Liverpool are top of the Premier League at the end of February. There are only 10 league matches remaining, as Jurgen Klopp’s side chase a 19th English league title and a first in the Premier League era.
With a solitary league defeat all season, you’d expect Liverpool to be comfortable favourites. Their odds have slipped in recent weeks, though, making reigning champions Manchester City the odds-on favourites to lift the trophy.
Liverpool are averaging a shade under 2.5 points per match. They would be clear with that mark in plenty of other seasons. Competing with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City is a sterner task, and perhaps, an impossible one.
Liverpool, despite having a point advantage over their north west rivals, are underdogs in a title race they have led for so much of the campaign.
The lead was as high as seven points on New Year’s Eve. Minor blips and defeat to City in the first two months of 2019 have seen Guardiola rapidly appear in Klopp’s rearview mirror.
The history of Brendan Rodgers’ late-season collapse. The decades without domestic glory. The pain of watching Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United dominate the Premier League. All of these things combine to increase the pressure on Klopp’s men.
Leading from the front and becoming favourites changed the reasonable expectation for this season. Winning the title went from being an outside possibility to a probability, to the point where saying Liverpool were favourites was not crazy.
Draws with Manchester United, Leicester and West Ham have changed the Premier League title picture. City are on an unstoppable run, while Klopp has seen his side falter.
They are not disastrous results, and they still picked up three points from those matches, but this is what City demand from teams who go toe-to-toe with them.
Two points dropped is not just a thing that happens, it is a blip, and City have pretty much taken advantage of every ever-so-minor blip Liverpool have had in recent weeks.
There’s a Merseyside derby coming up and Tottenham and Chelsea are still to visit Anfield. City will drop points, but the margin for error is paper-thin.
Liverpool have plenty of winnable fixtures remaining – Huddersfield and Fulham stick out – but there’s also the potential distraction of the Champions League.
Liverpool are 4/7 favourites to beat Everton in the Merseyside derby this weekend. Use 888sport’s betting calculator to compile your accumulator.
Europe is a greater concern for City than it is for Liverpool. That does not give Klopp the flexibility to rotate in the Champions League and fall out of the competition with a whimper, however.
Liverpool still have a very good chance of overcoming Bayern Munich when they head to Bavaria in mid-March. Klopp has crucial decisions to make, as he tries to avoid burnout for his stars.
The league may be a priority but naming a rotated team and being eliminated from the Champions League is not an option. Such a scenario would make winning the Premier League a necessity.
Does Klopp gamble and give his stars a rest against Burnley or Fulham (the matches either side of the trip to Germany) instead? Do the core players just play 270 minutes in a week and hope to rest in the international break?
These are the squad management challenges Klopp faces. Guardiola’s situation is significantly easier, even with injuries. Liverpool have made great strides in recent windows, improving squad quality and depth.
They still lag behind in that regard though, meaning alterations to the starting line-up make the team noticeably weaker. At some point, Klopp will probably have to do that in either the Champions League or Premier League. That is a big call.
The extra matches of the Champions League increase the physical strain. Being out of the competition would see the league pressure grow.
Everyone associated with Liverpool would have taken this scenario back in August. Now they are here, though, every decision is viewed under a microscope, every goal is considered season-defining and every draw or defeat is a disaster.
These are the challenges players and managers want to face in spring. As much as we all love to leap to conclusions on big matches in autumn and winter, it is spring where we really find out about a team.
Getting to this point is one thing. As the prospect of immortality nears for these Liverpool players, so does the risk of disappointment, of falling short.
Klopp’s coaching, development of players and superb recruitment has made Liverpool more than title outsiders. They deserve to be in the ‘top two’, streets ahead of the Premier League’s rest.
City looked set to reign supreme for years to come, and Liverpool, regardless of what happens in the next two months or so, have done incredibly well to raise their standards to City’s level.
It is a peculiar situation for the leaders to be underdogs. The Premier League title race is still in the balance, of course, but the trajectories of both teams give City the upper hand right now.
Liverpool’s title drought and winter lead leaves them suffering the burden of favourites, despite having to upset the odds.
Klopp and his team are in a unique and rather bizarre situation. One injury to the front three or back four changes everything in a way it does not for Guardiola and City.
Even in a historically great campaign, with a squad containing some of the world’s best, and a lead (albeit small) as we enter March, Liverpool need good fortune and an almost perfect run to win the title.