December arrived and only a point separated Liverpool and Chelsea at the top of the Premier League. Jürgen Klopp’s side had returned from the last international break until March with a solid four points away to Southampton and home to Sunderland. What happened at Dean Court was as remarkable as it was galling—Liverpool contrived to lose against Bournemouth despite leading 3-1 with 15 minutes to go. That reversal was followed by a 2-2 draw at home to West Ham United. A solitary gap became six as Chelsea kept on winning.
Liverpool responded by matching a Chelsea team that had only dropped eight points all season by winning four games in succession. Trips to the Riverside Stadium and Goodison Park not only brought victories but clean sheets. Going behind and enduring a first half scare at home to Stoke City didn’t prevent Liverpool from leading at the interval and after the final whistle. Nor could the arrival of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City breach Liverpool’s defence or stop the home side from scoring.
That a forlorn and wounded Sunderland side mired in the relegation zone, struggling as injuries and confidence moved in opposite directions, could come back twice to share a point with Liverpool should underline the task at hand. No other Liverpool side in the Premier League era can match what these players have accomplished over the first 19 games, but this is still a group with room to develop and improve upon. Such a notion seems incredible after 44 points and 48 goals from 20 Premier league games, but the evidence is there against Burnley, Bournemouth, West Ham, and Sunderland.
Liverpool cannot win every game, but against pacesetters like Chelsea, that is exactly what Liverpool must do. It is what any of the top six must continue to do for a realistic title challenge to be mounted instead of appearing as relative champagne laggards. If such an opening appeared or even dared to, it would have to be taken. Perhaps this explains why Klopp failed to make any drastic changes to the team that defeated Manchester City less than 48 hours before kicking off at the Stadium of Light.
To go within three points of Chelsea before a difficult trip, albeit with plenty of rest, to White Hart Lane would make matters at the top a little more interesting. And so, Daniel Sturridge came in for the injured Jordan Henderson. In a departure from his usual approach, Klopp even spoke of starting to annoy Chelsea by remaining within six points of Antonio Conte’s league leaders. How bothersome, then, would a three point gap be? Hugs and broad smiles don’t mask a fierce competitiveness in Klopp, and the win against Man City was clearly a source of encouragement.
Liverpool’s result was disappointing, achingly so. To lead twice against Sunderland but return to Merseyside with only a single point is worthy of a few spoiled expressions. Frustration and its accomplices are neither unreasonable nor unwanted when Burnley put four past the same outfit at Turf Moor. This season has revealed Burnley to be a notoriously difficult opponent at home, but it has also shown that Sunderland are not a side with much quality or reliability bar the experienced Jermaine Defoe, the precocious Jordan Pickford, and the enterprising Patrick van Aanholt. Yet, the hosts showed their fans plenty of spirit, resilience, and commitment against Liverpool.
Liverpool’s campaign, however, has been an undoubtedly successful one so far. Even with Liverpool’s weaknesses in defence and game management, no other side is closer to Chelsea in the table. Liverpool responded to gaining one point from six at the start of December by matching Chelsea stride for stride for the remainder of a busy and testing month, and depending on the result against an in-form Tottenham side, that may still be the case despite the intervention of David “If I Was German” Moyes.
January brings its own challenges, and Liverpool will need to respond once again. Manchester United, Swansea City, and Chelsea in the Premier League. An EFL Cup semi-final over two legs against Southampton. The magic and rotation of the FA Cup. While it is true that Chelsea have been incredible Premier League pacesetters, Liverpool have set high standards of their own. The football is excellent, the collective comes first, but the squad needs the right support. The return of Philippe Coutinho is crucial, but that is offset by the departure of the outstanding Sadio Mané.
With Coutinho, Liverpool may have gone two goals ahead or found a late third to close the gap on Chelsea. Without Anfield’s resident magician—a regular tormentor of Manchester City—Liverpool ended 2016 in triumphant perspiration. Much has happened in two games either side of New Year's Day, but under Klopp, an inspiring performance or striking result is never far away. Perhaps Liverpool will forge open another crevice in Chelsea’s apparent procession to the title, but Liverpool have always had great expectations.
Reality is getting closer to history, and under Klopp’s leadership, Liverpool will continue to look more like challengers.