Tuesday 17 September 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Next two games will define Liverpool's chances of ending 29-year wait for league title'


Salah was thrilled with the late goal (Martin Rickett/PA)
Salah was thrilled with the late goal (Martin Rickett/PA)
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Liverpool were minutes from disaster on Sunday and the anxious atmosphere as the game entered its final minutes made it clear that the Anfield regulars recognised it.

Dropping points at home to Spurs would have left Jurgen Klopp's side in need of two slip-ups from Manchester City on the title run-in.

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On current form, that's a long shot. And there is no doubting that Pep Guardiola's men still have the ability to win all of their remaining matches.

But Sunday's success was massive for the hosts because it keeps the margin of error slim.

And a glance at the fixture list leads to the conclusion that if Liverpool take full points from their next two matches, they can end their 29-year wait for title glory. At this stage of the campaign it's not just about the matches that teams have to play, it's when they have to play them.

With Manchester City engaged in FA Cup business this weekend, they will return to a scenario where they have a game in hand - which is a Manchester derby - and the onus on Liverpool is to get points on the board.

City should go top again by beating Cardiff tomorrow, a result that would leave the champions a point clear with both having played 32 games.

However, Liverpool can edge back ahead if they do the business at Southampton on Friday, a fixture that is fraught with danger at this stage of the season.

The Saints have found form under Ralph Hasenhuttl, who was appointed at the beginning of December and has now settled in to the role.

At home, they've proved especially effective - taking 10 points from a possible 15 this year with a surprise defeat against Cardiff the only real blip.

Back-to-back wins at home to Spurs and away to Brighton have pushed them closer to safety but they still have work to do and will view the visit of Liverpool as a free shot.

Klopp's men had dropped points in three successive Premier League away games - draws at West Ham, Manchester United and Everton - before a victory away to a poor Fulham side where they were helped by some ponderous goalkeeping from Sergio Rico. They did score three in Munich during this spell, so it's not as if they have lost the ability to travel. But Friday's date at St Mary's is extremely pressurised because a draw will not be enough - Liverpool will have to take control of the situation.

But if they can do that, then the path to the title really does open up for the Reds. On paper, the hardest fixture they have remaining is the April 14 visit of Chelsea to Anfield, an encounter that should provoke shivers from Reds followers for obvious Steven Gerrard slip-related reasons.

That Sunday affair is sandwiched between the Champions League tie with Porto, which should add another layer of difficulty.

But if Liverpool can make the most of home advantage in the first leg the previous Tuesday, they can make life easier for themselves - and the title really is the priority this season no matter what spin is put on it.

Chelsea's European commitments may prove more relevant. They are in the shake-up for a top-four finish, yet the most straightforward route to the Champions League for under-pressure Maurizio Sarri could be through the Europa League.

Three days before they visit Anfield, the Blues are in the Czech Republic for the first leg of their encounter with Slavia Prague. It's a tie where they are warm favourites but Slavia are no mugs and defeated Sevilla in the previous round. They came out on the right side of a seven-goal thriller on their home patch and can make that a very draining trip for the Londoners.

Liverpool have a 48-hour head-start in terms of preparations.

Champions League progression would present its own challenges, but Cardiff and Huddersfield are next on their list before concluding games with Newcastle and Wolves.

Newcastle should be safe at that juncture, while Wolves might well have one eye on an FA Cup final.

If they win the next two, they should win the lot. City's schedule is demanding; they travel to a fresh Crystal Palace side on the weekend between the two legs of their Champions League quarter-final with Spurs.

That's followed by another Premier League showdown with Tottenham and away days at Old Trafford and relegation-threatened Burnley.

Making it through that schedule without a blemish would make them deserving champions. They won't have any room for error if Liverpool put the squeeze on over the next fortnight.

Goalkeeping howlers have helped the underdogs along the way, but Sunday's luck should be the springboard to find momentum when it matters.

If they progress past the Saints, the fixture list will suddenly become their friend.

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