After a momentous 2018, two losses in as many games has been a surprisingly un-Liverpool-like start to 2019. Of course, both defeats had mitigating factors.
The first against one of the greatest sides of the Premier League era, the second not helped by having to play a Brazilian midfielder and a sixteen-year-old at centre-back.
Neither players nor the manager will be over concerned by the two defeats, as in case you haven’t heard, Liverpool are four points clear at the top of the league. However, while it’ll have been easy to remain self-assured and unfazed about matters during the week, the big mental test of Liverpool’s bottle will come away to Brighton on Saturday afternoon.
Over the years, Liverpool have often been polarising in calendar years, and as a result have too often fell short of expectations come May.
2011 was a year of resurgence under Kenny Dalglish after one of the darkest years in Liverpool’s history in 2010. But in 2012 it all came apart again as Liverpool finished on a lowly 52 points in the league, and Brendan Rodgers’ first six months in charge failing to show much promise.
But the switch flicked again after New Year’s, with a swashbuckling Liverpool side putting in an impressive end to the season. A sign of what was to follow later that year.
Two cup finals and the first half of a title challenge in 2016. Only to be followed by Klopp’s Liverpool falling off the rails in January and by late October, they sat ninth in the league whilst making tough work of a favourable Champions League group.
League table for the last 38 league games. Presented without comment. pic.twitter.com/S3X6QHYbsv
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) December 26, 2018
2018 was glorious. But the difficult start to the New Year feels like a test sent from football itself to see whether Liverpool are real contenders, or merely pretenders to City’s throne.
The Reds have been brilliant at staying patient this year. Drawing or losing with half an hour to go against Burnley, Watford, Everton and Manchester United, not to forget late winners versus Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea.
The frustration and lack of bottle seen in recent years has seldom been showcased so far this season. There has been no panic. Players, manager and staff all confident that the chance will arrive.
On Saturday, there’s every chance Liverpool will have to deal with more than the already considerable pressure of dropping points.
If level with the Seasiders on sixty minutes, the headlines will begin to harvest in the back of their heads. Talks of an ‘implosion’, zero wins in three games and as many points lost in the last week as the previous four months would be unjustified, but guaranteed.
The ten-point gap was never a true reflection of the title race given City’s game-in-hand at the time, but no doubt the media would use it as a way of highlighting Liverpool ‘fucking it up again’.
It can get away from you just like that.
Take a look at City. The image of superiority and invincibility only to lose two on the bounce against mid-table sides after giving up top spot to Klopp’s team.
Self-doubt can slowball. Players can begin to do things out of character, second guess themselves and overcompensate for the smallest of mistakes. Judgement becomes skewed.
The Reds have experienced it before. Trips to Old Trafford in particular have always produced an feeling of inevitable disappointment, even going as far back as the Benitez days.
Regardless of the two teams’ form, or even how they play on the day, it’s always felt like David De Gea would have the answer for everything Liverpool’s forward line had to throw at him, and that at the back a visiting defender would be seconds away from gifting United a goal.
Putting that doubt to bed won’t be easy if Liverpool fail to have it all their own way at the Amex Stadium. Chris Hughton’s side weren’t far away from getting a result at Anfield in August, not something many teams can boast this campaign.
Dejan Lovren’s injury has given the manager another hole to plug. Fabinho is likely to feature alongside Virgil Van Dijk, further compromising Klopp’s midfield options.
All smiles from the boss. 😄❤ pic.twitter.com/PKIlHvn06C
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) January 9, 2019
With Naby Keita struggling to find form and James Milner having started the last two games, the team should largely pick itself. Henderson and Wijnaldum will likely man the middle of the park, with Shaqiri on the right, Mane on the left and Roberto Firmino just behind Mohamed Salah up top.
It’s looks like a sliding doors game for Liverpool, one that should have a huge say on how January and February go results-wise.
Liverpool will enter Saturday week’s clash against Crystal Palace amidst one of two rather differing narratives.
A win at the Amex and the feeling of normality restored should give the Reds all the confidence in the world to get back to dispatching teams with aplomb, week in, week out. The result at City will be seen as just a small stumbling block that has now long-passed and the loss to Wolves should become insignificant, if not a blessing in disguise.
There’s every chance Liverpool then go get twelve points out of twelve with a trip to the London Stadium to play West Ham surrounded by three home games against mid-table opposition.
Anything other than three points, and the momentum gets harder and harder to wrestle back. An even bigger mental test will await at Palace and the Red’s tital rivals down the M62 will be hot on their heels.
Jurgen Klopp once said: “Bounce-back is not an opportunity, it’s a duty”
Time to walk the walk.