Liverpool FC will need to bounce back after a crushing defeat at home to Manchester United, but Top 4 is definitely beyond them. The FA Cup is now their best hope for a successful end to the season.
The Reds have lost to Manchester United once before this season and bounced back to record strong performances over the next 3 months, in fact going undefeated in the Premier League until the defeat to, once again, Manchester United at Anfield this past Sunday. However, it was not so much the defeat but the manner of it that makes the achievement of a place in the Top 4 a step too far. The Reds lost Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel for stamping during the defeat the Man United, while the latest injury setback for Daniel Sturridge completes a season of awful luck for the English striker. With Jordon Ibe and Lucas Leiva both yet to come back from injury, the Reds are suddenly short of options at all positions on the pitch as they bid to complete a “Top 4 and FA Cup” double for the season.
How do the Reds cover for missing players
Commonly cited reasons for Liverpool’s awful first half of the season included the poor form of Liverpool’s summer signings, inability to create chances and score, and sustained bouts of buffoonery from manager Brendan Rodgers with regard to team selection and tactics. However, one must note that Liverpool also suffered from horrible luck due to players in key positions suffering from injury at the wrong times. Emre Can and Joe Allen were injured during the September international break just as they were hitting form, while Daniel Sturridge suffered injury in training 3 times in 4 months and missed the entire Champions League campaign that he, Luis Suarez and others in the squad worked so hard to qualify for.
This time around, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has a choice between switching to a 4-man back line instead of a back 3 that he sent out since December, and replacing Martin Skrtel with either Kolo Toure or Dejan Lovren. The latter was clearly a signing that Brendan Rodgers wanted back in the summer, and despite the fact that he has done little of note during the season thus far, Liverpool supporters may be forced to watch the former Southampton captain be given yet another opportunity as a starter for the Reds. On the other hand, the suspension of Steven Gerrard may ironically not hurt Liverpool as much, given that the squad has relied on him to a far lesser extent in the past 3 months than ever before in his Liverpool career. Lucas Leiva has come back to full training at Melwood and could be available soon, while the option of switching over to a back 4 makes Emre Can an available option in central midfield too.
Daniel Sturridge’s latest injury setback has underlined how important he is to Liverpool’s fortunes, despite his less than stellar link up play over the last 6 weeks. Raheem Sterling adapted fairly well to playing up front as a lone striker during the winter, and was seemingly wasted as a wing back over the last few games for the Reds. However, a switch up front for Raheem Sterling, coupled with the absence of Jordon Ibe leaves Liverpool short of options at right wing back. Rodgers has the difficult choice between an out of form Lazar Markovic and an out of favour Javier Manquillo; he must also deal with the problems faced by Liverpool on the right side of the defence against Swansea and Manchester United, especially with the key away fixture at Arsenal coming up in a week’s time.
What can Liverpool do to salvage their season?
Five points behind Manchester United with 9 games to go, and tricky away fixtures against Arsenal and Chelsea still to be played, is not the position Liverpool want to be in at the end of March. Yes, Liverpool have a better record away from home this season than at home, but Liverpool also have the Tony Pulis factor to deal with in away fixtures against West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City (still counts, due to their penchant for reverting back to the kind of football they once played under Pulis, whenever the Reds visit) within the last 5 games in the League. Arsenal will always figure out a way to finish 4th, and hence a potential collapse for Manchester United is the Reds best hope for a place in the Top 4 come the end of the season.
That leaves the FA Cup as Liverpool’s best hope for a positive finish to the season. Brendan Rodgers and the Reds still have a tricky replay at Blackburn Rovers to win, and may need to defeat a team as strong as Arsenal if they were to give Steven Gerrard the finish that he wants to his Liverpool career. No one suggesting that a Wembley semi-final against Aston Villa will be easy, but 3 wins in 3 games is a lot easier to achieve for Liverpool under the current circumstances. Moreover, Liverpool have won tricky away fixtures against lower league sides like Bournemouth, AFC Wimbledon and Bolton Wanderers on their way to the quarter finals of the tournament, and the Reds are a safer bet to get defeat Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa than to claw back a 5 point deficit on Manchester United in the League.
Liverpool also have the perfect opportunity to deliver much needed silverware for their supporter base. Manager Brendan Rodgers has done a decent job for at least half of his tenure at the club, but he now needs to prove that he has the ability to guide his teams to trophy winning success in order to buy more goodwill from Reds’ supporters. Defeat to Manchester United in December prompted an unbeaten run for a period of 3 months in the league; defeat to Manchester United at Anfield one week ago may well be the catalyst for a final push towards a trophy that Steven Gerrard badly wants as he completes his Liverpool career. All is not lost for the Reds, but they need to be smart over the next 2 months in order to finish the season on a positive note.