Liverpool prepare for devilishly troubling run in as they chase top-four finish
It was a curiously blasé mood around Anfield at the end of Jurgen Klopp’s third consecutive Merseyside derby win, appreciative applause rather than hysteria ushering the victors from the pitch.
Perhaps it was the sheer predictability of it. Yet again Liverpool were warned the neighbours were coming to bully them on their own turf. Yet again it never materialised.
Everton landed a few bruises - a couple of Liverpool players threatened to show off their scars after the game - but not enough where it mattered.
Maybe the nonchalance had more to do with The Kop trusting their side to perform on these occasions – an 18-year unbeaten streak in the Anfield derby tends to breed reassurance – but within minutes the foreboding had switched from those wearily departing the away end after seeing an all-too-familiar withering across the park to the home fans anxiously studying the remaining fixtures.
After completing safe passage against challengers planning for European football next season, Liverpool must begin a devilishly troubling run in.
In what must represent a devastating setback for Klopp, his side is unable to face any more of the top seven in their remaining games. That’s the lot played home and away now. Instead, eight of their fixtures include the ordeal of trying to defeat five clubs still seeking to avoid relegation.
It is a perilous proposition. Obviously a more confident fanbase might consider the most difficult impediments to top four status overcome, but this has been a disjointed campaign. Liverpool’s Champions League ambitions have been elevated with impressive wins such as this against those with the same aspirations but undermined by the Premier League’s strugglers.
The only thing more irritating to Klopp than Liverpool’s carelessness against palpably weaker sides is the fact he keeps being reminded about them. It has ensured in the immediate aftermath of recent victories against Arsenal, Tottenham and now Everton a ‘but’ or 'if only' is never far from the lips of cynical inquisitor.
Klopp will require no briefing on the questions coming his way when Bournemouth come to Merseyside in midweek attempting to complete a league double, or whether the Stoke and West Bromwich Albion set-pieces in the next two weekends should be accompanied by sirens.
In truth, the anomaly between Liverpool’s form against the top clubs (still unbeaten) and the rest probably has more to do with the timing of injuries coinciding with fixtures against the bottom half sides rather than a deeper psychological or tactical issue.
The absence of Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson was not as telling against Everton as might have been expected before kick-off - deputy Lucas was outstanding - but should goalscorer Sadio Mane join the list of casualties Klopp’s squad will be ominously stretched.
Mane had a scan on his knee on Sunday, the results anticipated some time on Monday.
“We can cope with his absence but we don’t have a one for one replacement,” said Klopp.
“That is the truth and hopefully Daniel Sturridge can be available. If he is injured that it is not cool and that is why I don’t feel 100 per cent happy. We have three days to find the solution.”
The return to form of Philippe Coutinho will help and the post season lament for Liverpool will focus on how closer they would be to Chelsea had their Brazilian not suffered injury in November.
He’s been back on the teamsheet for a while, but this was the first re-appearance of the early season Coutinho. Despite scoring an equaliser at the Kop end, Everton youngster Matthew Pennington was in danger of being treated for vertigo, Coutinho brilliant hitting the crucial second and teeing up Divock Origi for Liverpool’s third.
Despite Ronald Koeman’s upbeat assessment, this was too similar to the David Moyes and Roberto Martinez incarnation of Everton at Anfield.
Romelu Lukaku was isolated and Ross Barkley was fortunate to make it to half-time given several rash challenges.
Lukaku and Barkley are two of Everton’s best players, but it must be a worry for the duo – or maybe more their agents – that they have so far failed to leave a positive imprint at the toughest away venues. A healthy debate will be held at Goodison this summer as to whether keeping the players or banking in excess of £100 million would desirable. Both can be brilliant, particularly Lukaku, but delivering on promise at the highest level is not the sole responsibility of Everton’s new investor. Barkley and Lukaku believe they belong in the Champions League, but given their price tag it remains to be seen how many Champions League clubs agree.
Liverpool, in contrast, are eight games away from returning to the competition. Nobody needs reminding more than Klopp that while they are edging closer, given recent history, the route does not get any easier from here.