Internationals are over, and now there are no breaks left as the club season enters its final stage.
Last summer, after only a second top four finish in eight years, if you had told Liverpool fans that going into April the Reds would be third in the Premier League table and into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, they would have bitten your hand off. Competition to finish inside the top four remains fierce, even with Arsenal’s demise this season.
Liverpool have not enjoyed successive top four finishes, or a run to the last eight in the Champions League, since 2009. The Reds are undoubtedly improving under Jürgen Klopp, as they attempt to return to the consistency of the Rafael Benítez era, and then go beyond the Spaniard’s success at Anfield.
However, this week sees two matches which could easily define the rest of Liverpool’s season.
First up for Klopp’s Liverpool is a trip to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. With only two league defeats in their last twenty-two games (containing fifteen wins), Liverpool have the form and the players to breeze past Roy Hodgson’s side.
Crystal Palace are stubborn, shown by their fight to escape relegation after such a dreadful start to the season, and their scraps against other top six sides, losing narrowly, and painfully, to Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Chelsea.
All three are Liverpool’s closest rivals in the league, so to slip up against Palace when their competitors have all won would be a severe setback.
Wilfried Zaha could be fit for Saturday, which would immeasurably improve Palace’s chances. In all nine league games without their talisman, Palace have lost, emphasising Zaha’s impact and importance to the side. Moreover, ex-Reds Christian Benteke and Mamadou Sakho will have a point to prove against Liverpool and, in particular, Klopp.
As mentioned, Liverpool have the quality to win comfortably, but always struggle in one fixture against Palace, whether home or away. Liverpool have beaten Palace in their last three visits to Selhurst Park but, prior to this season, had lost three consecutive times to Palace at Anfield. Furthermore, Liverpool fans still struggle to forget ‘Crystanbul’ in 2014, when the Reds let slip a 3-0 lead at Selhurst Park to only draw and effectively end their title hopes.
Plenty of recent history then between Liverpool and Palace, and both enter Saturday with so much to play for as well.
Despite Palace’s revival under Hodgson, they are only two points clear of relegation, and eighteenth-placed Southampton have a game in hand. Meanwhile, Liverpool are two points behind Manchester United, two points clear of Tottenham and seven points ahead of Chelsea, but have played a game more than all three (although Tottenham play Chelsea this weekend).
Liverpool have not won home and away against Palace in the Premier League since 1998 – despite the considerable challenges Palace have inflicted on Liverpool, that statistic has to change on Saturday.
After the weekend, attention then turns to Liverpool’s mammoth first-leg encounter with Manchester City in the Champions League.
Liverpool were responsible for halting Manchester City’s quest to replicate Arsenal in 2004 and finish the Premier League season unbeaten, following the pulsating 4-3 thriller at Anfield.
Whilst a repeat would guarantee another unbelievable encounter and a narrow advantage for Liverpool to take to the Etihad Stadium for the second leg, conceding three away goals is not ideal in a two-legged knockout tie.
Liverpool’s defence has improved since January through Virgil van Dijk’s arrival, Andy Robertson’s consistency and Loris Karius’ upsurge in form, but the backline remains far from perfect, and will be stretched to the limit by City’s immense attacking weaponry.
A clean sheet would almost be as good as a victory on Wednesday, as Liverpool will be confident of scoring in Manchester and making amends for the unfortunate 5-0 defeat in the Premier League last September.
Trent Alexander-Arnold will need to bring of his talent and composure to the fore next week, as the youngster struggled in the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford. However, he is young and constantly learning and improving, and the experience will help prepare him for the intensity of the City clash next week.
With Joe Gomez injured and Nathaniel Clyne unlikely to be ready, Liverpool’s home-grown right-back will have to be at his best, both offensively and especially defensively, but he is up to the task.
Alexander-Arnold may have struggled in his last visit to Old Trafford, but excelled a year prior at the same stadium, proving that he has the ability to thrive in the biggest encounters.
He has to show that form again this week, as a poor performance against Palace will heighten the nerves against City.
However, this can be extended to the whole team, not just Alexander-Arnold.
Liverpool are about to enter the apex of their season, where the pressure will be at its highest. Can the Reds handle the expectation and end the season with success?
We will soon find out.