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Liverpool's Unlikely Road to the Top Four

Successive league defeats to top four rivals have left Liverpool with an extremely difficult task in reaching the top four but can be recovered from if other results fall kindly for Brendan Rodgers side.

Liverpool will need these two players on form to have a chance of turning things around. Fowler could chip in too.
Liverpool will need these two players on form to have a chance of turning things around. Fowler could chip in too.
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Liverpool's system is in need of some urgent restructuring after some uninspiring displays over the last four matches in the Premier League and FA Cup. The fact that Brendan Rodgers acknowledged this after the crushing away defeat to Arsenal indicates that some change may be afoot. Assuming that some form of effective alteration to Liverpool's approach arrives, upcoming opponents should not provide as stringent challenges as recent opponents have done.

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Perhaps Liverpool are back in a comfortable place last witnessed in early March, chasing teams ahead with no pressure to hold onto a position that could be lost. There was pressure in games against Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton, Manchester City, and Swansea as each game was a crucial step in charging for a distant goal: the top four. Yet when the very gatekeepers were confronted, utter disappointment and inadequacy reigned. Many observers think Liverpool cannot be expected to scale near to the top of a ladder once more after sliding down limply in two six-pointers. Yet the next few fixtures offer at least a chance to restore composure and confidence to a talented group.

Liverpool play Newcastle (home), Hull City (away), West Bromwich Albion (away), and Queens Park Rangers (home) before travelling to Chelsea. These league fixtures represent a path back to the top four conversation. If Liverpool took maximum points from the next four games, they'd only be three points ahead of Arsenal's current total and just four ahead of Manchester United's 62 points. The likelihood of both sides standing completely still losing game after game to invite Liverpool back into the race for the top four is virtually impossible. Trailing two sides by nine points and eight points respectively with seven games to go isn't the most welcome of tasks, especially after losing to both those sides in the past two games. In short, this is a recipe for "try again next season" and "get things right in the summer".

Progress in the FA Cup could work in a number of ways for Liverpool. If Liverpool beat Blackburn Rovers in the replay, the trip to Hull City would be rearranged for a midweek date (the penultimate league game of the season if Liverpool face Aston Villa at Wembley) and a points gap between Manchester United and Liverpool could increase by the virtue of missing a matchday. That would be based on Louis van Gaal's side avoiding defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, something that only three sides have done so far in the Premier League this season with none managing to emerge victorious. Liverpool face a similar challenge a few weeks later but do not have the run of fixtures Manchester United have for the rest of the month.

A home derby with Manchester City, a trip to league champions-elect Chelsea, and a trip to Merseyside to face an Everton side unbeaten in six home games could see the gap between Liverpool halved. It is not outlandish to suggest that Manchester United could take four points from those three games to land on 66 points with four games remaining. However, can Brendan Rodgers steer his side to an FA Cup final and two wins in the league to close over the course of April's potential fixtures? What would Liverpool's prospects be on 60 points with a game in hand on fierce rivals and an FA Cup final on the horizon? Is it too much to expect victories over Blackburn, Newcastle, Aston Villa, and West Brom even after repeated sluggish opening periods of late?

This is the time for Brendan Rodgers to end his third season in charge as a master not a talented apprentice

Goal difference is a significant advantage held by Arsenal and Manchester United that adds another barrier to Champions League qualification. While there could be a scenario where Liverpool achieve what appears to be unthinkable right now to finish in the top four, a single digit positive goal difference won't surpass any of the current top four's by the end of the season. It is points not goal difference that will be the source of Liverpool's unlikely salvation. The wild swing of momentum to Manchester United may be eroded somewhat over the next few league games, but they're winning games with confidence as are Arsenal. Such momentum can be abruptly halted after a game or two, and if it is to happen, April will present Liverpool's last opportunity to scurry closer to opponents who appear to be set to regain a place in Europe's premier club competition.

Arsène Wenger's side is in irresistible form winning seven league games in a row with two players each on 14 league goals for the current campaign. The North London side are ranked third in goals per game narrowly behind Manchester City and Chelsea, something that Liverpool will need to remedy next season. Then there's the form of Radamel Falcao and the injury to Robin van Persie that's restored Wayne Rooney to his best position where the England man is scoring goals again. Juan Mata has scored more goals than any of Liverpool's top scorers with fewer minutes played, and Ander Herrera is closing in after his two-goal display against Aston Villa and fine performances against Tottenham and Liverpool.

An attack that's not much better than Southampton's or West Ham's shouldn't expect to entertain a place in the top four, and that may be Liverpool's undoing even if the sides above them drop a few points to offer lean scraps of hope in the weeks ahead. There isn't room for even the slightest error in Liverpool's remaining seven league games, including a trip to a side that Brendan Rodgers has failed to beat in seven games across Premier League and League Cup action. History has shown that José Mourinho doesn't lose against Rodgers (he may do one day) and hardly entertains losses at Stamford Bridge (Bradford City and Sunderland are the only two teams in domestic football to have bested Mourinho).

This is where Philippe CoutinhoJordan HendersonAdam LallanaRaheem Sterling, and Daniel Sturridge need to rise to challenge ahead in sharpening Liverpool's attack. This is the time for Brendan Rodgers to end his third season in charge as a master not a talented apprentice, ready for a fourth season where he will be judged more harshly than ever before. Progress to the FA Cup final would leave Liverpool with six fixtures in May, but hopes of Champions League qualification on the back of a recovery this month would add another incentive for a strong finish to the season. This is not a time for giving up with a trophy still on offer and Champions League qualification mathematically possible if this side regains the confidence displayed just a month ago.

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Manchester United and Arsenal have shown in recent months that a disappointing result or performance or two is not beyond them. Do not forget that both sides play each other next month in a repeat of last month's FA Cup sixth round tie. Perhaps Manchester City get dragged in an unforeseen dogfight to retain a place in the top four over the next seven weeks. After all, the loss at Crystal Palace was Manuel Pellegrini's third straight away reverse in a row and his side sit just seven points ahead of Liverpool in fourth. Perhaps a draw between the Manchester clubs is in order over the weekend before the Reds host John Carver's increasingly inept Toon Army. Even if points are dropped by the teams ahead of them, will Liverpool have the ruthlessness to cut what is a considerable points gap to cause enough discomfort in rivals and stir hope within the ranks with time running out?

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