Well, well, well… who saw that one coming?
When runaway title leaders Liverpool travelled to 19th-placed Watford at the weekend, all the money was on the Reds swatting the Hornets aside as they continued their remarkable winning run. However, they didn’t bank on Nigel Pearson having his large ostrich head out of the sand as he managed the home side to an incredible 3-0 win.
That Ismaïla Sarr-inspired performance inflicted Liverpool’s first league defeat of the season – and their first since January 2019 – leaving them just a measly 22 points clear at the top of the table having played a game more than reigning champions Man City.
With just 10 games remaining, most people assume that it’s unthinkable for the Reds to not see this campaign out and lift their maiden Premier League trophy, simultaneously putting an end to 30 years of title hurt. But this is Liverpool we’re talking about here, and the stars are once again aligning to ensure their defeat at Watford spells the end of their title aspirations. Here’s why…
1. Getting distracted by the cups
After a disjointed, disappointing performance at Vicarage Road, Liverpool would like nothing more than to get back to Anfield and rebuild their confidence with an easy game. But there’s no such thing as that when you come to the business end of the season.
Next up is a tricky trip to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea in the FA Cup, a competition Frank Lampard will be desperate to win given their own European campaign is all but over. The Reds have won just once there in their past three visits and back-to-back defeats would inevitably dent their confidence further. Conversely, a Liverpool win means more fixtures and more distraction from the bread and butter of the league.
Liverpool also have a mammoth task ahead of them next week in the Champions League as they seek to overturn a 1-0 deficit to Atletico Madrid. They’ll need everyone at full-strength to have any chance of progressing, meaning they could rest some tired legs in the Bournemouth league fixture that’s sandwiched in between their two draining cup games. Which brings us on to…
2. They have a trickier run-in than you may think
The arrogance that a 22 point safety net inevitably generates, combined with a focus on winning a first FA Cup since 2006 and being only the second team to retain the Champions League, could mean the Reds take their eye off the ball domestically.
Bournemouth are fighting for their lives at the wrong end of the table and will go into their game at Anfield this weekend knowing full well Liverpool are not invincible. With that added belief fuelling them against a potentially weakened side could open the door to a second league defeat in a row for the Reds.
The rest of their fixture list is littered with more banana skins than morbidly obese monkey’s food bin. Tough trips to Everton, Man City and Arsenal await, whilst home fixtures against the likes of other relegation-battling teams such as Aston Villa and Newcastle will also provide stern tests – particularly if heads drop after yet more defeats and Nigel Pearson is generous enough to share his tactics book with their opponents.
OK, the spread of this illness isn’t really in Liverpool’s hands, but it could still prove to be terminal to their run-in. As the number of coronavirus cases in the UK continues to rise, discussions about how to contain it are intensifying. One mooted option would be to cancel all sporting events for at least two months.
One report has confirmed there is “no specific regulation” in the Premier League’s rulebook about what would happen in such an event, but it is likely that the season would be declared null and void with no option to reschedule the remaining weeks of the season.
In such an event it would be as if Liverpool’s crazy run of form this season never happened at all, and the 2020/21 campaign would see Man City technically start as champions following their success in 2018/19.
It may sound far-fetched, but football in Switzerland was postponed last week and anything is possible.
Indeed, such a development may actually be a relief for Liverpool as they’ll have a cast-iron excuse as to why they didn’t win the league rather than enduring yet another bottle job on the pitch…
4. It’s Liverpool after all
Let’s be honest: despite all the record-breaking runs and a jaw-dropping lead at the top of the table, deep down did you really believe Liverpool could see out the season? Bottling title races is what they do best – we refer to your run-ins in 2009, 2014 and 2019 – so why would this year prove to be any different?
Sure, they managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes a little bit longer and a little bit more stylishly this year, but this is Liverpool we’re dealing with. Conspiring to bottle the title one way or another simply comes naturally to them.