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Friday, January 28, 2022

Liverpool’s new-found confidence through defensive stability may be the answer to catching Manchester City

Recent Premier League title challenges have come unstuck due to the strength of opponent combined with Liverpool’s failure to take their chance, but this season they are starting to get the rub of the green

Part of the challenge with the absence of success is that as time passes those who desire it the most do not necessarily know what it looks like when it might not even be far away. It becomes easy for panic to enslave and this makes any achievement that little bit harder to reach.

There have only been two seasons when Liverpool have been near to ending their wait for a title. But for a period around Christmas, they were always behind Manchester United in 2009. It was a race where they kept winning, though but for a few moments of hope, it never really seemed like they’d have enough to catch their greatest rivals due to the number of draws against opposition you’d normally back them to beat. In 2014, the mood was different because this was a title that Liverpool had in their grasp but lost in the most dramatic of circumstances in the third and second to last games.

Each of those campaigns were underpinned by the presence of star strikers, attacking football and big wins – especially over the teams around them, firstly in United who were beaten home and away and then five years later, Manchester City, whose defeat at Anfield opened up a seven-point gap with only a month of the season remaining.

These were periods of joyful expressionism, where excitement fizzed from the drama of the victories and the manner of the form. For Liverpool to finish as the best team in the league, they would have to perform as the best team in the league. This is what happened, and yet it was United and City at the summit when it really mattered.

Liverpool currently have more points at this stage than they had in either of those previous attempts, yet this time there appears to be more doubt about the possibilities for them. This relates to the abilities of City and their relentlessness but also the way Liverpool have achieved results, with pleasure being replaced by attritional values and also, a certain amount of luck.

At Anfield, they have now drawn with City – but only after Riyad Mahrez missed a penalty in injury time; they have beaten Everton too – but only because of Jordan Pickford’s 96th minute intervention. Would-be defining moments are favouring them. There is a temptation to dismiss the idea that Liverpool only appear to “keep going” because of the presence of fortune but that would be to ignore the last-minute equaliser at Chelsea and the victory over Paris Saint-Germain, when Roberto Firmino struck just as it seemed the result was settled as a draw.

They go to Burnley on Wednesday night, a place where a victory was similarly sealed in the final seconds on New Years’ Day after Ragnar Klavan’s header. Jurgen Klopp described this game on a sodden-pitch as “one of the coolest” he’s been involved in since arriving in England, with the circumstances of the win helping Liverpool believe they can go to the end and ultimately get what they want despite the intensity of the fixtures through the winter months. Burnley probably means facing two powerful centre forwards and not so long ago this would have presented a problem for Liverpool but not now.

Listening to Trent Alexander-Arnold on Sunday night, there was a sense that Liverpool’s belief stems from their newfound stability in defence where they have the best record in the league having not conceded in nine of their fourteen games.

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