LONDON — Three defeats in three competitions in the space of two weeks. All of a sudden, Liverpool’s procession toward sporting immortality is beginning to look like the stumble before a fall in the wake of their FA Cup exit against Chelsea.
Frank Lampard’s team won 2-0 with goals from Willian and Ross Barkley, but it could have been a much more emphatic winning margin for Chelsea on a night when Liverpool were uncharacteristically unconvincing in every area of the pitch.
Has a rot begun to set in that could result in this season being a good one rather than the great one it had promised to be? Three defeats, without a goal being scored in any of them, against teams prepared to hit Liverpool on the counterattack points to a pattern, but despite the worrying trend, Jurgen Klopp insisted at Stamford Bridge that he is not concerned about a loss of momentum.
“I am not worried about momentum,” he said. “You can’t control when you have it, but we know we can get it back.
“Losing 2-0 is not good, but easy to explain. We made two massive mistakes before the two goals.
“Things have gone our way for so long [this season] because we defended well. Usually, teams don’t get a lot of chances against us, but in the last four games we have conceded far too many goals.”
Liverpool’s priority this season — and in every season for the past 30 years — was to win the league title for the first time since 1990, and this loss of form is going to do nothing to deny Klopp’s team the club’s Holy Grail. Even after Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Watford, their first in the Premier League all season, Liverpool’s 22-point lead at the top is so commanding that it would be unthinkable for them to surrender their position with the finishing line now just four wins away. But until they lost 1-0 against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 first leg tie in Spain a fortnight ago, Liverpool were beginning to look like a team capable of sweeping the board in terms of the silverware available to them.
The reigning European champions face Diego Simeone’s Atletico at Anfield in next Wednesday’s second leg and they will back themselves to overturn their one-goal deficit and progress to the quarterfinals. But Klopp and his players may now also experience doubt and apprehension ahead of the Atletico tie because their winning habit has now become a losing one and the defeat at Chelsea will only have added to that sense of things beginning to go wrong.
It is a defeat that ends Liverpool’s prospect of achieving a Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup Treble, ensuring that they cannot match Manchester United’s historic feat from 1999 this season. Three days earlier, Liverpool’s hopes of emulating Arsenal’s 2004 Invincibles by winning the title without suffering defeat also came to end with the loss at Watford.
Klopp has always insisted that neither he nor his players are motivated by achievements beyond winning trophies, but the teams that write themselves into the record books are remembered for years and decades, and there is a danger that this Liverpool side may only win the Premier League this season and miss the chance to stand on the shoulders of giants. Perhaps that is why Klopp chose to field a weakened team against Chelsea, making six changes from the side beaten by Watford, with starts for youngsters Neco Williams and Curtis Jones. Fringe players such as Adam Lallana, Divock Origi and goalkeeper Adrian were named in the starting lineup.
For the German, maybe the domestic cups are an unnecessary inconvenience and drain on resources for the league and Champions League. Understandable, perhaps, because Klopp has used the domestic cup competitions to rotate his squad and rest key men, but a manager driven by the chance to make history would surely have selected the big guns against Chelsea and rested them against Bournemouth at the weekend because the 22-point lead gives him the luxury of being able to do just that in the Premier League.
Doing that would have given his star players a weekend off ahead of the Atletico tie and it would have been virtually risk free, because even a defeat against Bournemouth would not stop the Premier League trophy ending up at Anfield. But as it is, his team are now out of the FA Cup — a competition Liverpool have not won since 2006 — and his players now shoulder the burden of having lost three of their past four games. No matter how good or confident you are as a team, such a run is damaging for self belief, and the last thing Liverpool need against Atletico is self doubt.
The performance of defenders Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Andy Robertson was unusually below par against Chelsea, just as the defence as a whole was poor in the 3-0 loss at Watford. Having kept 11 clean sheets in 13 games before losing at Atletico, Liverpool have now conceded eight goals in four games, so something is not working.
If the malaise continues and sees Liverpool eliminated from the Champions League next week, the sense of them having missed the chance to make history this season will be inescapable. They will win the league, of course, and every Liverpool supporter will happily settle for that.
But there could have been so much more.