Red-hot Liverpool can't afford any mistakes in charge for second place

Red-hot Liverpool can't afford any mistakes in charge for second place

As the top four scrap begins to reach boiling point, Liverpool face Newcastle United at Anfield following a 4-1 victory against West Ham United. Both need to be wins for the Reds if they want to maintain their very realistic hopes of Champions League football next season

ben-lockett
Ben Lockett

With Liverpool already eliminated from the FA Cup, last weekend was a quiet one for Liverpool fans, with the players still enjoying their training camp in Marbella following the club’s 5-0 destruction of FC Porto in the Champions League.

Ten days have passed since that famous European victory – an eternity for a side who will soon resume playing two games a week – and Liverpool have picked up where they left off in Portugal with a 4-1 victory against West Ham United at Anfield.

West Ham’s record at Anfield in recent years meant Liverpool had to take this game seriously – the Reds were frustrated in a 2-2 draw last season, while the Hammers comfortably triumphed 3-0 early into the 2015/16 season during Liverpool’s closing period under Brendan Rodgers. West Ham also knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup in January 2016 in a fourth round replay, after holding Jürgen Klopp’s side to another draw at Anfield.

However, West Ham’s current manager, David Moyes, must hate the sight of Liverpool’s famous old stadium. Moyes has never won at Anfield, despite numerous visits with Everton, Manchester United, Sunderland and now West Ham respectively. His defensive tactics with all four sides have never translated into three points, though the Scot can point to a few respectable draws in his trips to the red half of Merseyside.

Marching Reds

On Saturday, Klopp’s Reds ensured Moyes’ Anfield record triumphed over West Ham’s, continuing the momentum that has been rebuilt following the end of Liverpool’s eighteen-match unbeaten run in January.

Since the double defeats to Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion, Liverpool have enjoyed comfortable wins away to Huddersfield Town and Southampton, while they were unfortunate to only take a point against Tottenham Hotspur at Anfield with the last-minute penalty, although Mauricio Pochettino’s side also deserved a point.

Then came the thrashing of Porto, which sent an ominous message to the rest of Europe, regardless of the current level of Porto and Champions League football. If there was so much concern and anxiety about Liverpool’s chances before the encounter in Porto, then there cannot be dismissiveness about the Reds’ emphatic result. Porto admittedly did not play well, but Liverpool were utterly fantastic in all aspects.

With every game that he plays, Virgil van Dijk is looking more and more comfortable in Liverpool’s backline. The Dutchman hardly started badly following his world-record £75m transfer from Southampton, especially given all of the physical and mental issues he endured in 2017, but has especially picked up since the West Brom defeat, despite the rotation around him in the defence.

Against Porto, van Dijk strutted around the pitch, spraying quarterback-esque passes not seen since Steven Gerrard in 2014.

Van Dijk now has a settled goalkeeper behind him in Loris Karius, while Andrew Robertson is undoubtedly ahead of Alberto Moreno at left-back, but the right side of the defence still remains up in the air. Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip are fighting to be van Dijk’s partner at centre-back for the rest of the season, with the winner likely to remain at Anfield and the loser probably on his way out of the club, with other centre-backs such as Lazio’s Stefan de Vrij linked with a move to Liverpool. Moreover, Joe Gomez’s long-term position is in the centre of the defence, and Ragnar Klavan is available for squad depth.

This season, Gomez has been competing with Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back because of Nathaniel Clyne’s injury problems. Yet the former first-choice Liverpool right-back is now back in training and will be eager to reclaim the place he had nailed down less than a year ago, creating even greater competition and depth at the back for Liverpool.

A great headache for Klopp, and one he needs to solve soon, particularly the Lovren/Matip dilemma, as van Dijk will only improve further with a consistent partner alongside him until the summer. Defences in particular need consistency, as Gérard Houllier and Rafael Benítez previously proved.

Goals goals goals

Liverpool have improved their balance and solidity since Philippe Coutinho left for Barcelona in January, and van Dijk and the defence are key to maintaining the team’s improvement. Liverpool’s front three will always score goals, and the midfield provides the necessary work-rate to sustain Klopp’s side, even if they lack that extra creative spark.

Against Newcastle United however – just as against West Ham – the focus will be on scoring goals, as Benítez will in all likelihood follow Moyes and set up his team to sit deep and leave Liverpool’s defence with little to do.

As other top four rivals prepare to play each other in huge contests – Chelsea visit Manchester United this weekend – Liverpool need to maximise on their rediscovered momentum and ensure they provide no encouragement to those around them who are also in the hunt for Champions League spots.

Whilst any way to victory will do, if Liverpool can dispose of Newcastle as comfortably and efficiently as Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham then the Reds will travel to Old Trafford in March with perfect preparation, as the race for Champions League qualification enters its final stages.

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