Opinion: Why Liverpool should prioritise a top three finish this season
Emre Can and Roberto Firmino celebrate during Liverpool's 1-0 victory against West Bromwich Albion (Squawka)

Opinion: Why Liverpool should prioritise a top three finish this season

Even when the Reds were challenging for the title early on in the campaign, the target for Liverpool was to secure a top-four finish and a return to Champions League football, yet finishing inside the top three of the Premier League would make life so much easier at Anfield.

Ben Lockett

For any team in the Premier League, Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion are difficult teams to play against, especially away from home.

For Liverpool, that difficulty is multiplied, with poor records against those teams – having also never previously won away in the league against a side managed by Tony Pulis – and poor form against teams outside the top seven.

Injuries were piling up in the squad too, sidelining big-name players for Liverpool – Sadio Mané, Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana all out, for example.

So to come away from those two fixtures with two wins and six points is a brilliant achievement, offsetting the disappointing draw to Bournemouth at Anfield and keeping the Reds firmly on track for a top-four finish and Champions League football.

Moreover, Liverpool appear to have finally grasped the concept of winning ugly, which had previously eluded them this season. Discovering this trait now stands them in good stead given their favourable fixture list for the remainder of the campaign, with Manchester United and Arsenal still far back and with tougher run-ins, even if they and Manchester City have games in hand on the Reds.

Yet perhaps it is the latter team who Liverpool should focus their attention on. With Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur out of sight and battling for the league title, Pep Guardiola’s men represent the greatest threat to Liverpool and a potential top-three finish.

Currently two points behind Liverpool but with a game in hand, City are moving back towards top form with successive victories against Hull City and Southampton, having previously earned only three points from a possible twelve.

Their remaining fixtures also appear kind on paper, with their next two representing the strongest challenge – a semi-final FA Cup clash against Arsenal, before welcoming Manchester United to the Etihad Stadium just four days later.

All the Reds can do is focus on their remaining matches and hope City drop points before the end of the season, leaving third place in Liverpool’s hands, barring a miracle run from either United or Arsenal.

Finishing third may not seem that crucial, and indeed it is far more vital for Liverpool to ensure a top four spot, regardless of whether they finish fourth or third.

Yet, given Liverpool’s situation in the table compared to their rivals, alongside their fixture-list, the Reds should be aiming for third, as the need for a top-three finish carries considerable importance.

Fourth place qualifying spot under threat?

Whilst many might scoff at the thought, there is the possibility of Leicester City and Manchester United winning the Champions League and Europa League respectively this season. Admittedly, the latter has a far greater chance of claiming European silverware, given the quality of United’s squad against the sides José Mourinho’s men are competing against.

Leicester are without question huge underdogs to triumph in Europe’s premier competition, but they overcame greater odds last season to win the Premier League – hence their participation in the Champions League.

Should both Leicester and United emerge victorious in Europe, then fourth place in the Premier League will no longer provide Champions League football, as only a maximum of five teams from one country can participate in the Champions League.

Winning the Europa League or the Champions League provides access into the latter competition, therefore only the top three Premier League sides would join Leicester and United in the Champions League.

This may resemble a small threat, but it remains a threat nonetheless, which will not be a problem for Liverpool if they can finish third this season.

However, if only one, or neither, of United and Leicester are successful in Europe, then the league conditions will be as normal, with the top four teams qualifying for the Champions League.

Yet under those conditions, fourth place does not guarantee an immediate passage into the group stages of the competition – instead a playoff is required to advance further. Manchester City had to overcome this hurdle last summer against Steaua București, and Liverpool experienced a few nervous nights negotiating past this stage under Rafael Benítez.

Avoiding the tension of a playoff would be welcome, offering security for Liverpool in the transfer market this summer, as their targets will know the club can offer guaranteed Champions League football.

Whilst missing out on third would not be catastrophic, there are plenty of incentives for Liverpool to finish as high as possible, rather than just holding on for a top four position.

Fourth in all likelihood will lead to the Champions League for Liverpool, but third place would assure the club of achieving the objective that they had outlined right at the start of the season.