How they got into this position is done and gone, writes Jonathan Wilson, all Liverpool can do now is at least win on Sunday and make Manchester City earn the Premier League title.
Liverpool’s last mission: Make City win the title
What Liverpool must do on Sunday is win.
If they win and Manchester City win or draw, they still finish second, but they would be able to reflect on a season that went far better than expected.
But if they fail to beat Newcastle United, if they fail to put any pressure on City, it would be a pitiable anti-climax. And if City lost and Liverpool failed to take advantage, it would be the kind of choke that could haunt the club for years.
There is never, of course, one moment when the title is lost, but there are incidents that stand out in the memory.
Steven Gerrard slipping to let Demba Ba through on the final minute of the first half against Chelsea is the most obvious. Chelsea, by their own admission, were just waiting for mistakes.
Gerrard’s gaffe was made all the more painful by the fact that, two weeks earlier, he gathered the players together after the victory over Manchester City and urged them to ensure “This does not slip”. Had they held on for a 0-0 draw, they would still have been masters of their own destiny.
As it was, they went to Crystal Palace desperate to eat into the advantage of goal difference held by City, over-reached and threw away a three-goal lead as a result. Even then, they might have come away with a 4-3 win, had Victor Moses not fluffed a simple chance in injury time. A 3-0 score didn’t seem enough, but 4-3 would at least have forced City to win their two remaining games. There was never any panic in the game against Aston Villa on Wednesday because they knew a draw was enough.
But perhaps the key moment was Jordan Henderson’s red card against City, lunging into a challenge on Samir Nasri in injury time of Liverpool’s 3-2 win. Nobody could say they would not have lost to Chelsea regardless, but they would certainly have had a better chance of shutting down the game against Crystal Palace with his energy alongside Gerrard.
Perhaps personnel is not the issue. Liverpool didn’t even try to kill the game at 3-1: Dwight Gayle’s first goal came from a breakaway with seven Liverpool players caught upfield chasing a fourth goal.
Manager Brendan Rodgers spoke afterward of his side’s lack of “game management”, and while it seems fair to assume that an inexperienced team will get better at that, the way they chased goals was reflective of their approach all season. At both ends of the pitch, Liverpool have defied convention.
They have already allowed 49 goals this season. The last time a team conceded that many and won the league was Derby County in 1975, but that was over 42, rather than 38, games. The last time a side won the league surrendered 1.32 goals per game, Liverpool’s average this season, was in 1962.
In the Premier League era, conceding 49 goals has usually meant finishing somewhere between sixth and eighth. Yet if Liverpool score the one goal they needed to reach 100, they would likely become the first side to amass 100 goals in a season and not win the title since Tottenham Hotspur racked up 111 in 1962/63.
Thrilling as they have been, the sense is that the balance is wrong and, while pretty much every defender they have tried has made at least one major mistake this season, to blame only personnel – particularly after spending roughly two-thirds of the £50 million (Dh309m) of last summer’s transfer outlay on defenders and a goalkeeper – seems simplistic.
Rodgers has been adept at altering his approach in the past and while he talks about his young players improving next season, it may be that part of that development is adopting a less gung-ho approach on the management front.
The first thing, though, is to beat Newcastle and make City win the title.
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