Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp has an unenviable task over the next two days: getting players and fans alike to give a shit about a Merseyside Derby. It’s a weird thing to even write, because for the better part of the last decade, reliably beating our local rivals has been the only thing that Liverpool Football Club could really hang their hat on. And beat them we have: winning 8 of the 16 matches since the Blues last tasted victory in October of 2010.
There have been far too many seasons when we have entered April with little to play for. That is not the case this time around. Instead of the Derby being the main event, circled on the calendar for months, it is an afterthought.
Now, Klopp must balance the needs of qualifying for next year’s Champions League group stages, and the needs of qualifying for this year’s Champions League semifinals. Mathematically, it is an easy decision to make: according to Five Thirty Eight, Liverpool have over a 99% chance of qualifying for next year’s tournament, but “only” a 93% chance of making this year’s semifinals.
I know talking in terms of percentages makes readers uncomfortable, so let’s talk about what this means in more real-world concerns. If Chelsea win out, they would have a maximum of 77 points. To equal that, Liverpool need 3 wins, 2 draws, and a loss (or 4 wins). Of course, if Chelsea continue picking up points at the same 1.81 ppg as they have so far this season, they will finish on 68 or 69 points. Liverpool could equal that with a victory this weekend. And if not this weekend, the next three matches: home against Bournemouth, away to a dreadful West Brom, and home to a dreadful Stoke, should see Liverpool aiming for maximum points before their penultimate showdown with Chelsea.
This is all to say that three wins in the next six should be easier to achieve than battling a world-class Manchester City over 90 (or Fowler-willing not 120) more minutes, even with a three-goal cushion. This much should be common sense.
What is also common sense, and yet under-discussed, is why Liverpool are in the Champions League to begin with: a chance to win the whole fucking thing. Ignoring percentages, Liverpool have a much better chance of winning it all if they make this year’s semifinal, than they do by making next year’s group stages. The football gods are fickle, and we know all too painfully how close calls one season can turn into distant memories the next.
The match against City was no doubt exhausting, not just physically, but emotionally. As a fan, I’m struggling to get up for Everton, and I’m sure the players feel the same. Klopp will likely have to heavily rotate for Saturday’s early kickoff, not just for fresh legs, but for fresh minds. And considering Everton’s penchant for inflicting injuries on in-form strikers—as they did against Divock Origi and Sadio Mane in successive years—keeping our most important players off the pitch might be the best option.
Keeping the balance between the two competitions will be a challenge over the next several weeks, especially if Liverpool continue to advance, and the sudden injury crisis gets worse. If Liverpool advance to the semis, the two legs will occur April 24-25 and May 1-2, bookmarking the Stoke City tie, and immediately before traveling to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea.
In 2015/16, with a Europa League final in the balance, Klopp rotated to keep the best players fit and fresh for the midweek European games. He should do the same this week, and hope the second-stringers have something to prove when given the chance.