Let's do our calculations once more. Noel will tell you that failing to finish in the top four is extremely unlikely to happen. It could happen, but it would take a catastrophe even by Liverpool’s standards to miss out from this position. Yes, there's still a chance, but it's Lloyd Christmas kind of stuff. Still, there's unbearable nervousness surrounding whether Liverpool will qualify for a Champions League qualifier.
Liverpool are on 70 points and have two games left. Winning those two games against West Ham United in twelfth and relegated Middlesbrough would seal a top four finish with 76 points. Manchester City are going to finish third so forget about besting Pep Guardiola and sneakily swiping automatic Champions League qualification. According to José Mourinho, Manchester United have given up on a top four finish to focus on what he previously said was “not a competition Manchester United wants” more commonly known as the Europa League.
Liverpool’s fiercest rivals sit in fifth on 65 points with three games left. A maximum of 74 points could be enough, but Europa League commitments and attending White Hart Lane’s farewell makes finishing above Jürgen Klopp’s side somewhat complicated so it's the Europa League or bust. As for Arsenal, Arsène Wenger could be lurking with that knowing and charming smile in these heady contract extension times. 63 points and four remaining games could yield a total of 75 points—just one below Liverpool’s highest possible tally. Like Manchester United, though, just one more defeat leaves Liverpool with a far simpler task of securing a single win from two attempts.
James Milner had a chance to give Liverpool what would have effectively sealed a top four spot against Southampton, but his penalty was saved by Fraser Forster’s impressive impersonation of Diego Alves. Milner had scored six from six this season and hadn't missed a penalty since 2009. There wasn't a hint of Atlético Madrid about him. Despite the wagging fingers of history and accuracy, Forster saved his first Premier League penalty in true Alex McCarthy fashion. Insincere congratulations and a tepid toast to his predictably insipid display against Arsenal on Wednesday.
In Jordan Henderson’s continued absence that isn't worrying at all as he's only missed significant chunks of the past two seasons, vice-captain Milner soldiered on as captain of a static and uninspired group of players. The 31-year-old had a poor game and increasingly looks like what he is probably supposed to be at left back: a player desperately played out of position. He wasn't the only player found wanting on Anfield’s conniving pitch on Sunday, and to his credit, he didn't hide during or after the game.
“Sick,” Milner replied after being asked how he'd feel on Liverpool missing out on a top four finish. “This is a team and a club that needs to be in the Champions League. We will be in Europe but the Champions League is where everyone wants to play. For the chances that we haven’t taken – this was another big moment in terms of missing the penalty. There was a lot riding on it and I have to take the responsibility but hopefully we will get a bit of luck and finish the job.
“We have made improvements this year and we know where we need to improve again. We have shown on any one day we can beat anyone so, if we could get in the Champions League, we know we could be a match for anyone. We have got to do it consistently. I don’t think we have been as up and down as last year. In the games we haven’t got the points we wanted we have dominated the game. We’ve dropped points where we shouldn’t have done.”
There are a few reasons why I personally want Liverpool to finish in the top four, and Milner has identified one of them. Under Klopp, Liverpool have proven to be excellent in big games. Since Klopp’s arrival in October 2015, Manchester United (January 2016) are the only top six side to have beaten Liverpool in 18 league games. Klopp has never lost a Merseyside derby, has reached two cup finals and a semi-final, and has reached two European finals in his career. Liverpool have won nothing yet, but it wouldn't be outlandish to suggest that Liverpool could be dark horses in Europe’s premier competition next season.
Linked to this is the summer transfer window. Liverpool are already well-equipped for big games but need to be more consistent, especially against teams that sit deep, to progress in 2017/18. That includes defending better as a unit and one-on-one situations, controlling games instead of giving in to chaos, and addressing weaknesses in the first-team squad. The most intriguing part of the summer, however, is the comfortable openness regarding top transfer targets. We know the names. Virgil van Dijk, Naby Keïta, Julian Brandt, and Ryan Sessegnon. Those four names could cost anywhere between £100 million and £120 million—not typical of Liverpool’s strategy under FSG.
Desire for success will makes us all sick to see 36 games thrown up over the final two, but curiosity is working fiendishly in my bedraggled corner of the universe. What will FSG and Klopp do this summer? How will Liverpool fare upon returning to a competition that only AC Milan and Real Madrid have won more times than the very finest Merseyside ever had to offer? Will major signings be secured early enough in preparation for the first leg of a Champions League qualifier?
The answers and path ahead lie solely in a top four finish. The obstacles? A copper pit stop for former Reds on their way to restoration or the MLS and parachute payment regulars. To die would be an awfully big adventure.