With no more international breaks until the end of March, the club season intensifies as Christmas and the halfway point come within view. Liverpool pick up from the November internationals with 30 points from a possible 36, a total that in many seasons would see them leading the Premier League but currently has then in second place, two points behind Manchester City. The Reds have yet to taste defeat in the competition this term, unbeaten in league action since the first week of May.
With a hectic Premier League schedule punctuated by two pivotal Champions League games, though, Jurgen Klopp’s men will be hard pressed to keep pace with the reigning champions and leaders, never mind overtaking them as 2018 nears its conclusion. Our analysis looks at Liverpool’s fixtures between now and Christmas Day, assessing how they fared in the corresponding games last season and how they performed in the month leading up to Christmas 2017.
Liverpool’s results from corresponding games in 2017/18 (2018/19 for European games)
The first of eight fixtures awaiting Liverpool between now and Christmas sees them travel to Vicarage Road to face Watford on Saturday, their first visit to Hertfordshire since the opening day of last season. On that day, Liverpool were twice behind before taking a 3-2 lead, only to concede a stoppage time equaliser and drop two points on a weekend when most of the other ‘big six’ won. It was a game in which Mohamed Salah scored the first of 44 goals for the Reds during a memorable season, although it was a defensive horror show which saw Simon Mignolet and those immediately ahead of him turn in an unconvincing display.
Next Wednesday, Liverpool will try to get their floundering Champions League campaign back on track after the woeful defeat in Belgrade at the start of the month. The Reds have lost both away games in Europe this season, not an ideal precursor for a trip to the Parc des Princes to meet Paris Saint Germain. The French champions are rarely thwarted on their own patch, although Liverpool did get one over on them on matchday one when Roberto Firmino struck a stoppage time winner to secure a famous 3-2 victory. It was one of the Reds’ best performances so far this season, although they cannot afford mistakes such as the wayward pass from Salah which gifted Kylian Mbappe the ball for his equalising goal in the second half.
December begins with a Merseyside derby almost a year to the day after the corresponding fixture from last season. On a snowy day at Anfield, Salah scored a sensational solo goal just before half-time to give the Reds a deserved lead, but a rush of blood to the head from Dejan Lovren saw him concede a second half penalty which Wayne Rooney dispatched to give Everton a share of the spoils. At least England’s record goalscorer won’t be in the Toffees ranks to frustrate Liverpool again this season.
The first midweek round of Premier League fixtures quickly follows the derby, with Klopp’s side making the short trip to Burnley. Liverpool began 2018 with a visit to Turf Moor and showed the type of resilience that has been in evidence on several occasions this season, Ragnar Klavan cementing his cult hero status among Kopites with a last-gasp winner not long after Johann Gudmundsson thought he had rescued a point for Burnley, who were firmly in the European hunt. Those lofty heights seem a long way beyond Sean Dyche’s team at the moment, with the Clarets only a point above the relegation zone and leaking goals at an alarming rate.
A busy first week of December then sees Liverpool venture to the south coast to take on Bournemouth, having also visited the Cherries shortly before Christmas last season. Klopp would certainly take a repeat of the teams’ last encounter at the Vitality Stadium, a thoroughly clinical 4-0 victory. First half goals from Philippe Coutinho, Dejan Lovren and Salah had Liverpool in a very comfortable position at the interval and Roberto Firmino rounded off the scoring midway through the second half for the visitors.
Three days later, the Reds return to Anfield for what is likely to be a win-or-bust Champions League showdown against Napoli. Liverpool will be out for revenge against the Serie A side, having gone down to a tame 1-0 defeat in southern Italy in October. The teams are currently level on six points but the matchday five fixtures give Napoli a strong chance of pulling ahead prior to the Anfield clash. Whatever happens against PSG, Liverpool know that a two-goal win against Carlo Ancelotti’s side would ensure qualification for the last 16.
If the Reds can pull that off, they will be in good spirits going into the fixture that remains the biggest grudge match of the lot, the visit of Manchester United. The last two Anfield stagings of the most successful clubs in English football ended goalless, largely thanks to the brilliance of David de Gea in goal for the visitors. The bus-parking tactics of Jose Mourinho also had a significant part to play in Liverpool’s prolific attackers being stifled and it would be foolish in the extreme to expect any deviation from the Red Devils boss when hostilities are renewed on 16 December.
Liverpool then have a welcome free midweek before finishing their pre-Christmas fixture glut with a trip to Wolves. The Reds haven’t visited Molineux since January 2012, when Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy among the scorers in a 3-0 win during a season that ended with Wolves finishing bottom of the Premier League. When the teams last met two seasons ago, the men from the Midlands caused an upset by winning 2-1 at Anfield in an FA Cup clash, first half goals from Richard Stearman and Andreas Weimann taking the then-Championship outfit through to the fifth round and depriving Liverpool of their last realistic chance of silverware that season. That meeting was less than 24 months ago but both teams have progressed substantially since then. This could be a Friday night cracker at Molineux.
Liverpool’s record for mid-November to Christmas 2017
Liverpool are facing into a run of eight matches in 28 days that could tee them up for a prolonged Premier League assault or scupper their hopes of ending the interminable title drought. This time last year, they had a post-international break run of 10 matches in 35 days, with the break coming a week earlier last season and the scheduling of two midweek Premier League matches in that period.
The Reds resumed from the November break with a comfortable 3-0 victory at home to a Southampton side that featured Virgil van Dijk. A first half double from Salah left Liverpool in a strong position at the interval and any faint hopes of a Saints comeback were ended midway through the second half when Coutinho netted Liverpool’s third of the afternoon.
