After spending much of the season talking about targeting the top four only to see every run of good results inevitably followed by a poor stretch dashing any such hopes, Brendan Rodgers has finally taken a step back and re-adjusted his goals for the season. Now, rather than fourth, he's just hoping for a solid set of performances without any of those pesky let-downs that have plagued Liverpool in the league this season.
He's also hoping that, if things go well, fifth might not be entirely out of the question. It's a much more modest goal than fourth, perhaps, and it's tempered by the fact that his primary hope is simply to play well on a consistent basis and let the results fall where they may, but the reality when everything's said and done is that fifth—and the guarantee of a return to the Europa League—would be nearly as tough a task as finishing fourth.
"If we are talking about trophies," he began, "it has not been the season that any of us would want, so I'm not going to stand here and bluff anyone. But I'm looking at the season from a slightly different angle as well."
No matter where Liverpool finish, though, and even if the top four was never a realistic target no matter what the manager may have said throughout much of the season, Rodgers' charges have improved of late. Of course, with Liverpool only having managed 1.32 points per game in the league at the half-way point, there were few places to go but up.
At the end of December, Liverpool were on pace for a record-worst 50 points—just below the 52 Kenny Dalglish finished with the season before. Since then they have improved their points per game average to 1.44, and if they continue on that pace for the rest of the season they will end the year with 55 points.
"I look at the League Cup and the team I had to put out at that time was never going to be strong enough to beat the Swansea side who then won it in the end. I had to do that. The FA Cup was down to me. I did not underestimate anyone but I felt we had a team strong enough to go and win the game."
It may not seem a lot at first glance, but it means Liverpool have improved by five points in the league in less than half a season thanks to a run of form that has seen them average 1.7 points per game in their last ten outings. In fact, if they can continue that pace the rest of the way, it would mean a 58 point season and a second half eight points better than the first. But that won't be enough to challenge for fifth.
Over the past ten years, the fifth place side has ended the season with an average of 63 points; the sixth place side has ended with an even 60. Unfortunately for Liverpool, as small as the gap between the 58 points they're on form for and the 63 it's historically taken to finish fifth might seem, getting there means they would need to manage 2.18 points per game the rest of the way out.
"In the Europa League we were the better team but we did not go through. Why we didn't go through was probably for the same reasons we have not kicked on in the league [but] it leaves us now with the league to concentrate on."
Even worse is that Arsenal, currently in fifth, are on pace to beat the historical average and finish with 66 points. To get that, Liverpool need 27 points the rest of the way. That equates to a massive 2.45 points per game—or only dropping six points over the final eleven matches. Instead, an Everton side five points back of the Gunners in sixth and on pace for a 59 point finish more in line with historical averages offers the more likely target.
Fifth might be a nice goal, and getting back into the Europa League would certainly provide a boost to hopes the club can keep Luis Suarez around for another season—as well as helping with continental recruitment and aiding in Rodgers' continuing maturation as a manager—but the numbers suggest it's an almost impossible task.
"I want to push into that top six if we possibly can," he concluded. "I think we can do that, reach fifth and go on a run. That is not thinking this club should not be higher, it is just a realistic aim for where we are at this season. A lot of things are coming together for us that should help us kick on next season."
If Liverpool are to make it back into any European competition next season, their best hope is for an FA Cup final involving two sides that will qualify for Europe through their league position. That's because in the FA Cup, if the winner qualifies for Europe through league position, that Europa League slot passes first to the runner up.
That means that two of Chelsea and the Manchester clubs must make it to the final. If they do, European qualification by finishing sixth in the league suddenly becomes a possibility—and based on Liverpool's current form, Everton's current points total, and what it's historically taken to finish sixth, that's a goal Rodgers and his squad can realistically aim for.