Liverpool looks to arrest slide as trophy hopes fade
ABS-CBN Sports on Jan 27, 2017 09:48 AM
Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho controls the ball during the English League Cup semifinal 2nd leg soccer match between Liverpool and Southampton at Anfield stadium in Liverpool, England, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)
STEVE DOUGLAS, AP Sports Writer
LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — Their attacking spark has gone. Their opponents seem to have figured them out. Their chances of silverware are reducing by the week.
For Liverpool's players, there's concern that a season of high hopes is slipping away from them altogether.
January has been a month to forget for Liverpool, which has plummeted from title contention after earning only one point from a possible nine in the Premier League and then being eliminated from the League Cup at the semifinal stage by Southampton. It has one win in seven games so far in 2017, and that came in an FA Cup replay against a team from fourth-tier Plymouth.
Realistically, Liverpool's only chance to end a five-year wait for a trophy rests with winning the FA Cup. Second-tier struggler Wolverhampton Wanderers visits Anfield on Saturday for a fourth-round match that suddenly has taken increased importance for Liverpool.
A number of factors combined to make Liverpool look like a shadow of the team that blew opponents away in the first half of the season.
The departure of Sadio Mane to the African Cup of Nations with Senegal in early January has deprived Liverpool of its most lively, energetic forward — he might not be back for another two weeks — while another key attacker in Philippe Coutinho is still recovering his match sharpness after returning from a 6½-week injury lay-off.
It has forced Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp to shuffle his attacking personnel, with Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana playing in various positions across the front four, and the result has been only six goals in seven games from the highest-scoring team in the Premier League.
Meanwhile, rivals are realizing that the best way of playing Liverpool and neutralizing its prolific strikeforce is to sit back, pack the defense and hit on the counterattack. Klopp said after the two-legged loss to Southampton that 70-80 percent of teams are deploying this tactic and that his team must adapt to it.
"It's the most difficult thing in football," Klopp said. "We are a good footballing team, that's why this happens."
Liverpool's defense has long been its weakness and is proving susceptible to the counterattack, as shown against Southampton and in the damaging 3-2 loss to Swansea in the league last weekend.
Also, it remains to be seen whether Klopp's high-energy pressing tactics are taking their toll on his players, especially after such a packed January schedule that still has two more games left. Liverpool has, however, not had any European competition this season so should be fresher than some of its main rivals.
Yet, the players certainly look jaded and lack the zip of previous months, leading to more sideways passes and fewer incisive breaks. Liverpool lack a "Plan B" — Manchester United , for example, can introduce tall forward Marouane Fellaini from the bench to cause a different kind of problem — so is limited in that respect.
Not that Klopp is too concerned.
"If we doubt the way we are after these little, little problems we have now, it would be a strange thing," Klopp said. "We didn't have the points, the results, but we know what we have to do, we know what we want to, the football we want to play. So it's all good."
Expect Klopp to play his youngsters and fringe players again in the FA Cup this weekend, with a crunch home game against Chelsea coming up in the league on Tuesday. That increases the prospect of more woe for Liverpool in a month when its season is threatening to implode.
Here's what else to watch out for in the fourth round of the world's oldest knockout competition:
There are two non-league sides still in the competition, with fifth-tier clubs Sutton United and Lincoln both getting home matches against teams riding high in the second-tier League Championship.
Sutton, which knocked out top-tier Coventry in the third round in the 1988-89 season, hosts Leeds on Sunday. Lincoln, which last reached the fifth round of the FA Cup in 1976, is at home to Brighton on Saturday.
The most eye-catching game in the last 32 sees Arsenal visit Southampton, fresh off reaching the League Cup final by beating Liverpool over two legs.
In another all-Premier League matchup, Manchester City is at Crystal Palace. Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham all have home matches against lower-league opponents in Wigan, Brentford and Wycombe Wanderers, respectively.
Steve Douglas is at twitter.com/sdouglas80