With Christmas around the corner, Liverpool fans were treated to an early present with a late 1-0 over Everton in the Merseyside derby.
Despite Everton’s horrific record against Liverpool in recent years, claiming three points at Goodison Park is never an easy task, and Liverpool had to work hard and show extreme patience before finally breaking through with Sadio Mane’s goal.
It has been a good reaction from Jürgen Klopp’s side since drawing with West Ham and somehow suffering a 4-3 defeat to Bournemouth, and means the Reds will be second in the table on Christmas Day for the first time in 27 years, the last time they won the league title.
Simon Mignolet has returned in goal for Liverpool with no controversies, although the Belgian in truth has had little to do against either Everton or Middlesbrough in the 3-0 victory. Loris Karius will be wishing he could have had such comfort, instead of the blunders that have set the young German back at Anfield, though only temporarily.
Even Joel Matip has not been missed in either game, as Liverpool recorded back-to-back clean sheets away from home for the first time since August 2015 and registered their first 1-0 league win of 2016.
They’ll need more of the latter statistic if they are to claim their first Premier League title, especially given the prominence of the team above them to see out such scorelines.
Reds six points adrift as it stands
Chelsea’s resurgence under Antonio Conte, especially given their humbling defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, has been stunning. Whether they can maintain such form with their new back-three system, a favourite of Conte’s, including the likes of Victor Moses, for the entire season remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, with a gap of six points at the top, they are the team to catch and Liverpool can ill-afford any more slip-ups if they want to reel Chelsea in.
For that, Matip will be vital in the long-run, although Ragnar Klavan has successfully shown his ability as a dependable third-choice centre-back, ahead of Lucas Leiva and the outcast Mamadou Sakho, who will surely depart the club in January.
Aside from the defence, the entire squad will be vital during this busy festive period, therefore Daniel Sturridge’s return to fitness is a welcome boost for Liverpool, as his ability to score and create is without question.
Immediately on his first appearance back from injury against Everton, he provided the shot which turned out to be an assist for Mane’s winner as the Senegalese followed up on Sturridge’s effort, which rebounded off the post.
Sturridge may not be Klopp’s first-choice forward, but it does not mean he will be without regular game-time in the upcoming months, given Philippe Coutinho’s injury and Mane’s absence at the African Cup of Nations in January.
Plus, whilst Divock Origi has enjoyed an excellent scoring record after replacing Coutinho in the first-team, and is more of a Klopp striker with his work-rate, the 21 year old Belgian is still learning. Origi can often be too slow in his passing and take too many touches, being not quite on the same wavelength as those around him, though he is improving quickly.
Nevertheless, when on song, Sturridge is the finished article, and his availability could make the difference for Liverpool in this season’s title race.
Coutinho may return before the year is out but whilst Liverpool have missed him, dropping five points during his absence, Klopp will know not to rush him back and threaten his fitness for the rest of the campaign.
Hopefully the Brazilian can be 100% when Manchester City come to Anfield on New Year’s Eve, given his successful goal-scoring record against them, but Liverpool should have enough firepower to survive.
Big fixtures ahead
Prior to City, Liverpool’s penultimate game of 2016 is also at home, to Stoke City on Tuesday 27th December, so the Reds have the opportunity to finish the year in style in front of their own fans.
These two fixtures are massive too, given Chelsea are also at home twice, to Bournemouth and Stoke, as are Arsenal, against West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace.
Chelsea travel to Tottenham Hotspur in early January though, while a trip to Anfield will also be on the horizon, so the potential is there for their incredible and potentially record-breaking winning streak to end, but Liverpool have to be in sight of Conte’s side to capitalize.
Liverpool have experienced greater success against Mark Hughes’ attractive, expansive Stoke City than the stubborn, physical side under Tony Pulis, and have been more productive at breaking ‘lesser’ sides down this season, only to be held back by defensive problems of their own.
Yet with successive clean sheets, Liverpool may well make it a hat-trick against Stoke, even if Joe Allen will be determined to make an impact on his return to Anfield.
If the Reds pick up three points, then that will set their final match of 2016 up perfectly in a potentially explosive encounter with Pep Guardiola’s side.
Seen by the bookmakers as the two favourites for the title in September, both sides will be desperate not to lose any more ground to Chelsea, so a tight dull affair will be unlikely as neither team can afford to draw, let alone lose.
Combined with the shaky defences that Liverpool and City have, on the whole, showcased this season and Liverpool’s last act of the year could be one of their most exciting, and most important for their title aspirations.
City’s form under Guardiola lately has not been good – after threatening to run away with the league in August and September, with six straight wins to open the season, City have only won five of their next eleven since.
If Liverpool add to their woes on the final day of 2016, the Premier League title may be over for Pep and City before 2017 has even started, while the Reds would remain as close as possible to leaders Chelsea going into the New Year.
2016 has been a year of promise and missed opportunity for Klopp and Liverpool – 2017 could see both these themes converted into success with a major trophy, perhaps the title, but Liverpool would love a final present of six more points from 2016 yet.