Liverpool might not be invincible but they can still match Manchester United’s 1999 treble feat
Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat by Watford on Saturday could turn into the defining moment of the season. It can provide the impetus for Jurgen Klopp’s side to retain their Champions League title.
The unexpected loss was a blow. It halted a sequence of 44 unbeaten league matches and ended five games short of Arsenal’s record run that was compiled in 2003 and 2004 and contained the Invincible season. Klopp – like any manager – would have liked to emulate the Gunners by keeping the losses column in the table empty until May. There is, however, a lingering regret about this era in north London. Arsene Wenger was unable to convert the domestic dominance into continental success. Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League in the most painful manner at the quarter-final stage by Chelsea. The inability to conquer Europe casts a shadow over that team’s greatness.
Klopp already has a Champions League trophy to his name and the league was always the priority at Anfield this season and it is all but won. Yet Liverpool have not been anywhere near their best since the midwinter break in February. They were laboured in beating Norwich City 1-0 at Carrow Road and were downright lucky to escape with a 3-2 home victory over West Ham United. In between they were outmanoeuvred by Atletico Madrid in the Wanda. The shock at Vicarage Road will give Klopp and his squad a chance to reassess, focus on the remaining games and redefine their ambitions for the rest of the season.
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The team were never complacent. The collapse at Watford cannot be explained that way. Even so, unbeaten runs bring their own stresses and expectations. That pressure has now been released. Klopp made that point when he talked about how the team could perform in a much freer manner without – either conscious or subconsciously – protecting their tilt at invincibility.
The Arsenal team that racked up 49 unbeaten league games was, in retrospect, a team in decline. Manchester United finally broke the spell in the infamous ‘Battle of the Buffet’ game at Old Trafford, where pizza was hurled at Sir Alex Ferguson after his side’s 2-0 success. Wenger would never serve up another title.
Liverpool are in a different cycle. Barring a miracle or a disaster – coronavirus, anyone? – they will end the season as champions for the first time in 30 years. They are still on the up. The odd defeat will not change that. Tomorrow’s fifth-round FA Cup tie against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge provides a perfect opportunity to bounce back.
A far more significant target than Arsenal’s unbeaten campaign is Manchester United’s treble of 1998-99. The Cup is still third in Klopp’s priorities but Liverpool need to restore a sense of progression and wellbeing before Atletico’s visit to Anfield in nine days’ time. Like winning runs, losing spells can take on a momentum of their own. Even if the FA Cup remains a disposable competition for the 52-year-old, the German would hate to see back-to-back defeats.
Perhaps the greatest quality of this Liverpool team has been their refusal to believe they can lose. This conviction has driven them to run away with the title. It is arguable that no regular outfield player has quite hit the heights they reached last season. This would normally signal a downturn in results but collectively Liverpool have maintained very high standards, even if individuals have dropped off a little. Belief has played a large part in this collective brilliance and Klopp is a master of generating it by creating the right systems and tactics to suit his squad. His main task now is to have the team in the right psychological place to face down Diego Simeone’s side. That process has started already and will continue at Stamford Bridge tomorrow.
Vicarage Road was a wake-up call but it makes clear what is important in the immediate future. Unbeaten seasons do not serve up any extra medals. The Invincibles would sell their souls – and a couple of their wins – for a Champions League victory. Watford will soon be forgotten by most but Klopp will use the result as motivation. The freshness of the pain will fire Liverpool in their quest to remain the kings of Europe.
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