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At the halfway point of the Premier League season, is it Liverpool's title to lose?

Recent history suggests the Reds are poised for glory.

Liverpool players celebrate after a goal against Newcastle on St Stephen's Day.
Liverpool players celebrate after a goal against Newcastle on St Stephen's Day.
Image: Peter Byrne

Updated at 19.32

AFTER LIVERPOOL MOVED six points clear at the top of the Premier League on St Stephen’s Day following a comprehensive win over Newcastle, Jurgen Klopp was saying all the right things.

Towards the end of the match at Anfield on Wednesday, as Liverpool sauntered to a routine victory over the hapless Magpies, there was a loud cheer in the crowd. It was nothing to do with anything that was happening on the pitch, and instead was a reaction to news of Man City — the team most pundits consider the biggest threat to Liverpool’s title challenge — struggling at Leicester.

Yet Klopp was refusing to get carried away. 

“I’m naive,” he said. “When I heard the cheers I thought ‘that’s nice’. I didn’t realise it was for another result! Obviously nobody told our crowd that Tottenham won 5-0.

“I had no idea how any other teams were playing, I didn’t even know where they were playing so afterwards I got the results and I can say it didn’t do a lot with me.”

Pep Guardiola too was responding to his side’s setback in measured manner.

“Good results make miracles in the mind,” he said.

All the game is in the mind. We are the same ones, we practise the little details the same as we have done during three years together.

“So now there will be doubts but what we have to do is try to change the dynamic to win games and make good performances.

“But we are able to do that. I never doubt them. With the joy and pleasure in how many things they have done in the recent past – not a long time ago – I will never doubt them.

“I have to reflect and think about what the team needs and how to help them.”

And while with City and increasingly Liverpool, winning the title is becoming an expectation rather than a hope, the same cannot be said for rivals Tottenham, despite an emphatic 5-0 defeat of Bournemouth yesterday seeing them leapfrog the Etihad oufit into second.

The tone of Pochettino’s comments on Wednesday reflected the sense that Spurs — whose spending in recent years has been dwarfed by City and Liverpool among others — remain relative underdogs in the title race.

“Football is about dreaming and believing but also respecting the competition and the opponent,” he said.

“Liverpool and Manchester City have the culture and the history because in recent years they have won a lot.

“We are there because we deserve to be but there is still a long way to go and we need to go step by step, always believing that we can do better, improve.”

Yesterday’s developments saw Liverpool installed as the bookies’ favourites for the Premier League title, and their fans certainly have plenty of scope for optimism.

The Reds have won 16 and drawn three of their Premier League matches so far, scoring 43 goals and conceding only seven.

At the same stage last year, they trailed table toppers Man City by 20 points, having won nine, drawn eight and lost two.

Klopp has even eclipsed greats of the club’s illustrious past in one respect — it is their best start to a league season ever, with even legendary managers such as Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly never enjoying the kind of phenomenal form they are experiencing currently.

And while there is understandable positivity right now, long-term Liverpool fans will be all too aware of the potential pitfalls that lie ahead.

The Reds have been champions of England 18 times, with only Man United (20) winning more titles.

However, they have not tasted glory since the Premier League era began, with their last triumph coming in 1990, when Kenny Dalglish was manager.

Moreover, in the history of the Premier League, of the 26 teams that have topped the table at Christmas, only 14 have gone on to become champions. Leeds, Aston Villa and Newcastle have been among the sides to have been leaders at the halfway point, only for their seasons to unravel in disappointing fashion.

However, recent history is weighted more in Liverpool’s favour. There has been a definite change in teams establishing insurmountable leads and dropping fewer points since Jose Mourinho’s great Chelsea team of the mid-2000s prevailed.

Since the Blues’ first title triumph in 2004-05, the Christmas table toppers have won the league 11 out of a possible 14 times, and eight times in the last nine seasons.

Of course, there have also been a few near misses for the Reds, in the nearly three decades since they last won the league.

They were also in first place at the halfway point of the 1996-97 season, but ended up finishing fourth, seven points behind champions Man United.

In the 2002-03 season, they went top of the table having gone unbeaten in their first 12 games, only to fall away badly thereafter and finish fifth.

Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Liverpool v Fulham Liverpool previously were unbeaten and topped the league after 12 games under Gerard Houllier, only to fall away badly thereafter. Source: EMPICS Sport

Similarly, at the halfway point of the 2008-09 campaign with Rafa Benitez in charge, they topped the table, only to finish second, four points behind bitter rivals Man United.

And of course, there was the 2013-14 campaign, where under Brendan Rodgers, they seemed destined to prevail.

After 35 matches in that season, Liverpool led Chelsea by five points, and Man City by six, although the Etihad outfit had a game in hand. Steve Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea is often cited as the reason for their failure, but a defence that conceded 50 goals, including three in their crucial penultimate match with Crystal Palace, was the true cause of their woes.

That unforgettable season was the last time there was a genuinely thrilling end to the Premier League title race.

Whereas Man City ended up winning the league by a meagre two points that year, the final difference between first and second in terms of points since then has been as follows: 8, 10, 7 and 19.

Yet there is a pervading feeling that this Liverpool side is greater than previous incarnations in the Premier League era.

In the past, there was the sense that the Reds were overly reliant on highly talented individuals papering over the cracks elsewhere.

The likes of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher, Luis Suarez and Fernando Torres were all world class at their best, and were capable of almost single-handedly inspiring teams to victory.

Yet the flaws were too often conspicuous elsewhere, which is why Liverpool, though they have achieved success in cup competitions of recent years, have never possessed the consistency and squad depth necessary to win the league.

Now, rather than one or two players, they have several match-winners at their disposal. Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane are examples of players good enough to get in most teams in the world.

Yet the biggest change has been the defence. In Virgil van Dijk, they have a player singled out on more than one occasion as the best centre-back in the world

It is just two years since Liverpool were beaten 4-3 by Bournemouth in one of the most inept defensive showings you are likely to see at Premier League level.

The changes since then have been drastic. Liverpool have gone from a nervy error-prone outfit to arguably the most defensively sound team in the league.

Up until recently, Jurgen Klopp was accused in some quarters of being a coach who lacked an understanding of the defensive side of the game, despite presiding over a Dortmund side that conceded just 22 goals in 34 games when they won the Bundesliga in 2011, and 25 goals in 34 matches when they repeated the feat the following season.

And Van Dijk’s signing a year ago has transformed the Reds — in addition to his undoubted ability, his presence has also inspired those around him.

If you look at the best sides in Premier League history, they often have an inspirational leader at their core — a serial winner and top-class athlete who demands the best out of others. For Man United, it was Roy Keane. For Arsenal, it was Patrick Vieira. For Chelsea, it was John Terry. And Van Dijk looks capable of being that player for Liverpool.

These winter months, with the top teams invariably having intensely hectic schedules, can often make or break Premier League title challengers, but Liverpool appear better placed than ever to end 29 years of hurt.

Club legend Graeme Souness believes they are the best group of players to represent the club since the 1990 title winners, and he is not alone in that assertion.

With Man City faltering, and Spurs lacking the Reds’ strength in depth, it is increasingly starting to feel like Liverpool’s title to lose.

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne look back on a memorable year for Irish rugby.


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Paul Fennessy

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