Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp walks dejected following the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Burnley in Liverpool.(AP)
Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp walks dejected following the English Premier League soccer match between Liverpool and Burnley in Liverpool.(AP)

Ahead of United tie, Liverpool left red in the face

  • Ashley Barnes’ 83rd minute penalty ended the Reds’ 68-match unbeaten run at home in the Premier League that stretched back to April, 2017.
By Bhargab Sarmah
PUBLISHED ON JAN 24, 2021 08:37 AM IST

“Massive, massive punch in the face or whatever – it’s my responsibility, that’s the easy explanation,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said in response to Thursday’s shocking 0-1 defeat to Burnley at Anfield. Ashley Barnes’ 83rd minute penalty ended the Reds’ 68-match unbeaten run at home in the Premier League that stretched back to April, 2017.

The result was a near-perfect summation of what has been ailing Liverpool in recent times. The Reds bossed possession, took 27 shots, made two-and-a-half times the passes as made by Burnley, with a far higher accuracy. And yet, that final step – a goal – was missing. Liverpool rarely threatened against a narrow low block. It was the fourth straight league game where Liverpool failed to score a goal and the fifth successive round they had failed to win. Their injury troubles notwithstanding, such a prolonged struggle in front of goal is shocking for a hallowed attack that features Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.

Six points off the top, Klopp, understandably, wasn’t willing to discuss the title race after the game. "How silly would that be if I sit here now, losing against Burnley, didn’t score for the last three or four games – I don't know exactly – and now I talk about the title race? How silly would that be?

“It's just we have to win football games – it was always like this. For this we have to score goals, there is no doubt about it. That's what we have to change and have to do better,” he said.

The chances of a league defeat for Liverpool at Anfield was looking increasingly likely in recent weeks. In hindsight, Manchester United, who played out a goalless draw at the ground last Sunday, may rue not being able to go for the kill against a vulnerable Liverpool side. United never dominated at Anfield but managed to create two of the game’s best scoring opportunities.

At the same time, however, United are managing to eke out wins from games where they haven’t performed too well – late winners at Brighton, Southampton and at home against Wolves being among the most notable ones. Wednesday’s 2-1 victory at Fulham, with French star Paul Pogba netting a match-winning strike in the second half, was another exhibition of United’s new-found resilience.

United are now in a 13-game unbeaten run, which has included 10 wins, and are also at the top of the table, albeit second-placed Manchester City have a game in hand and are just two points behind. Less than a couple of months back, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s job seemed to be on the line after a horrid start to the club’s 2020-21 campaign that saw them pick one point from their first four home league games and then crash out of the Champions League. But United’s turnaround at a time when Liverpool’s form has dipped has changed the discourse around Solskjaer. There is talk of United being title contenders.

Pogba’s improved form in recent weeks, coupled with greater defensive solidity and Bruno Fernandes’ high output up front, have helped catapult United to the top of the standings for now. A lot would also depend on how they manage their season. United remain active in the FA Cup and the gruelling Europa League. In a season where games are coming thick and fast, Solskjaer may have to focus on the league over the other two competitions in order to stand a chance of winning the title.

Klopp has in the past prioritised the Premier League and the Champions League over the domestic cup competitions in particular. He has two major titles to justify the decision. On Sunday, when United host Liverpool at Old Trafford in an FA Cup fourth round clash, both sides will be unwilling to cede ground but both managers would be forgiven for resting some of their key names.

It would also be exactly 22 years from the day when Solskjaer had decided an identical FA Cup fourth round fixture at Old Trafford, scoring a last-minute winner against Liverpool that gave United the impetus for an unprecedented treble. This time, a United win could again be vital in adding to their momentum.

At the same time, discussions around the Liverpool-United rivalry could obfuscate the other major storylines concerning the Premiership title race. Man City are back in form, having won each of their last six games. Pep Guardiola’s men, despite missing key players through different stages of the season, are starting to hit their stride and look like the biggest favourites for the title. Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester City are right in the middle of the title race. Whether they continue to build on their first half of the season or drop off like last season will be interesting to see. Tottenham and Everton too will be hopeful of staying in the title race, as will Liverpool, in a season where no single team has asserted one’s dominance like in the one gone by.

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