Liverpool feeling the heat as Real Madrid showdown looms

The FC crew delve into Liverpool’s recent struggles as they enter the final match of the season still looking to secure their place in the top four.
With Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham all fighting for the last two remaining Champions League spaces, Stevie Nicol, Alejandro Moreno and Dan Thomas discuss who could miss out.

Huddersfield’s battling draw at Stamford Bridge in midweek has aided Liverpool’s quest to secure a top-four position, but there is still work to be done this weekend against Brighton.

Had Huddersfield been able to hold on for victory against Chelsea, the Reds’ game on Sunday would have been meaningless and Jurgen Klopp could have rested whomever he wanted to. Chelsea’s rather fortuitous equaliser on Wednesday night ensured that was not the case. Liverpool’s task is certainly easier now because they only need a draw, but Klopp still does not have the luxury of tinkering with his lineup too much.

The Reds go into the final weekend knowing they can still finish anywhere from third to fifth. A top-three finish is no longer in their own hands after Tottenham beat Newcastle in midweek, but if Spurs fail to beat Leicester at Wembley, then Liverpool will finish in third spot as long as they beat Brighton.

A draw with Brighton would see them finish fourth, but a loss could drop them down to fifth if Chelsea win their final game at Newcastle. It’s often said that the league table doesn’t lie, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Liverpool fan who doesn’t believe their side is better than not just Chelsea and Spurs, but also second-placed Manchester United, who have been criticised by their own fans for much of the season.

Liverpool should be the nearest challengers to Manchester City, but they aren’t. This is due to a combination of factors. An inability to turn draws into wins is the main one, but the extra workload they’ve had due to their Champions League commitments has also clearly hampered their league form of late, not least because the squad lacks depth in key areas.

Recent form has been quite worrying. Aside from an incredible hourlong spell in which they blitzed Roma with five goals without reply, it has been pretty laboured. Draws against West Brom and Stoke and defeats at Roma and Chelsea have led many to conclude that the congested fixture list has caught up with Klopp’s men, particularly given how stretched the squad has been due to injuries.

While the result on Sunday is obviously the most important thing, a good, vibrant performance is also required to allay some of the fans’ concerns. With a full week to prepare for the game, Kopites will be hoping their team look refreshed and in good shape for the Champions League final against Real Madrid in two weeks.

Some key players have looked leggy in recent games and it is to be hoped that is the effect of playing twice a week for several weeks, rather than a long season having finally caught up with them. Much, perhaps all, depends on the front three delivering the goods in the next two games.

Sadio Mane has looked sharp in recent outings but both Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have been well below their best. Mane has played significantly fewer minutes than the other two, so he should have a little more freshness in his legs. Having had a full week to get ready for Brighton, it will be a huge boost to Liverpool if all three members of their forward line are back to their devastating best.

With so much still riding on the Brighton game, all three will surely start. But even if the opportunity were there to rest players, there is no guarantee Klopp would do it. With a two-week break until the final, fatigue shouldn’t really come into it too much. Any toll that has been taken on players’ legs after a long season is already there now and unlikely to be eased much by one game sat in the stands.

The risk of injury always looms large, of course, and it almost goes without saying that anyone carrying a knock should be nowhere near Sunday’s match-day squad, but rhythm is vitally important to Klopp and the last thing he would want is for his players to go into the final lacking sharpness having not played for three weeks.

So while Liverpool will surely be as close to full strength as they can be, it would also make sense to try and get Adam Lallana some minutes on the field ahead of the final. Liverpool’s midfield options are pretty threadbare right now and the England man’s return to the squad could not have been more timely.

He’s barely featured at all this season but perhaps he is destined to have a big say in the final. Lallana can look to the example of Vladimir Smicer in 2005 for inspiration. The Czech had been a bit-part player for much of the season and only appeared in the final as a substitute following an early injury to Harry Kewell, but went on to score a vital goal and also struck the winning penalty in the shootout.

Lallana has had a miserable time of it this year due to various injuries, so he’s certainly due a change in fortune. Ideally, Liverpool can get themselves into a comfortable position against Brighton and then get Lallana on the field and give one of their overworked starters a bit of a breather in the process.

For supporters it’s all about winning the Champions League this year, but it would at least relieve some of the pressure on the players going into that game if they had already secured their place in next year’s competition. All they need is a draw and they should get it, considering they have not lost at Anfield in the league all season.

For the fans, this final home game is an opportunity to pay tribute to the team for the entertainment they’ve provided this season and to also give them a rousing send-off ahead of the final.

The Anfield atmosphere will be electric on Sunday. Let’s hope the performance of the team matches it.

Dave Usher is one of ESPN’s Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.