International football is over, and Premier League action is almost back. Liverpool fans have the benefit of a shorter wait than most, as the Reds travel to London to face Crystal Palace for the early Saturday kickoff.
Of course, any trip to Palace brings with it the painful memory of May 2014, when the Reds well and truly saw their title challenge ended after a late 3-goal capitulation. While failing to capture all three points this time out would not likely be a season-defining moment, it would decidedly make life more difficult for Klopp & Co.
Make no mistake, this trip to Selhurst Park will be a challenge. After losing all seven of their opening matches this season, Palace have managed to claw their way to (relative) safety in 16th, 2 points above Southampton in 18th. Their 1.25 ppg since that opening stretch would have put them comfortably mid-table had they not so thoroughly shit the bed to start the season.
Palace recorded their first win (and first non-loss) of the season at home against Chelsea, defeating their cross-town foes 2-1. Taken in isolation it would not be much to worry about, but since then they have given the “Top 6” a hell of a time at home, drawing against Manchester City (1-1), and coming up just short against Arsenal (2-3), Tottenham (0-1), and Manchester United (2-3). Tottenham and United both relied on late winners—88 minutes and 91 minutes, respectively—to escape with all three points.
The difficult trip down south is only likely to be more difficult because of the early kickoff immediately following the international break, a time Kloppo was openly upset about.
This is all to say that Liverpool have a reason to worry about that dreaded “banana peel” in this fixture, especially if a few of the players have a wayward eye on the Champions League quarterfinal match up against Manchester City.
However, the early match also presents the Reds with an opportunity. The match will leave Chelsea, Tottenham, and United with two games in hand. With a win, Liverpool could put some serious pressure on those teams around us in the table, especially with the Blues and Spurs facing each other the next day. A win puts Liverpool a point above United, five points clear of Spurs, and ten points ahead of Chelsea.
Games in hand can be an advantage, but only if the teams above you drop points AND you win them. With each win that Liverpool records, it makes it harder and harder for others—in particular Chelsea—to catch up.
In practical terms, for Liverpool to reach that 76-point threshold (which would all but guarantee Champions League qualification), they need 13 points in their final seven matches, or 1.86 ppg. A win essentially lowers the number of wins we need from here on in from four to three, and the ppg to 1.67, regardless of what the other teams around us are doing.
As highlighted by both Noel and myself previously, Chelsea can only afford to drop three, possibly four points from here on in if they hope to catch either Liverpool or Spurs for that last Champions League spot.
Moreover, even if Chelsea get hot, they would probably need help from the teams they are chasing. As it stands, Liverpool are currently on pace for 77 or 78 points (and Five Thirty Eight’s model puts us on pace for 79). Chelsea’s maximum point haul right now is 80 points if they win out. A loss, or even a draw on Sunday, would mean they would have to be perfect in their remaining seven matches (and because of goal difference and goals scored, they would still likely need a help).
The easiest answer to the Chelsea/Top 4 question would be to just keep on winning until any possible comeback is not just highly unlikely, but mathematically impossible. Liverpool would go a long way toward achieving that goal with three points against Palace (and perhaps a dull draw between Spurs and Chelsea).
Since that disastrous start, Palace have only lost by multiple goals on two occasions, to Everton (3-1) and Arsenal (4-1), both away from Selhurst. Even if Liverpool escape with the win, it seems more likely than not that it will be of the hard-fought variety, and not the no-look goalfests we’ve come to know and love. Though at this point in the season, three points is all that matters.
It was around this point last year that Liverpool lost at home to Crystal Palace, making the final run-in far more challenging than it needed to be. Hopefully the Klopp and the players have learned their lesson from last year, and can start a difficult four-game stretch with a hard-fought win.