With a win on Sunday, Liverpool would have pulled within four points of the top four with a game in hand. And for at least the first half against Southampton, that looked like exactly what was going to happen. Then it all fell apart, and as a result the Reds sit seven points off and behind five clubs, all better positioned than they are.
One of those clubs they’re chasing are rivals Manchester United, themselves a point off fourth and Manchester City. Given it was just a few days previous that Liverpool were celebrating knocking United out of the Europa League, perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising to find that this week they’re rather enjoying Liverpool’s league collapse.
"I thought we played fantastic in the first half and the second half was a test of survival because we were very tired," said Van Gaal of their own win over City that drew them within a point of the top four on Sunday before smugly turning his attention to Liverpool’s loss to Southampton—and the role he believes United may have played in it.
"We had only the two days to recover after the Liverpool game and that is almost not possible. It was fantastic. We have seen the result from Southampton today, where Liverpool were 2-0 up at half-time and then at full-time it was 3-2 to Southampton. I can only conclude it was because of tiredness and that is what we have done to them."
Tiredness may have played a role in Liverpool’s collapse, but as commanding as they were in the first half, no team with aspirations of making it back into the Champions League can shrug off a result like Sunday’s as just a case of being tired. Especially when so many basic individual errors were key in that train-wreck of a second half.
Key errors by Martin Skrtel played a role in all three goals, while individually one could pick and choose between Jon Flanagan, Emre Can, Simon Mignolet, or even Mamadou Sakho when looking for the primary culprit in each. It was, by any measure, a disastrous half of football—and that even before it gave van Gaal a chance to gloat.
As the table stands now, Liverpool won’t have the chance to make him look foolish for gloating, either. Whatever role his side’s efforts the previous match may have played, it’s a loss that all but mathematically rules Liverpool out of a top four finish, leaving the Europa League as the only possible route into the Champions League.
Though that does offer at least the sliver of a chance to turn the tables on United and van Gaal—it might not be likely, but if Manchester City were to win the Champions League, Liverpool the Europa, and United to finish fourth, it would mean that United would miss out on making it to the Champions League next season.