The race for Champions League qualification isn’t technically over, but as Noel pointed out earlier this week, it’s pretty much over. Or to put it another way:
Race for the top four. If it's not done, it'll do until done gets here. pic.twitter.com/vqr8WWYEtR— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) March 4, 2018
Of course, Chelsea will be looking at the Manchester United-Liverpool Derby as a chance to make up ground on one or both of their Top 4 rivals, in the same way we looked at their last two fixtures as a way to put some distance between ourselves and the Blues.
It goes without saying that the worst case scenario for Liverpool would be a defeat to Mourinho’s un-merry band of highly-paid mercenaries, paired with a win by Conte’s un-merry band of highly-paid mercenaries later on Saturday against Crystal Palace. Add in a Spurs win over Bournemouth, and the Reds will suddenly find themselves in fourth, four points clear of Chelsea.
Even in that worst case scenario (please, no), the Reds would need exactly 16 points in their remaining 8, an even 2 points per game (ppg) to reach the 76-point threshold, which would all but ensure Champions League qualification. In other words, Liverpool just need to continue doing what they’ve been doing all season.
Chelsea, on the other hand, would need to average 2.5 ppg over the remaining 8 to equal 76 points, 8 matches which include matches against Tottenham and Liverpool. Moreover, in the already unlikely event of the Blues and Reds ending on level points, Chelsea would also need to overcome Liverpool’s sizeable goal differential advantage, currently at +35 to Chelsea’s +24.
That goal differential essentially works as an extra point in Liverpool’s favor, and it is an advantage they have over Manchester United (+34) and Spurs (+31). And Liverpool are ahead of all the other Top 4 chasers in the next tie-breaker, goals scored.
Liverpool will surely be looking toward Saturday’s Derby not just to avoid the worst case scenario, but to take all 3 points from United. As we saw in 2009 and 2014, great Liverpool sides go to Old Trafford and win. This is a great Liverpool side, and we should be expecting to win, especially after coming up empty-handed against a bus-parking United in the fall. And while games are not played with computer models, Five Thirty Eight’s model predicts a Liverpool win 43% of the time, and a draw another 25%, giving United only a 31% chance of winning at home to their biggest rival.
A win would be all the better for seeing the Reds pull ahead of United for the first time this season. We would be favorites, not just to finish in the Top 4, but also to be the “best of the rest.”
Though, the Top 4 implications cannot be overlooked. A win all but slams the door in Chelsea’s face. Sorry, but if you’re looking for Champions League football you’ll need to ask around Tottenham, see if they’re feeling particularly Spursy at the moment (and judging by last night, they very well could be).
All of this said, and as much as I really want to put all the goals past United, this is a game in which not losing is the key. If we manage a draw, we can keep our Top 2 hopes alive. A loss means we’re almost certainly fighting for 3rd or 4th. While we shouldn’t play for a draw, a draw would still be an acceptable result.