Liverpool must seize opportunity to reach Champions League after top-four door left ajar

Thiago Alcantara celebrates scoring against Southampton (PA)

As Thiago stood on the Anfield turf, in front of TV cameras fresh after his first goal for Liverpool had wrapped up a desperate victory against Southampton, he spoke of “always trying to bring out the reality.”

The situation the pedigreed midfielder finds himself in after departing Bayern Munich as a continental king last summer to link up with all-conquering unit that had simultaneously been champions of England, Europe and the world, couldn’t be more disparate from what he’d anticipated.

The 30-year-old, seen as a key piece to help Liverpool evolve so they could again ward off Manchester City and the rest of the pack, wanted a new challenge on these shores: to win a different league title and pull the strings for another side on the grandest club stage.

What Thiago has landed instead is an almighty scrap for a top-four spot – “a small miracle” – as he so poetically called it, in a season where Liverpool have endured more injury setbacks than posted comfortable triumphs.

Even the 2-0 ousting of Southampton was hugely uncomfortable and not safe until the Spain international’s 90th-minute strike wrong-footed Fraser Forster with the aid of a deflection.

Thiago celebrated getting off the mark for Liverpool at a crucial juncture, giving life to their remote crusade to remain amongst Europe’s elite, with Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams.

Both defenders Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies – recruited to cover the long-term absences of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip – also fell victim to injury.

Liverpool had 10 players missing on Saturday night, and to put that into context, in the previous four seasons consisting of 213 matches, the most players unavailable at any one time was six.

That happened seven times as pointed out by the statistician Andrew Beasley on Twitter. In 2020-21, the Merseysiders have been sans seven-plus first-teamers for half of their matches.

Jurgen Klopp’s assertion that the club broke its leg when all senior centre-backs were sidelined, before their spine crumbled as midfielders were drafted into defence, was an accurate portrayal of their horrid campaign.

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For the reasonable questions over his use of Jordan Henderson and specifically Fabinho in the heart of defence when there were alternatives available, as well as not rotating enough further forward (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has started two games, Xheridan Shaqiri seven) to allow mental and physical freshness, Liverpool may well limp over the top-four line.

Leicester in that last, golden spot are having a familiar slip having drawn with Southampton, lost to Newcastle and they line up against a strong Manchester United next.

Liverpool have a game in hand and are six points behind them, with Champions League dreams also riding on a collision with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men, who are attempting to delay Manchester City’s title crowning.

West Ham, are only a point better off than the defending champions having played a match more after succumbing to Everton.

If the door looks to be again creeping open for Liverpool, there is a healthy dose of realisation at the club that they have been the ones to keep themselves from accepting the gift of entering.

“When the door’s been open we haven’t walked through it,” Andy Roberston conceded. “People have dropped points and then we’ve dropped points as well, which when you’re in the chasing pack can’t really happen.

“So it’s out of our hands. If Leicester win all their games then we can’t catch them. When teams do slip up, we need to be there to capitalise on that. We’ve not been good enough on that so far this season. We can’t have any more slip-ups.”

David Moyes’ side was the latest to reignite Liverpool’s slim opportunity of seeing their “small miracle” materialise, but it hinges on winning their four remaining matches.

Liverpool’s last league defeat was against Fulham at Anfield on 3 March. However, to adopt Thiago’s approach and “always try to bring out the reality,” they have not registered four league victories on the spin in this campaign. They last managed such a run across all competitions from mid-October to the start of November.

Inconsistency has been their identity. It is far-fetched to imagine Liverpool suddenly shaking off their deficiencies and morphing back into a flowing, formidable machine to end the season where they want to.

But can they grind it out? Are they capable of generating overwhelming pressure on those around them? Do performances matter as much as just winning right now?

“We are not in dreamland and say everything has to click again,” Klopp offered. “The result is the most important.”

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