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This Is Not Your Villain

After Liverpool's familiar failings at home to Crystal Palace, a handshake is the least of the club's concerns.

West Bromwich Albion v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

After Manchester United beat Burnley at Turf Moor without Zlatan Ibrahimović and Marcus Rashford to close within three points of Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp's side responded by squandering a one-goal lead to lose at home to a team that started the game just four points and two places above the relegation zone. 23 games unbeaten in the Premier League, into the semi-finals of the Europa League, and still in the race for a place in the top four despite tough fixtures combined with a demanding schedule suggest that the threat of José Mourinho's team cannot be taken lightly.

The reasons as to why and how this has come to be when Liverpool were challenging for the title in January to the current fight to hold onto Champions League qualification should be the real story. It is a tale that only gains importance with words from reliable club-connected journalists that Virgil van Dijk, Naby Keïta, and Julian Brandt are all top targets in the summer. There's also the exciting Ryan Sessegnon that has been linked along with wonderfully ambitious plans to spend more money than ever under FSG.

This all feeds into a frenzy of nervous and disbelieving expectation that this summer could genuinely be absolutely crucial to how Liverpool fare over the next few seasons. Every summer is purportedly the one that could bolster or undermine the prospect of a concerted challenge on multiple fronts, but there has never been such brazen talk to this degree before. Moreover, the manager has expressed his confidence that Liverpool will be more attractive this summer, but defending remains a notable weakness that could ruin his best laid transfer plans.

13/14 50 goals (1.31578947 goals per game)

14/15 48 goals (1.26315789 goals per game)

15/16 50 goals (1.31578947 goals per game)

16/17 42 goals (1.23529412 goals per game)

Decimals with no filters nor distractions. That Liverpool are reportedly prepared to break the club's transfer record on a centre back may truly signal a belated realisation that roughly an average of 50 goals conceded is simply not sustainable. To tempt such genuine and far-reaching change is as cruel as it is frustrating. Finishing in the top four would allow every Liverpool fan to see what transpires and witness whether all these stories that were clearly leaked from the club have any truth to them.

Then there's Champions League football itself. The last time Liverpool appeared in the competition was essentially an ordeal. Win the first game against Ludogorets with a penalty in stoppage time, fail to score in the next three games that end in defeat, and draw the final two games to exit the group. That is all Liverpool have to show for the land of milk and honey this decade. Nothing else. Yet there is a feeling based on results against the top six in the Klopp era, last season's Europa League run to the final, and a worrying Robin Hood complex that this team could really do something next season.

With all this potentially at stake under a top manager who has dared to really make a disbelieving bunch into bona fide believers, does it seem just a little bit trite to focus on a fucking handshake? People of this virtual room, Mamadou Sakho is not your villain. He is not the reason why Liverpool lost. He will not be a Liverpool player heading into next season. He cannot investigate why Liverpool's highest passing combination was Lucas Leiva to Joël Matip. He cannot explain that Klopp said "we are a good defending team, the highest level defending team, we have to improve of course but it's not the biggest issue we have" before last season's nightmare shamelessly repeated itself.

Crystal Palace had beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge after going behind and dismantled Arsenal at Selhurst Park to serve enough of a warning of what could come. Klopp's first defeat as Liverpool manager came at Anfield against Crystal Palace by the exact same scoreline as yesterday. Philippe Coutinho scored in that defeat on 8 November 2016 just as he did yesterday. Poor defending helped the away side score in the first half before a familiar failure at set pieces secured the winner. Just. Like. Yesterday.

What came next? A handshake and El Clásico. The distraction and the reality. The comforting and convenient malefactor set against witnessing two teams fighting for league glory only less than days after midweek Champions League exertions. Barcelona could not best Juventus but found Messi magic against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu. Real Madrid may have succumbed to history yesterday night but are bidding to become the first side to retain Europe's premier trophy in its modern guise.

It was a clash of the titans that haunted me instead of a perceived slight by a player that will not survive a third transfer window being hawked around to the highest bidder. Liverpool's appetite for grander occasions and greater opponents made me wonder and question whether making the top four this season could define the next 18 months of the Klopp era. Questions surrounding defensive personnel, a chronic lack of composure and game management in the team, a strategy that may let down even average defenders like Dejan Lovren, and which midfielders can successfully show for and use the ball fruitfully should at least be examined.

Yet we are blessed with ravenous roundtables, Big Sam conspiracy theories, and cutting-edge analysis on why Sakho was on the touchline. Last season, James Milner chose to celebrate with vigour against his old club as Liverpool "ran riot" as the cool journalists say. Christian Benteke decided not to celebrate against his former club despite continuing his role tormentor in opposition colours. Harmless choices that both players made. I'm still wondering, though, how a Crystal Palace team that lacked any semblance of defensive organisation without Sakho resembled Juventus without him.

Two sides were without Mamadou Sakho on the sidelines on Sunday, but only one looked like it could be counted on to defend effectively without him. This season has been one of genuine progress, but without a top four finish, the prevailing memory might be that we've been took, hoodwinked, and ultimately bamboozled by ourselves.

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