Opinion: Liverpool must seal top four before thinking about Kiev

Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum were just two from a number of Liverpool players who spoke to the media following Liverpool’s 4-2 defeat to Roma on Wednesday, which meant the Reds progressed to the Champions League final 7-6 on aggregate.

In the final in Kiev, Liverpool will face Real Madrid, and Henderson and Wijnaldum spoke of the immense challenge that they would face against the twelve-time European champions, who are bidding to win the competition for a third successive season.

However, despite all of the wild celebrations that greeted the final whistle in Rome – which of course was in reference to this incredible Champions League run and having just sealed victory against Roma – Liverpool as a team cannot see the showpiece event as their only remaining fixture of the season.

There is too much riding on their final two Premier League games.

For a while now, Liverpool seemed certain of a top four finish and a place in the Champions League for a second straight year, a feat the Reds have not achieved since 2009.

After Liverpool’s magical run to the final this year, and what could yet follow in Kiev, to miss out on the competition entirely next season would be a disaster. No Champions League football would be a complete momentum killer to all of the incredible work from manager Jürgen Klopp and his players.

Reds rising again

Prior to the German’s arrival in October 2015, the Reds were struggling to beat Carlisle United in the League Cup. Now, they will play in their eighth European Cup final in three weeks’ time, underlining the progress Liverpool have achieved under Klopp, which shows no sign of slowing.

However, that would change should the Reds throw away such a sizeable lead and miss out on a top four finish.

The team closing the gap to the top four are the same side who Liverpool visit on Sunday afternoon.

Chelsea have not come close to replicating their strength, resilience and quality from last season – partly because teams have worked out how to cope with Antonio Conte’s back three system, partly because of the poor summer transfer window, and partly because of Conte’s increasingly negative demeanour this season.

Yet, the existing talent in Chelsea’s squad remain fully capable of a top four finish, and the London club are beginning to believe this themselves as well, with three hard-fought victories in a row in the Premier League.

Chelsea not out of the question

Chelsea remain six points adrift of Liverpool, but with a game in hand and the match on Sunday. Conte’s side finish with games against Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United, with Liverpool at home to Brighton on the final day of the season.

Liverpool do not have to win on Sunday; they do not even need a draw, but if Chelsea beat Liverpool and win their remaining two league games, then the Reds would have to beat Brighton to ensure a top four spot.

Such a scenario would be a repeat of last season, where Liverpool edged out Arsenal to fourth place by a point with a 3-0 home victory against Middlesbrough.

That day, Liverpool struggled to create chances and could have conceded a penalty against Álvaro Negredo but Wijnaldum’s fierce strike settled nerves before half-time and the second-half was comfortable. Nevertheless, relying on Wijnaldum strikes from tight angles for Champions League football is not the safest policy.

Brighton may be effectively on holiday next Sunday, but anything can happen in one game of football, and Liverpool will be desperate to avoid any top four permutations against Chris Hughton’s side.

A draw against Chelsea would mean Champions League football for Liverpool next season, barring a colossal turnaround in goal difference, underlining the importance of the trip to Stamford Bridge this weekend.

Liverpool may be running on empty because of a shrinking squad and their most intense period of fixtures this season, but they just one more push to ensure their domestic season will finish with another successful milestone of consecutive top four finishes. The Reds would then have a whole week to rest and prepare for Brighton.

If Liverpool can manage a draw at Stamford Bridge, then against Brighton they can warm themselves up for the biggest game of their lives in Kiev without any concerns about the top four.

Moreover, four points against Chelsea and Brighton would take Liverpool’s final tally in the league this season to 76 – exactly the same as last season, only this time with a Champions League final included.

Another two weeks bridges the gap from Brighton to Madrid, giving Liverpool plenty of time to ensure they hit peak form against Real. In terms of physical fitness, carrying out Klopp’s demands and trying to remain focused for the entire ninety minutes (which the Reds have particularly struggled with recently), this weekend will be much tougher than the final two matches to follow.

But Liverpool are so close, they cannot stop now.