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On Top Four Hopes and Blessings in Disguise

At this point, Liverpool’s top four hopes are just that—hopes—and the lack of any real expectation means Jürgen Klopp is free to rotate his squad and focus on the Europa League.

A.F.C. Bournemouth v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp will rotate heavily for this Saturday’s league match against Newcastle United. Joe Allen and Kevin Stewart will likely get the start again, as they did against both Stoke City and Bournemouth in recent weeks. At least two of the back line—either centre halves or fullbacks—are likely to swap out. James Milner might even get a chance to rest.

With the focus on Villarreal next Thursday in the Europa League, and with Liverpool’s most important games over the last six weeks all mid-week ties against the likes of Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund and then, last night, Everton, it’s become something of a trend. And given Liverpool’s best chance at both silverware and Champions League qualification involves beating Villarreal over two legs, it’s a trend that will continue.

It will continue in part because it’s an easy choice for Klopp to make, the question of prioritising his mid-week ties over the weekend ties, and so, at least for the most part, prioritising the Europa League over the Premier League. It’s an easy choice because any hopes for Liverpool finishing higher than fifth in the league this season are reasonably gone, and meanwhile the Reds are sat three games from European glory in the new manager’s first season.

That European Glory—albeit in the Europa League—also brings with it qualification for next season’s Champions League makes the choice even easier. Liverpool are six points off fourth place, and Arsenal have the chance to widen the gap tonight against West Bromwich Albion. Even if the Gunners only earn a point, and even if Liverpool then win their game in hand, the gap would be four points with four games to go.

It is, perhaps, not an impossible task. And Liverpool fans will continue to hope for an unlikely league finish. But unless things go horribly wrong for Liverpool in the first leg against Villarreal next Thursday, it’s clear that those next two European ties and, should they win, the third that will then come after, are the priority. Two games left to get to a major cup final, and a third to secure European glory and a place in next season's Champions League.

Given no club in a major European League has played more than Liverpool’s 55 games so far this season, that the choice is so clear is perhaps something of a blessing. Jürgen Klopp recently considered the fact that his club have to play twice a week through the end of the season and joked that if they were still in the FA Cup, they might have to have some of their games postponed until after this summer’s European Championship.

It’s a cute line, but the reality underpinning it underscores just how packed Liverpool’s schedule has been this season. As such, it’s probably a good thing Klopp is free to make the easy decision to swap out many of his Everton starters against Newcastle with an eye to Villarreal. It’s probably a good thing, given that by the end of the season Liverpool will have played at least 62 games, that there’s no real pressure to make the top four.

Because if Liverpool were three or four points higher in the table today—if they’d managed one more win along the way, or if they’d turned a couple of the draws fans bemoaned as dropped points into wins—there would right now be a lot of pressure on Klopp to take the league more seriously. To put out his strongest squad against Newcastle, secure the points, and only then to worry about getting his tired charges ready for Villarreal.

The fans won’t give up hope that the club could still make the top four, and they shouldn’t. But it’s perhaps fortunate for Klopp and for Liverpool that the club are just far enough back of the top four today that while such hopes aren't entirely unreasonable, expectation and demand is. That means freedom for Klopp. Freedom to rotate in some of his youth and fringe players without worrying about anybody grumbling about it.

It all adds up to freedom. Freedom to put the priority where it should be right now: on the chance for silverware and European glory, first against Villarreal over two legs and then, with a lot of hard work and maybe a little bit of luck, in the final on May 18th in Basel.

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