Liverpool continued their pursuit of Manchester United and fourth place with a win against Brentford, but have they left it just too late to catch them?
Well, what else did they expect? Regardless of what you think of the coronation, of the concept of monarchy itself, or the way in which some cities in post-industrial Britain were treated by a succession of different governments, it didn’t even make any real sense to play God Save The King before the Premier League match between Liverpool and Brentford. We all knew what was coming, and while you can agree with them playing it, or you can disagree with them playing it, what you can’t do is claim that no-one was warned of what the reaction would be if they did. Liverpudlians can probably now expect yet another round of chiding in the press from columnists about whose opinions they are fully entitled to not give a tuppenny damn.
Perhaps the Premier League is a deeply republican organisation. Perhaps they believe that the only crown that matters is the one that sits atop their trophy, or perhaps they only recognise the lion wearing a crown on their logo as their one true monarch and they wanted to make it look ridiculous. Or could it have just been sheer bloody-mindedness? Did they play it because of those bloody lefties who were trying to cancel it? Whatever the motivation behind the decision to play the national anthem before a Liverpool home matchm the upshot of it all was that it was barely audible amidst an absolute cacophony of booing that quickly turned into “Liverpooool, Liverpool.” It was unusual, as pre-match entertainment goes, but still a step up on the Sky Strikers.
In altogether more important matters, both of these teams have had curiously rollercoastery seasons. Liverpool went into the match on an upward trajectory of five successive wins, their best of the season. There remains work to be done in the transfer market this summer. That midfield rebuild cannot be put off indefinitely. But Jurgen Klopp has instilled a little of that relentlessness that they had when they were at their prime.
It’s probably not going to be enough to result in a Champions League place, but the odds against did narrow slightly with Manchester United’s extremely late defeat at Brighton. Liverpool went into the weekend four points behind Manchester United and having played a match more. They clearly need to just keep winning and hope for a slip-up elsewhere. The good news in that respect is that, with the three fixtures after this one being against Leicester City, Aston Villa and Southampton, they can control what they can control. Wins against these three teams seem eminently achievable.
But it does still feels like a slim opportunity, to actually reach fourth place. Manchester United now have two matches in hand and are still a point better off than Liverpool, and their final five opponents are West Ham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bournemouth, Chelsea and Fulham. They’d need to drop points in three of those remaining five matches for Liverpool’s wins to be enough. Considering the first half to this season they had, perhaps it would be healthier if, rather than looking at not qualifying for the Champions League, all concerned looked upon qualifying for the Europa League as a success. This season could have ended much worse for them.
But to keep winning requires consistency, and that’s one thing Liverpool have been lacking this season. From just before the World Cup break to just after it, they looked as though they’d finally found themselves with four straight wins. But then they were beaten 3-1 at Brentford, the agon started to wobble again, and they didn’t win again in four matches. Their last little wobble, the one that makes their Champions League chances feel so slim now, started after their 7-0 win against Manchester United. At times this season, they’ve been unfathomable.
And even as they’ve been winning matches recently, they’ve also had their moments within some of them, throwing away a three-goal lead at home against Spurs before winning 4-3 and being pegged back twice by Nottingham Forest before winning 3-2. These varying wavelengths of inconsistency have been a common running theme throughout their season, and it may be the biggest hurdle they have to overcome if they are to push Manchester United anything like all the way. But it also shouldn’t be forgotten that they very fact being in touch with fourth place is a not-insignificant achievement, all things considered.
This inconsistency could be seen here, too. For 20 minutes, Liverpool seemed pretty much in control. They took a 13th-minute lead through Mo Salah, with everything taking on the feel of a routine end of season win. But as the half progressed, Brentford started to get back into the match. They even had the ball in the back of the Liverpool net thanks to Bryan Mbeumo with five minutes of the first half to play, but the flag was quickly and correctly raised for offside.
Brentford’s rollercoaster this season has had a longer curve. Having gone unbeaten in the Premier League from the end of October until the second week in March, they followed that by winning just one of their next eight. But two straight wins, away to Chelsea and at home against Nottingham Forest, had woken them up a little and their reaction to Liverpool taking the lead was as impressive as we’ve come to expect over their two seasons in the Premier League. Mbeumo and Ivan Toney remain a pairing who play as though connected by ESP. Their defence is compact and well-organised, and their midfield is always combative.
The brilliance of Thomas Frank has been to give his team a distinct and economical identity on the pitch that is also pleasing on the eye to watch. When opposing teams falls behind at places like Anfield it can often feel as though their game-plan comes apart, as though everything planned was completely dependent on keeping that sheet clean. Brentford held their shape, and they stuck to their plan. They defended in numbers and they were quick on the break. They pressed with intent and refused to be fazed by the occasion. They didn’t let themselves make it easy for the opposition, though their chances of European football next season are probably now finally over.
Liverpool certainly had opportunities to kill the match off, most notably when Cody Gakpo cleared a Diogo Jota cross from the Brentford goal-line rather than tapping it over the line, as we might have expected. But at the full-time whistle, Jurgen Klopp seemed extremely happy. It was a win for Liverpool. It wasn’t pretty in places, but at this point of the season all that really matters is getting over the line, and with Aston Villa tripping up at Wolves only Brighton can realistically overhaul them for fifth place and that’s far from guaranteed. They’ve probably left it too late for Champions League football next season, but Liverpool seem likely to end this season on a something of a high, regardless.