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It’s May 5, 2014, and Liverpool is cruising with a 3-0 lead over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. If the Reds can hold on to this result, they can go into their final game of the season with a three-point lead over fellow title rivals Manchester City. The Premier League trophy is within touching distance.
But somehow, against all logic and expectation, Brendan Rodgers’ side concedes three goals in the final 11 minutes and leaves London with a 3-3 draw. Luis Suarez ends the game in floods of tears, as he sees the opportunity they have squandered. City will go on to use its game in hand to leapfrog Liverpool and win the title.
Five years later and City has once again leapfrogged Liverpool. But this time, it is not Liverpool’s leaky defense that is the problem — it’s the uncharacteristically gun-shy attack.
In recent seasons, Liverpool has been the team that would solve the problem of defending by outscoring its opponents. This gung-ho approach meant conceding 50 goals in the aforementioned 2013-14 season, keeping only 10 clean sheets. This season, by comparison, Liverpool conceded only 15 goals and managed 17 clean sheets.
The days of barmy 6-3 wins over Cardiff have, for the most part, been replaced by measured performances more befitting of a title challenger. Via refinement of Jurgen Klopp’s system in its fourth season, and the purchase of Virgil van Dijk — undoubtedly one of the best center backs in the world — Liverpool have the defensive fortitude that recent campaigns have lacked.
And the fact that the Reds have kept five clean sheets in a row speaks volumes to the quality of their defending, as we approach the critical part of the season that Sir Alex Ferguson once referred to as “squeaky bum time.”
However, the same level of performance under pressure cannot be attributed to the front line. One of the fiercest attacks in world soccer has been dulled.
Mohamed Salah scored 32 goals on the way to being crowned Premier League Player of the Year last season, but has only managed a little over half of that tally with nine games remaining in this campaign. The Egyptian’s drop-off in form has been particularly noticeable in the second half of the season, where he has managed only four goals in all competitions. He has managed only one goal in his last seven Premier League outings (against a Bournemouth side with a troubled defense) and didn’t register on the scoresheet when his teammates were helping themselves in the 5-0 rout of Watford.
Salah’s lack of potency was crystal clear in the Merseyside derby, during which he reached three straight Premier League games without a goal for the first time in his career. He was presented with two separate one-on-one opportunities with Jordan Pickford, but somehow failed to seize either.
The Mo Salah that we all know and love would have tucked away those kind of opportunities with his eyes closed.
It seems the sharpest prong in Liverpool’s trident has dropped in form at the worst possible time. This would not be a big issue if his teammates were firing at the moment, but sadly, they are not.
This season, Sadio Mane has been the only forward who has lived up to the reputation he carved last season, but he didn’t register a single shot in the scrappy encounter with Everton. Roberto Firmino, who apparently spent much of the game entertaining babies on the sidelines, only managed one shot. And Divock Origi only had a single shot before he made way for the Brazilian.
When adding in Salah’s two shots, that’s a total of four from the Liverpool forwards in that game. In the reverse fixture against Everton in December, they had 10 shots.
At a time of the campaign when the Reds need their attackers to be firing on all cylinders, they are letting the side down, having been shut out in three of their last four matches. Before their stalemate with Manchester United two weeks ago, Liverpool had scored in every single Premier League outing, except their draw with Manchester City.
And it is City waiting to reap the benefits of Liverpool’s shortcomings. The day before the Everton encounter, City earned a comprehensive 1-0 win over Bournemouth that Pep Guardiola hailed as "one of the best performances we've ever played." Not only did City secure an eighth consecutive win in all competitions, but it did so without even conceding a shot on target — a rare occurrence in the English top flight.
The Citizens are in the midst of an injury crisis, with Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne among the first-choice stars on the physio table, but they’re still able to summon the fortitude to get results. They are the team with the momentum right now, and the title is now theirs to lose.
Liverpool has finished runner-up in the Premier League twice in the past decade, while Klopp has guided them to silver medals in the League Cup final, the Europa League Final and the Champions League final. The Reds appear to be the Kings of Doing Almost Enough — but any suggestion that they are “bottling” this season may require a dose of perspective.
They have 10 more points than they did after 29 games last season and have significantly bettered the tallies they had at the same stage in 2009 and 2014, when they finished second in the league. They are a superb side, who have only lost one league game all season, and who are only being kept off the summit by what might be the greatest Premier League side of all time.
But all that achievement will mean little if Liverpool falls short, once again, in a quest to win the title that has lasted nearly 30 years. Salah, Mane and Firmino must make sure they get back to their best when it really counts. After all, defenses may win championships, but so do goal-scorers.
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