Why Liverpool’s next two games could define their season

Liverpool‘s season, and maybe even their summer transfer plans, could hinge on the outcome of their next two games in the Premier League and Champions League. After months of injuries, inconsistency and off-field uncertainty surrounding ownership, manager Jurgen Klopp and his players have arrived at a decisive stage of their season.

If results go well, it will boost Liverpool’s chances of success and hopes of persuading top target Jude Bellingham to choose Anfield ahead of so many other possible destinations if or, more likely, when the 19-year-old midfielder leaves Borussia Dortmund this summer. But poor results would see the club drift on for the remaining months of season, already out of the FA Cup, with the prospect of no European football in 2023-24 and key transfer targets likely choosing to go elsewhere.

Saturday’s Premier League trip to Newcastle United and Tuesday’s visit of Real Madrid in the Champions League round-of-16 first leg are two huge games for Liverpool. Win them, and a path to saving their season would open up. Lose one, and it would all but end their hopes of success in that competition. But if they lose both, then Liverpool would not only be facing a Champions League exit but also the end of their hopes of securing a top-four finish in the Premier League and qualifying for next season’s competition.

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Monday’s 2-0 victory against struggling Everton in the Merseyside derby at Anfield was ninth-placed Liverpool’s first Premier League win of 2023. That long wait for three points is why Klopp and his players will travel to St James’ Park nine points adrift of Newcastle, who are fourth amid a remarkable season and have reached the Carabao Cup final against Man United.

Klopp’s reaction after the Everton win was telling in that he unloaded weeks of frustration by repeatedly punching the air in front of The Kop as the players left the pitch. It is something he has done plenty of times before, but this time felt different — more relief than celebration.

“I didn’t want to do it to be honest, but you never know when you can do it next,” he said. “Whatever our crowd asked me to do, I would have done, apart from maybe getting rid of my clothes. I did it because the people asked for it, and it felt like a massive relief.”

The relief was rooted in the victory, but for the first time since the early weeks of the season, Liverpool looked like their old selves again. Every department of the team did its job, and up front, Darwin Nunez (an initial €75 million) and Cody Gakpo (€37m) showed why the club invested so heavily in their talents this season. Klopp would have been delighted to see his team play like his team again — high energy, fast counter-attacks, slick passing — and the timing couldn’t be better, because everything now hinges on the Newcastle and Real Madrid games.

Saturday’s game against Newcastle is so important for Liverpool’s top-four hopes in the Premier League. A win would take them to within six points of the Magpies, with a game in hand. A draw or a defeat would leave Liverpool with a mountain to climb and raise the stakes even higher ahead of Real Madrid’s arrival a few days later.

Liverpool’s European pedigree proves that they are capable of beating any opponent at any venue, but Madrid are perhaps the only team with an even greater track record in Europe. They have last season’s 1-0 Champions League final victory over the Reds in Paris as a psychological advantage going into the game (as well as 2018’s final win and five wins and one draw from their last six games against them).

No club would want to face a two-legged Champions League tie against Madrid to save their season, but if Liverpool can get through the next two games with their ambitions still intact, there are reasons to be optimistic for the final stages of the season.

If they eliminate Madrid in the round of 16, then Liverpool will fancy their chances of going all the way to the final in Istanbul (they have history at the Ataturk Stadium from their stunning 2005 win over AC Milan). In the Premier League, the return of injured players means they could be at full strength for the business end of the campaign. Diogo Jota made his first appearance since before the World Cup against Everton, Virgil van Dijk and Roberto Firmino made the substitutes bench, while Luis Diaz is also closing in on a return from a long-term knee injury. The storm clouds are clearing.

Due to the six-week break for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in November-December, the Premier League fixture list is stacked over the final two months, with Liverpool schedule to play 10 league games in April and May. With 30 points to play for during that period, his key players returning to action, as well as Nunez and Gakpo beginning to find form, Klopp will know that his team could surge up the table when their rivals are feeling the heat of the run-in.

If Liverpool lose their next two games, it will be too late to save their season in April and May. But even though their season has been surprisingly poor so far, don’t write them off just yet.

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