With the end of the season in sight, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side appear to be hobbling toward the line at a time when they desperately need a sprint finish to end the campaign with a top-four berth.
The Reds have occupied one of the Champions League qualification places for virtually the entire season, but last weekend’s home defeat to Crystal Palace, coupled with the rescheduling of their trip to Watford until after all of their rivals have played, means there is a good possibility that Klopp’s men could find themselves in the fifth spot when they take to the field at Vicarage Road on Monday night.
Having taken just one point from their last two home fixtures, Liverpool might actually feel more comfortable about playing their next game on the road, especially as they are coming off consecutive away victories at Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion, who, just like Watford, occupy places in the middle third of the table.
Watford have been safe for a long time and seemingly have little to play for, and at times it has shown. Much like Stoke and West Brom, there have been games recently when Walter Mazzarri’s men have not been at full tilt. Their last game was particularly disappointing as they were beaten handily by a Hull City side that had been reduced to 10 men early on, with the game still goalless.
To lose 2-0 to a relegation struggler that had to play most of the game with a man less is completely unacceptable, and Watford skipper Troy Deeney did not mince his words afterward.
“One team had a set of balls and ran and kicked and did all the horrible stuff, and the other team just wanted to play a game like it was FIFA,” said Deeney, before adding, “We’re not in the business of apologising to fans, but that weren’t fair. It’s a long old dig to get up here and we’ve got a moral responsibility to play a lot better than that.”
Watford will be keen to make amends and put on a performance in front of their own supporters, and Liverpool will therefore need to be prepared for a frenzied start by the home side.
Of course, Klopp’s side will also be looking to strike back after the disappointing loss to Palace, but they might need to take the sting out of the Hornets first before they can impose themselves on the game.
If the Reds can weather the early storm, they will be confident of eventually making their greater quality count. But with this particular Liverpool team, you can never take anything for granted. They have already been beaten at Burnley, Leicester, Bournemouth and Hull, so another loss at Watford would hardly fall into the category of “shock.”
The last thing Liverpool can afford is to concede early, like they did last in this fixture last season, when backup keeper Adam Bogdan’s howler just a minute into the game saw on-loan Nathan Ake give Watford a dream start on the way to a 3-0 win.
That was a miserable afternoon for the Merseysiders and was arguably their worst performance of the entire season. Deeney dominated Liverpool’s defence that day and he will no doubt be sharpening his elbows in anticipation of a repeat performance on Monday night. He had a lot to say for himself after that game, mostly about Martin Skrtel, whom he claimed “went off because he didn’t fancy it.” That was nonsense; Skrtel left the field with a hamstring injury that kept him out for months, but Deeney was right when he claimed that Watford bullied Liverpool, and you can be sure he’ll be looking to do so again.
Liverpool did get their revenge the next time the sides met, winning 2-0 at Anfield last May, and the meeting between the sides earlier this season could not have been easier for Klopp’s team, who ran out 6-1 winners on a day when they could quite easily have reached double figures. Liverpool were at the very top of their game at that time and the win sent them top of the Premier League.
Much has changed since then, not least the Liverpool starting lineup, which currently looks nowhere near as strong or as fluid as it did back in that November meeting. Sadio Mané, Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson have all been missing of late, although there is some hope that Lallana might return Monday night.
Watford will feel they have nothing to fear from this Liverpool team, and Deeney in particular will be relishing the opportunity to lock horns with a Liverpool backline that has been heavily criticised throughout the season and has come under intense scrutiny this week after a poor showing against Palace.
Dejan Lovren was dreadful last weekend, but having just been rewarded with a new and improved contract — Liverpool’s sense of timing is as questionable as their set-piece defending — the Croatian could really do with bouncing back with a dominant display against Deeney.
With games running out, Liverpool have virtually no margin for error now. Four victories would probably be enough to secure a Champions League spot, but it would not guarantee it. If Manchester City and either of Arsenal or Manchester United were to win all of their remaining games, Klopp’s men would be out in the cold.
Given the tough nature of United’s and Arsenal’s remaining games, it’s conceivable that the Reds could still get in by winning just three of their four games. But if they slip up at Watford, they’d really be giving themselves a mountain to climb.
Liverpool have been brilliant for large chunks of the season and will feel they deserve Champions League football for next year. But if they fall at this final hurdle, all of that will count for nothing.
Monday’s game is absolutely vital for them.