Liverpool’s last hope of silverware this season was extinguished after their Champions League elimination on Wednesday night, while their spot in Europe’s premier club competition next season is by no means assured.
A goalless draw against Real Madrid ensured a 3-1 defeat in the Spanish capital last week proved decisive in their quarter-final showdown, and the Reds must now turn their attention back to a Premier League top-four finish.
Here, we assesse what has happened to Jurgen Klopp’s side just a matter of months after they swept to their first domestic league title in 30 years.
Where has it all gone wrong?
There were tremors in October when a jaw-dropping 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa was followed by a serious knee injury to their instrumental centre-half Virgil Van Dijk, but Liverpool actually rallied from that double setback. They topped the table by three points at the start of 2021 but it was a case of ‘new year, new me’ for all the wrong reasons at Anfield. A patched-up defence and goal-shy attack have struggled and Liverpool have lost eight of their 12 league fixtures this year, obliterating their title hopes and leaving them outside the Champions League places.
Why has this happened?
Injuries to Van Dijk, plus Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, have been major talking points but Liverpool reinforced their defence with the January signings of Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, while Nathaniel Phillips has been a revelation. Greater problems exist further up the pitch. While Mohamed Salah is the joint leading scorer alongside Harry Kane in the top-flight this season, the form of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino has tailed off alarmingly, with both finding the back of the net just once in the league since the turn of the year.
What can be done about it?
Liverpool’s vaunted front line has had a heavy workload in recent years – although Klopp last week was at pains to stress Mane is physically fully fit and was just going through a crisis of confidence. In Diogo Jota, Liverpool have a more than capable understudy, with the Portuguese bagging 12 goals in 25 appearances since a £45million move from Wolves last summer. But this goes deeper than one player, with their attacking problems laid bare against Real, drawing a blank on Merseyside despite 16 attempts at goal, only four of which were on target.
Where do they go from here?
Liverpool’s knock out at the hands of Zinedine Zidane’s side has snuffed out their hopes of a second European Cup crown in the space of three years, which would have had the added bonus of securing their place in next season’s competition. They now know that a top-four finish is an absolute must. Liverpool are currently sixth, three points and two places behind surprise package West Ham with seven fixtures remaining. The faltering form of third-placed Leicester, who are four points ahead of the Merseysiders, should give Liverpool further encouragement.
Is there any reason for optimism?
Plenty. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s late strike helped Liverpool beat Aston Villa last weekend to snap a six-game losing run at home in the league – a slump all the more puzzling given they had been undefeated in nearly four years at Anfield before then. Their win over Villa was their third in a row in the top-flight and Klopp is upbeat about returning to the Champions League next season. He said: “I would say I am naturally confident. We are not in a bad moment at the moment. We just have to keep going. We really have to keep going, we have to keep fighting.”
Mohamed Salah’s tormented demeanour held up a mirror to Liverpool’s night. Nothing about the script they had drafted in their heads, the one where they bookended the historic result against Barcelona in 2019 by humbling the 13-time champions who had denied them in 2018, unfolded quite as they intended. Everywhere they looked, the magic of Anfield was missing.