Liverpool have barely had time to get a proper claw-hold on their perch again before Manchester United have the opportunity to play a significant part in knocking them back off it. A win for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s resurgent side on Sunday will be an almighty blow to Liverpool’s Premier League title hopes and, though it will hand the advantage to their City rivals across town, Manchester United supporters will, for the most part, see that as the lesser of two evils.
There are signs developing that the second half of the season is taking its toll on Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. If the first part of the campaign was breathtaking, the second has become a cough and a splutter. Handshake handbags Klopp took particular exception to Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac shaking the hands of his own players before shaking Klopp’s on Tuesday night, and when a grown man is becoming irate about a handshake you know there are some underlying issues there.
“I stood there like the ox in front of the mountain,” Klopp said, invoking a German saying to explain bafflement. An idiom which, if you think about it, could be applied to Liverpool’s players right now: a flock of oxen staring up at the mountain of Manchester City, wondering how Pep Guardiola’s team have reeled them in from their seven-point advantage at the turn of the year as they munch, slowly and purposefully, on the long grass.
Pondering why they are no longer blowing away teams as they were up until less than two months ago. Some of the wins have become draws and if they are not careful the draws will become defeats. Tuesday night was only the second time this season they have failed to score in a game, the previous time coming against Manchester City back in October.
Growing concerns Klopp cited the “last pass” as the major problem, but while a Champions League last 16 draw against German giants is one thing, what about Leicester City and West Ham? They are the draws which will prompt concern and it is three in their last four games now. The stoppage-time win against Crystal Palace four weeks ago was also painted as an indicator of a champion’s mentality, when really it was a lucky, last-ditch win against a middling Premier League team.
Liverpool are neither attacking nor defending badly, but nor are they doing either incredibly well, which is a worrying sign. Roberto Firmino only has one goal in seven and Mohamed Salah one in five, but Sadio Mane has four in five. They are conceding often, but not heavily. They play United at Old Trafford and there will certainly be a bite to a tie which has real meaning and significance to it for the first time in years.
Liverpool’s win against United before Christmas saw off Jose Mourinho but the side they meet on Sunday has been transformed. Becoming a grind “I think it’s going to be a real big change,” midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum said. “Since the new manager came in there is a new flow, they played good games and have won a lot and that is building confidence in the team.
“It’s also a home game for them so they will have a lot of confidence as they don’t have the problems they had before. It is going to be a difficult game.” This is the point in the season when it really becomes a grind. When the annoying niggles and uncomfortable strains become tears and time out. Dejan Lovren, resplendent in a red cloak sat in the stands at Anfield on Tuesday as though he was about to infiltrate the Death Star, is unlikely to be fit to face United and Joe Gomez is out long-term.
Manchester United have injury problems of their own, with Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial missing. If Liverpool lose there will be a mountain beginning to loom in front of them that they will have to climb to win the title, and it will be Klopp’s job to stop all the players merely staring at it.