So here we are. Again.
For the second season running, Liverpool’s campaign looks like it will go down to the wire. The fear will be palpable; the worry, the what-ifs will be everywhere. After losing 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, it won’t be a comfortable week.
“That’s my life, eh?” said Jurgen Klopp, forcing a smile. “Always to the last matchday!”
The Reds boss knows that their Premier League season should be done and dusted by now. He knows his side should have closed the door on Chelsea and Tottenham long ago, and that they should be able to focus all their attention on Real Madrid and their forthcoming Champions League final.
Instead they have, in Klopp’s words, “one more final” to prepare for at the weekend. And losing it doesn’t bear thinking about.
There will be tension in the air at Anfield when Brighton and Hove Albion visit next Sunday, and understandably so. Were Liverpool to miss out on a top-four spot now, after the season they’ve had, after all the progress and the positive headlines, it would leave them in a nightmare scenario; having to win the Champions League in order to qualify for it. No pressure.
They should not find themselves in that position, of course. Liverpool are unbeaten at Anfield this season. Brighton are the team with the second-worst away record in the Premier League, two wins and just 11 points from 17 games so far. Chris Hughton's side secured survival by beating Manchester United on Friday; they don’t have to get a result this weekend.
And yet. And yet.
What if Liverpool don’t win? What if Brighton do what Stoke did, and grind out a scoreless draw? What if Chelsea take six points from their last two games, and Tottenham win one of theirs? What if everything that could go wrong, does go wrong? What then?
Liverpool’s Champions League journey this season has thrilled, but it began with an identical scenario on the final day of the last campaign. Then, they had to beat Middlesbrough to secure fourth spot. They did it, comfortably.
“I’m sure I will watch that game at some point,” Klopp grinned during his post-match press conference at Stamford Bridge. His team will draw on the experience, and others; they've delivered when it mattered on more than one occasion this season.
Klopp hid it well, but his side's form of late will concern him. Liverpool have looked like a team affected by their European exertions and their full-throttle style. Injuries have stretched their squad at a critical time. They were home and dry a month ago, looking at overhauling United for second spot; since then they’ve taken six points from a possible 15 to leave the trap-door open beneath them.
Klopp insists fatigue is not an issue – “I didn’t think Chelsea looked much fresher than we did,” he said after Sunday’s game, in which his side had more than 68 per cent possession away from home – but there’s no question that his side have dropped their level of late. They look leggier, they look less dangerous and more predictable. Even the brilliant Mohamed Salah has suffered; the goal machine has now gone three games without scoring.
The good news is they have a full week to prepare for Brighton. “That will help us massively,” Klopp said. “The intense period is over.”
It is, but the critical one is starting. If failure to beat Middlesbrough would have been disastrous, then missing out this time around would be even worse. Liverpool have had a taste of the Champions League and loved it; the idea of watching it from their sofas next season, of Europa League Thursdays in Warsaw or Bucharest or Bratislava, is simply terrifying.
It would undermine the progress made during the past two seasons, affect the club’s summer transfer plans and place unnecessary extra pressure on what should be an enjoyable occasion in Kiev. It would open up the questions about spending and recruitment, about depth and quality and Coutinho and ambition. Liverpool, whose curve has been upwards and whose message has been positive, could do without all that.
The good news is it’s still in their hands. Had you offered Liverpool a scenario where a home win against Brighton would qualify them for next season's Champions League back in August, most would have taken it. Now, Klopp and his side must take it.
They stood firm and passed the test 12 months ago; it is even more vital that they do so this time. If they don’t, it could set them back years.