Naturally, a fight for fourth place is a little less important than the fight for the league title, but the implications are enormous for both sides, and, if Liverpool can come out on top here, the outlook for next season is astronomically better.
Rodgers’ side looked rather convincing in their 2-0 victory over Newcastle at Anfield. The score easily could have been 4-0 or 5-0 considering a couple of simple opportunities missed by Raheem Sterling and a great save from Tim Krul on a header from Lucas. Still, Sterling managed to cash in early, and a rare goal from Joe Allen put the game out of Newcastle’s reach.
Meanwhile, in the Manchester derby on Sunday, City looked abysmal, only heightening the rumours around Manuel Pellegrini’s job security, as well as increasing the possibility of a slip out of the top four for a team who, just over a month ago, was still in contention to challenge Chelsea for the top spot in the Premier League. Could Liverpool realistically jump City and snatch a Champions League spot?
Take Monday’s match against Newcastle. The attack was promising, with Philippe Coutinho filling a false-nine position for the first time, having Raheem Sterling and Jordon Ibe providing speed on the wings. The Reds constantly had the Newcastle defence on their toes, especially thanks to the midfield play that facilitated that attack, with beautiful long balls from Jordan Henderson and consistent possession and passing from Joe Allen and Lucas. The defence adopted a sort of “bend, don’t break” philosophy, and, although it was scary at times, it worked. The return of Emre Can from suspension was instrumental, as Mamadou Sakho’s new injury left the defence depleted against Blackburn last Wednesday. The return of Martin Škrtel should help the defence as well.
Rodgers went with the four-man defence for the second straight match, and it proved useful again, as the formation that saw Liverpool tearing through the Premier League in 2015 had been figured out by the opposition, and especially exposed by Manchester United and Arsenal. Only time will tell if he returns to the formation as some injury spells and suspensions are coming to an end, and a few important players will return to the side. The rest of the campaign was in question a week ago, but now Liverpool look to be in a strong position to grab maximum points, with their only truly difficult fixture coming up being against Chelsea (you could also argue that a pesky Crystal Palace could challenge the Reds as well).
If Liverpool are to pull off this incredible turnaround from the bottom half of the table in November to the top four, it will only bring on success for next year, and, hopefully, the coming years.
First, a qualification for a Champions League spot bolsters the chances of bringing Raheem Sterling back for another season. Yes, he’s been a terrible distraction, and, yes, there is still a much greater chance of him leaving Anfield, but never rule anything out when you’ve qualified for the Champions League. Contract negotiations have been postponed to the end of the season, where Sterling will likely sign elsewhere, but a top four finish would at least help. In other contract news, Jordan Henderson still has not agreed to a new one, and, although it seems much more likely that the future captain will return to Anfield after his holidays, Champions League qualification would help there as well.
Aside from the contracts of current players, the possible leap-frog of City could also result in a better summer transfer window for Liverpool. A fifth place finish, regardless of the leap the side made from the beginning of the season, would hurt the chances of pulling off a big signing. With the side looking for new strikers, possible Steven Gerrard replacements, and the looming possibility of Sterling’s departure, there are some important moves to be made, and many players will base their decision on whether or not they can play in the Champions League right away.
Liverpool will need to keep up the good form, and, with four points to gain on City, they need to hope that Pellegrini’s side continues to disappoint. City’s remaining schedule doesn’t look too imposing, so it will really take a massive collapse on their part. Brendan Rodgers will need to evaluate whether or not the new formation is one that he could stick with, and the returns of Gerrard, and Skrtel as well as the later returns of Daniel Sturridge and Mamadou Sakho will be the determining factors behind his tactical decisions. No matter what, the things he did against Newcastle worked, and hopefully will continue to work.
There is no doubt that this leap into the top four is a realistic possibility. It only makes it better that it would be at City’s expense.