We’re almost there. It’s one of those weeks where everything else pales into insignificance given the magnitude of Liverpool’s upcoming final fixture of the 2016/2017 season.
It’s difficult to think about individual players, to have any interest in transfer rumours or pay much mind to tactical tweaks and shifts; they all matter and would make interesting talking points.
But none of them matter as much as Sunday.
Win on Sunday and Liverpool will be back in the big time, back amongst the European elite. There will more than likely be a two-game playoff to contend with before we could take a place in the group stages but if we get the job done on Sunday, I don’t even want to contemplate us falling at that final hurdle.
For now, more than ever during Jurgen Klopp’s tenure at the club, every supporter that isn’t yet a believer needs to become one.
Casting a glance at social media, you’ll find plenty who think a top four finish is a foregone conclusion. There are also the naysayers who are convinced we’ll throw this golden opportunity away, though they were probably saying the same thing before we played West Ham United and won 4-0; some just seem to revel in misery.
I’m confident we will get the three points we need to get us over the line against Middlesbrough. I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion by any stretch of the imagination, few things in the Premier League are, but I think the victory over West Ham has given us some real momentum going into this final game at Anfield. That was a real test; we went into the game on the back of disappointing home draw against Southampton, Arsenal’s pursuit of a top four finish was gathering pace and they’d lain down the gauntlet by thrashing Stoke City in the late kick-off on Saturday.
But we passed that test with flying colours.
There is a certain irony in Arsene Wenger accusing West Ham of not putting in a performance against us given how embarrassingly abject Stoke were against Arsenal. If the shoe were on the other foot and Liverpool were the club playing catch up, I’m sure Wenger wouldn’t be proffering the same complaints about the competitiveness of teams that have nothing left to play for other than pride at this stage of the season.
But irrespective of West Ham’s performance application, Klopp and Liverpool have arrived at a formation that should give real cause for optimism going into Sunday.
Rather than bang our head against a brick wall like we did against Southampton, playing patiently when we needed some urgency, Klopp went with all-out attack. Out went Lucas Leiva, in came Daniel Sturridge to partner Divock Origi up front. Adam Lallana was back, Philippe Coutinho moved into the centre of midfield. There was nothing conservative about Liverpool last Sunday, we knew we needed the three points and so Klopp threw everything he had at the opposition to get them.
There is no reason to change anything against Middlesbrough. Play the same team in the same formation, play with the same license to attack and there is no reason not to believe that we will win.
If Middlesbrough were still in with a shot of retaining their place in the Premier League, I think we’d be contemplating a far tougher proposition at Anfield on Sunday. But I don’t expect them to roll over and concede defeat as a foregone conclusion; they’ll want to go out of the league on a high note, to throw a spanner in the works of the Champions League qualification race before they return to the Football League.
Liverpool simply have to start fast and with intent. An early goal could be key on the final day; the last thing we need is to toil away if we know Arsenal have gone in front against Everton. Anfield can be a tense enough place these days as it is and with so much at stake in this game, there are bound to be nerves enough without anything that might be happening at the Emirates Stadium filtering through and increasing them.
It’s a cliché, one I’m not really fond of, but Sunday really does feel like a cup final for us. Or at least the build up does, the anticipation that it’s going to be a very meaningful day for the future of the club. We won’t come away from it with any silverware if we win, but by winning we should, and really have to, be able to put ourselves in a far stronger position than we were in this season to compete for trophies on every front.
It’s all incremental steps. Appointing a manager of Klopp’s reputation, profile and track record of success was a major one forward. Him getting his feet under the table and getting to grips with the reconstruction of the squad he inherited was another. Champions League qualification is the next one we have to take.
By Sunday evening, we’ll have a far better idea of what to expect this summer and beyond.
I’d like to think that, should we finish in the top four, Klopp will get a little more leeway from supporters when it comes to signings, that we enjoy a transfer window without sniping that we aren’t signing big enough names compared to the clubs around us and baseless conspiracy theories that the manager is somehow being stopped from signing the players that he really wants by the owners. The club has to spend significant money this summer and I’m sure they will; Klopp is not going to want a repeat of this season’s shortcomings because of the same lack of depth that has hampered us in 2016/2017.
The next step in our progression has to be a trophy, something tangible to point to as evidence that Liverpool has the means with which to compete consistently on a domestic front, as well as in Europe. We were one of the forerunners in the title race up to the turn of the year; three or four additions, the right additions rather than necessarily big names, might prove to be the difference under Klopp in the coming years. That has to be the ultimate goal, winning the league and we’ve got an excellent chance of doing that with Klopp at the helm.
But before we can think too much about that, we have to get Sunday out of the way.
It is our most significant game since Klopp’s appointment; getting the job done will send out the right message to the rest of the Premier League, that Klopp and Liverpool are a force to be reckoned with. Once it’s over, when we know whether or not Liverpool are going to have the caveat of Champions League football to offer, then I’ll be able to relax a little and really start to pay close attention to the transfer rumour mill and immerse myself in the summer silly season.
But I really can’t look beyond Sunday now, trying to maintain a healthy mix of confidence. I can’t wait for the game against Middlesbrough to arrive; equally, I can’t wait for it to be over, to know one way of the other what our fate will be, whether the euphoria and despair of these thirty-eight games has been worth it in the end.
I believe it will prove to have been so.
Written by Ben Teesdale.