Premier League: Assessing Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League Hopes Over Run-In

Liverpool filled the hearts of its fans with hope Saturday by beating Arsenal.

The thrilling victory lifted Liverpool to third place in the Premier League standings, restoring momentum to the Reds’ pursuit of a top-four finish and a spot in next season’s UEFA Champions League. The timely win might have arrested the Liverpool’s alarming early 2017 slump, which had threatened to derail its apparent progress in Jurgen Klopp’s first full season as manager.

With 11 games remaining in the 2016-17 Premier League season, and no further cup outings, the Reds have entered the final sprint toward their Champions League goal.

We expect Chelsea to stroll to the Premier League title, leaving Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United to battle for three spots in the final standings. Just four points separate the teams, with some having played more games than others.

Nevertheless, let’s once again do some inexact science and assess Liverpool’s chances of success.

Liverpool plays only one more game against a top-six foe: at Manchester City on March 19. Untrained eyes will see this as a good thing, but anyone who has followed the Reds this season knows they fare well against the best and struggle against the rest.

Burnley and Bournemouth have beaten Liverpool this season, but don’t expect them to repeat the feat on March 12 and April 5, respectively, at Anfield. Liverpool can’t overlook these teams, though, as losses or draws in these games, combined with setbacks against Manchester City and Everton (on April 1), could heap unbearable pressure on the Reds.

Tricky visits to Stoke City (on April 8) and West Brom (on April 16) come next, followed by a home game against Crystal Palace (on April 23). Liverpool must carry momentum into, and out of, this period when they face two mid-table teams and one fighting for survival. The margins will be tight and mistakes magnified next month.

Liverpool’s last four games will be against Watford (May 1 away), Southampton (May 6 home), West Ham (May 13 away) and Middlesbrough. Southampton and West Ham should be safe by then and effectively playing out their season with no great urgency. Watford also could be in that position.

Last-placed Middlesbrough could pose a stiff test on the last day of the season and it will throw everything it has at Liverpool with hopes of avoiding relegation.

Liverpool has to stop playing to the level of its opponents and maintain its highest level, particularly over the next two months.

Champions League riches and prestige are at stake.

Squad outlook
Form, injuries and suspension will help determine Klopp’s lineups, but we expect most of them to look like the team that beat Arsenal.

Simon Mignolet probably will start the rest of the games at goalkeeper, with Loris Karius serving as his backup. Liverpool’s goalkeeping woes are well-documented, but we suspect the worst of them are in the past.

Dejan Lovren’s return from injury means Klopp can choose from three capable center backs. Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip started against Arsenal, but Lovren likely will oust former and partner the latter in the near term.

The fullback positions are dangerously thin, with Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner cemented as first-choice on the right and left, respectively. Their potential absences could threaten the defensive cohesion Klopp cited as factors in Liverpool’s 2017 struggles.

Depth is in issue in midfield, with Jordan Henderson suffering from a persistent foot problem. Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum likely will play deeper roles in midfield, but their performances tend to fluctuate.

Liverpool looks stronger higher up the field, with the quartet of Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino comprising a vibrant attacking unit. The more these four play together, the better Liverpool’s chances of a top-four finish will be.

Mane is the key. When he’s in the lineup, the other three can play in their most comfortable roles.

If Divock Origi and/or Daniel Sturridge can recover their best form, Liverpool should have enough firepower to reach its promised land.

Then again, the effects of a potent attack will be limited if the Reds don’t stop gifting opponents goals.

At this point, Liverpool’s Champions League hopes appear to be a 50-50 proposition.

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