After halting their recent slide with a 1-1 home draw against Chelsea, Liverpool face Hull City on Saturday for what they hope will be stage two of their recovery.
Fans are wary of predicting a positive outcome, however, because this is the kind of game where the Reds let them down. Hull are in the relegation zone and you’d think Liverpool have a better chance of winning this than they had against Antonio Conte’s champions-in-waiting.
That’s usually where things go wrong for Jurgen Klopp’s side. On Thursday, Georginio Wijnaldum said having done well against the big sides “we must make sure we do it against the small teams.”
Everyone knows what he meant but maybe it’s not wise to say so immediately before a match. Hull boss Marco Silva might have that quote pinned to the dressing room wall on Saturday.
While Liverpool sit above the others in a top six “mini-league,” that isn’t what wins titles and everybody knows it. It doesn’t bode well that Hull haven’t lost at home to Liverpool since April 2009. That was the last season Liverpool did well both at home and abroad, finishing second in the league while reaching the Champions League quarterfinals. Even then, the Reds dropped points they’d expected to win while beating the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid home and away.
Klopp’s predecessor Brendan Rodgers also suffered at KCOM Stadium, losing on both his visits there. One, a 3-1 defeat in December 2013, was one of three away losses that month which Liverpool rued as they narrowly missed out on the title six months later.
Silva replaced Mike Phelan, whose team lost 5-1 at Anfield in September. Given the new man’s impressively close results against Manchester United recently, Klopp can’t possibly expect such an easy ride this time.
He’ll also need to get a better result than Jose Mourinho did on Wednesday, as the United manager triggered a new war of words with his Liverpool counterpart over perceived leniency regarding the German’s touchline behaviour. To do that, Klopp will need his star players to improve. Sadio Mane’s return from the African Nations Cup is timely.
Though it doesn’t look likely Chelsea can be caught now, the Londoners face a tough derby on Saturday against Arsenal. Any stumble must be seized upon by the chasing pack, including Liverpool.
The Reds’ losing streak may have been halted but the need to return to winning ways can’t be stressed enough. Draws are no good at any stage of the season but the current point spread between second and sixth is wafer-thin.
Liverpool are the only club in that top six seriously struggling for form. If that run doesn’t end soon, all of their pre-January excellence will have been in vain. Other teams’ temporary setbacks only deflect attention from your own flaws. Arsenal’s abysmal 2-1 defeat at home to Watford, Spurs’ failure to beat Sunderland and United drawing a blank at home to Hull are no use to Liverpool if they keep faltering themselves.
It might be difficult to pretend Hull are anything like as good as Chelsea, but fully respecting the opposition is a major factor in why Chelsea are 10 points clear of Liverpool.
Is that gap too big to close? Most likely, but until it’s mathematically impossible to catch them, Liverpool must give every game the same intensity and energy they gave to the league leaders. It’s not that Chelsea won’t drop points — maybe even 10 of them — but with Liverpool and their Achilles’ heel everyone knows they will drop points too.
That’s what makes the visit to Hull so important. Fans are almost resigned to the Reds letting them down, expecting it even. A good win in East Yorkshire would briefly halt the negativity oozing into Anfield.
There is no European or even domestic cup football to distract them now. Cynics claimed that’s why Liverpool did so well in the first half of the season and why they’ve floundered in January. Even good results from now on won’t halt those insinuations. Better that than the Reds still struggling despite having a significant advantage over their closest rivals.
The ability to beat the teams in the bottom 10 often decides who does well or not. In the aforementioned Rafael Benitez title challenge in 2008-09, he went close to catching Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. United collected an awe-inspiring 58 points from the 60 available to them against the bottom 10. That’s why they came first.
It’s only when Klopp overcomes this obstacle that anyone can begin to take Liverpool seriously as title challengers.
Beating Hull on Saturday would be the perfect start.
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