While you would never describe Liverpool as underdogs when travelling to face Stoke City or West Bromwich Albion, only the most naturally optimistic of Kopites would have confidently predicted their side would emerge with six points from those two fixtures, especially as the Reds were without three of their most important players.
Having also recently dropped two points at home to Bournemouth, Liverpool went into those two physically demanding fixtures with their top-four hopes in serious jeopardy. But taking maximum points against Stoke and West Brom has given them an excellent chance of securing Champions League football for next season. Both games were battles and Liverpool’s players had to dig deep to win, which is something they haven’t always been able to do this season. It’s a big reason why they are battling Manchester City for third place instead of being in the title shakeup with Chelsea and Tottenham.
In fairness to Jurgen Klopp and his players, they have been at a disadvantage to Chelsea (and, to a lesser extent, Spurs) because they haven’t been able to field their strongest XI anywhere near as frequently as the top two. Recently, they have been without skipper Jordan Henderson, as well as Adam Lallana and Sadio Mané, who have arguably been the Reds’ two best players this season.
Other clubs have probably had it worse and Liverpool’s injury list hasn’t exactly been crippling by any means (they wouldn’t be in third place if it had), but it does go a long way to explaining why they are nine points behind Chelsea despite playing one more game. For example, Philippe Coutinho missed six weeks and then took a further three months to finally reach the level he was at before his injury. How would the table look now if it was Eden Hazard rather than Coutinho who suffered that fate? The gap would certainly not be as great as it is now.
For most of the season, Antonio Conte has been able to select from a full squad. And much like last season’s champions, Leicester City, Chelsea’s starting lineup has been a settled one with very few changes from week to week. The importance of that cannot be overstated.
Spurs have had to make more changes than Chelsea due to their European involvement earlier in the season, with star man Harry Kane missing some games, but generally Mauricio Pochettino has been able to field close to his best team more often than not. All things considered, though, Spurs have done superbly to be pushing Chelsea as closely as they currently are.