That comfortable victory was ideal with a Champions League trip to Sevilla four days later. Liverpool were at their scintillating attacking best in the first half, roaring into a 3-0 lead by the interval and making the home side look like rank amateurs. The second half could not have been any more different, with Sevilla quickly pulling back two goals through Wissam Ben Yedder as Liverpool suddenly went from being dominant to a disorganised mess. Just as the visitors looked like falling over the line to get the win that would seal their place in the last 16, comical defending from a stoppage time corner allowed Guido Pizarro to complete the home side’s comeback and raise familiar concerns about the Reds.
It wasn’t encouraging ahead of a league clash against Chelsea the following weekend, with the Reds hoping for a first home win against the then-champions since May 2012. They looked on course to get it when Salah opened the scoring midway through the second half, but a spectacular late equaliser from Willian ensured that the spoils were shared at Anfield.
Next up for Liverpool was a trip to Stoke. Could the orange-clad reds do it on a cold, midweek November night at the bet365 Stadium? Sadio Mane fired them into a 17th-minute lead but the visitors looked nervy for large spells against a Potters side at the wrong end of the table. Klopp sprang a surprise by starting with Salah on the bench but once the Egyptian was thrown into the fray, he made his mark with two splendid goals in the final 15 minutes to give the final score a more comfortable look.
After that trip to the Potteries, Liverpool continued southward to Brighton, who had picked up some good results in their first Premier League season but had yet to taste victory against a ‘big six’ outfit. There was never any threat of that occurring on 2 December as the Reds romped to a 5-1 victory against a team that had largely been defensively solid up to then. Quickfire first half goals from Emre Can and Firmino laid the foundations for Liverpool’s stroll at the Amex Stadium, although a Glenn Murray penalty to make it 3-1 raised slight fears of another Reds collapse until two late goals added gloss to the scoreline.
Klopp’s men returned to Anfield the following Wednesday for their final Champions League group game against Spartak Moscow. A win would definitely take them through while a draw was also likely to be enough. The Russian side had held the Merseysiders to a draw in the reverse fixture but Liverpool cut loose at Anfield. Three to the good inside 19 minutes, they were 5-0 up by the 50-minute mark and eventually put seven past Spartak without reply. They not only progressed to the last 16 of the competition but also did so as group winners, setting up a tie with Porto.
Liverpool were riding the crest of a wave ahead of the Merseyside derby but, as mentioned earlier in the piece, Salah’s sensational opener was cancelled out by Rooney’s second half penalty. It was the Reds’ fourth league draw at Anfield just four months into the season, although they would get one over on Everton a few weeks later in the FA Cup when van Dijk scored a late winner on his Liverpool debut.
A week after sticking seven goals past Spartak in the Champions League, Klopp’s men were held scoreless by the Premier League’s bottom side West Brom on one of those nights where the Reds just could not find the guile to infiltrate a packed Baggies defence. On the one occasion that they did, Dominic Solanke’s goal was very harshly disallowed, which was a shame not only for the two points that it cost Liverpool but also denied the struggling striker a first Premier League goal in red. He’d have to wait another five months before finally getting off the mark.
After two frustrating home draws in four days, Liverpool took their frustrations out on Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium, easing to a 4-0 win as described earlier in the piece. The result felt all the more impressive considering that the Reds went to the south coast with the baggage of what had happened on their previous visit, when they twice let two-goal leads slip to lose 4-3 on a day when Loris Karius had the proverbial stinker.
Alas, Liverpool had not entirely shorn themselves of their careless habit of throwing away emphatic winning positions. That’s exactly what they did at Arsenal in a frantic Friday night clash three days before Christmas. When Salah put the Reds 2-0 in front shortly after half-time, the points appeared to be heading back to Merseyside, but a kamikaze five-minute spell saw the Gunners score three times to turn the game dramatically on his head. Firmino plundered an equaliser but this was a match that Liverpool ought to have won.
When the Premier League had its November international break last season, Liverpool were in fifth place with 19 points from 11 games and trailed leaders Manchester City by 12 points. They now sit second with 30 points from 12 games, just two points behind Pep Guardiola’s men. Evidently, the Reds are in a far better place now than they were this time last year.
In the 10 games they played between the November internationals and Christmas last year, Liverpool won five and drew five. In four of those five draws, they relinquished winning positions. Progression from the Champions League group stage was assured, while 16 points were gained from eight Premier League fixtures to leave them with 35 points at the halfway mark of the season. They can surpass that tally by 2 December if they beat Watford and Everton.
While it’s true that the 16 teams who progress from the Champions League group stage begin the knockout rounds on a level playing field, there is still a lot to be said for booking your passage as early as possible. Liverpool do not have that luxury and will need to manage the glut of fixtures very carefully over the next month, knowing that they cannot pick and choose their games. Manchester City, on the other hand, can pull the handbrake somewhat for their two remaining group games in the Champions League, as their passage to the last 16 is already assured. That’s likely to work in their favour during a busy December, not least when they play Chelsea the weekend before the Champions League group stage ends.
That is Man City’s standout fixture from the next month. Liverpool have two pivotal games in Europe along with domestic fixtures against their two biggest traditional rivals. The Reds are certainly coming into the end of 2018 from a position of strength. What happens over the next month, though, is likely to shape the outcome of the second half of the season. If Liverpool remain within touching distance of the summit, or maybe even occupy it, when Santa Claus does his rounds, they will have shown tremendous character and fortitude to come through a daunting eight-match sequence.