So there I was…stood on a sultry Madrid side walk, coming to terms with the enormity of Liverpool’s achievement in winning the Champions League.
I’d just been ejected from the pub where I’d watched 87 minutes of my side’s hard fought victory over Spurs. The explosion of energy that followed Divock Origi’s late strike was the straw that finally broke the Spanish bar owner’s back and he responded by ejecting everyone, in as passionate a fashion as that which had greeted the Belgian’s strike. Ho hum!
So, I didn’t get to see Jordan dancing with old big ears before hoisting the trophy high into the Barajas sky. Nor did I see Alisson Facetime his wife, or the boss meandering across the Wanda Metropolitano pitch, hugging everyone in sight. Nope, the pictures and videos of those scenes would have to wait until later.
What I did see however, was the maturing of a great team. A team who got within a point of an incredible Manchester City team in the Premier League, trading point for point in the greatest run-in the Premier League has ever witnessed. I saw a team who had refused to lie down despite being skewered at the Nou Camp in an unforgettable two-legged Champions League semi final. I saw a team who were consistently able to reach deep when faced with adversity. A proper team, where the sum of the parts were far more powerful than any one.
So, what then should our expectations be for the 2019/20 Premier League season?
Maintaining a top four spot and the Champions League revenue is a given in terms of expectations. Any shortfall to that target would be bitterly disappointing given the journey the club has been on over the past couple of years. That said, we shouldn’t and will not take a top four finish for granted. Both Arsenal and Manchester United have invested significantly to bridge the gap to last season. Tottenham have endured a strange transfer window, but they’re unlikely to fall out of the top four given the stable makeup and strength of their squad. Chelsea then look the team most likely to fall short, despite the refresh that Frank Lampard will bring. That said, there’s always something of the child-catcher about Chelsea. Finger nails so long that you know they’ll just cling on for dear life if required.
So with an assumed top four finish, the key question revolves around whether Liverpool can go toe to toe with Manchester City for the title again? That’s the most likely scenario, albeit it’s hard to see either club securing points in the high nineties again. Will we overhaul the two-times in a row Premier League Champions? That’s the $64,000 question of course and while Liverpool have proven on more than one occasion that they can beat City head to head, it’s going to take a herculean effort to wrestle the title from our North West neighbours.
In our favour, Liverpool will be stronger for seeing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain return from injury. There should also be significant benefit from having a more settled Naby Keita to call upon and a more forward facing Jordan Henderson. Add a full season of Fabinho’s brilliance in the middle of the park on top of the squad wide confidence earned in Madrid and it becomes easier to visualise a Premier League parade in Liverpool next May.
That said, legitimate concerns remain at the lack of cover at left back, following Alberto Moreno’s departure in summer and in attack, where there is still a chunky gap in quality between forwards Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino & Sadio Mane and any players that Jurgen Klopp can call on to replace them. Origi has shown moments outside of his goal in Madrid, but there remains doubts over his holdup and distribution. Rhian Brewster is fresh and full of promise, but like the Belgian, he’s a finisher and it remains unclear whether he can provide the all-around game that defines Firmino and knits our forward play.
And so to Friday and the season opener at home to Norwich City. A convincing Liverpool victory will be expected and I anticipate no less. While it’s a fantastic high profile opener for last season’s most successful Championship team, the European Champions competitive return to home soil will be a high octane occasion for which I can predict only one outcome.
I am expecting Klopp to field his familiar 4-3-3 lineup as follows, and take the points with a three or four goal margin.
Alexander-Arnold, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson
Henderson, Fabinho, Wijnaldum
Salah, Firmino, Origi
The Reds may or may not go on to win the Premier League this season – it’s too hard to make a balanced call without seeing at least a month of play. But I think it’s highly likely we will remain a strong challenger on several fronts. This group of players are well positioned to take that next step, of that there’s no question. It’s key that we as fans continue to play our role in supporting the team through the 95 odd minutes of every game. It is inevitable there will be setbacks along the way. How we deal with those setbacks on and off the pitch may well become the defining factor in our returning to the very top step of English football.
Now, to find another bar…
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