liverpool in the final fifth spot, though of course very little attention should be paid to such guesswork for the goals scored for and against.
Whoever had a better goal difference, going into the last day of the season both sides would know that a big victory could seal a Europa League spot, while anything less would mean nothing at all to play for outside of the domestic cup competitions next season – unless of course, Tottenham manage to dispose of Real Madrid, the winners of Barcelona-Shakhtar Donetsk and then vanquish Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan or Schalke in the final of the Champions League. As Reds fans, we should not be hoping for this somewhat improbable outcome – Spurs as holders would go into the Champions League, bumping Man City down to the Europa League, taking the third and final English slot in the process!
Back to the Premiership – Liverpool face Aston Villa at Villa Park, with ex-Reds boss Gerard Houllier presumably still at the helm, while Tottenham have a home game against Villa’s Midlands rivals Birmingham City. Either or both of these clubs could be in relegation trouble come the last game of the season, and my money would be on the Blues. Despite their Carling Cup win Birmingham have been poor in the league and with West Ham’s resurgence, Blackpool’s habit of pulling a victory out at unexpected times and the undeniably qualities of teams such as West Brom and Wolves, the Blues are really going to struggle in my opinion to survive the drop.
What that means in terms of Liverpool is one of two things: either they could already be relegated by the time this clash comes around, resulting in a straight forward win for Spurs, or they have one last chance to win on the last day of the season to stay up, meaning much more of a battle – presumably. In either case, I would have to go with a Tottenham win. Spurs are strong at home and the teams down at the bottom are often down there for a reason.
That leaves the Reds in battle at Villa Park – where I believe they will also win. Villa should have clocked up enough points by then to ensure their own survival and with one or two players possibly moving on come the end of the season, their end of season games could become something of a stroll. Liverpool can afford no such luxury of course, and I would hope the motivation of continental football would be enough to see us home with three points to end the season.
64 points to end the season is far from the best total Liverpool have managed in recent seasons, and indeed only beats last season’s seventh place finish by a single point, but given that we had taken only 25 points from our first 20 games, taking an additional 39 points from the remaining 18 matches would really be an incredible achievement.
To put it into perspective, the 20 games under Hodgson clocked up 1.25 points per game, averaging out at 47.5 points for a full season, good enough for about an 11th place finish over the past five years – the 18 games under Dalglish (would) rack up 2.17 points per game, which if extended over the course of an entire season would amount to no less than 82 points, enough for a third place finish in most Premier League seasons.
Europa League football next season is certainly a possibility for Liverpool. If it actually does come down to goal difference whether Liverpool finish 5th or not, nobody could have asked anything more from Kenny Dalglish – apart from maybe putting his boots back on to knock in a couple of extra goals for us.
We still need favours from other teams to give ourselves a chance of making it – Wigan, Chelsea and Manchester City all took points off Spurs in my thoughts above before the Liverpool match, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out which of those is most unlikely – but it seems clear all the same that the clash at Anfield on May 15th could turn out to be a pivotal one for Liverpool, not just for this season but for the seasons ahead as well.