Liverpool – Rafa Benitez’s return to Anfield on Boxing Day is likely to stir memories of an unsuccessful Liverpool challenge for the Premier League title, but Jurgen Klopp is trying to focus on the present.
Klopp’s Liverpool hold a four-point lead at the top of the table as Benitez, the club’s manager between 2004 and 2010, visits with his relegation-threatened Newcastle United side on Wednesday.
There is a strong sense this could be the season that the English league trophy comes to Anfield for the first time since 1990, although recent history is offering mixed messages as to whether that will happen.
First, the good news for Liverpool: In eight of the past 10 seasons, the leaders on Christmas Day have gone on to win the Premier League.
Now, the bad news: On the two occasions it did not happen, the Christmas leaders were Liverpool. In 2008/09, Manchester United won the title; in 2013/14 it was Manchester City.
The late collapse to miss out in 2014 was perhaps the more immediately painful experience for Liverpool fans, but the failure of 2009, under Benitez, maybe offers more reason for regret. Both cases offer lessons that the Merseyside club, however, appear to have absorbed.
Brendan Rodgers’ team of 2013/14 were not as balanced as the side current Reds boss Klopp has now.
While Rodgers had an outstanding attacking partnership, with Luis Suarez supported by a fully-fit Daniel Sturridge, his men were defensively suspect.
The then Liverpool manager had four senior centre-backs – Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure – yet struggled to settle on a first-choice pairing. A team who scored 101 league goals conceded a whopping 50; far too many for any side with serious championship ambitions.
The class of 2018/19 should avoid that trap; they have the Premier League’s best defensive record this season, with only seven goals conceded.
Virgil van Dijk’s influence has been key; the centre-back, signed for £75 million from Southampton last January, has provided the defensive leadership that Liverpool missed badly following Jamie Carragher’s retirement in 2013.
“He’s very influential,” Klopp said of Van Dijk.
“When I met him first, I thought I knew about his personality, I was pretty sure he would be like he is.
“After we lost 4-1 at Tottenham in October of last season, we started defending better and conceding less but then Virgil came in on top.”
Liverpool’s solid defending means they do not have to score as freely to win games, although they are coming up with the goals when needed.
Mohamed Salah, after a quiet start to the season, is thriving after being switched from a wide position to a central attacking role. His total of 11 Premier League goals is only one fewer than Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the competition’s leading scorer.
Yet despite that quality, avoiding the fate of the 2008/09 Liverpool team, managed by Benitez, might still need a little luck to go the way of Klopp’s men.
That side, containing a spine of Pepe Reina, Carragher, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, was strong enough to be champions, but suffered from a lack of adequate back-up.
Too many draws against lowly opponents proved costly too, with Stoke, Fulham, West Ham and Hull all coming away from Anfield with a point.
Certainly, while Liverpool have the versatile attacking talent of Xherdan Shaqiri to call on if they lose one of their main forwards, and good quality options in midfield now that Fabinho and Naby Keita have found their feet, they may struggle if anything happens to Van Dijk. Perhaps that is why Klopp has not ruled out signings in January.
“I keep the door open because if something happens then we will need to have a look, as there are monstrous numbers of games coming and that’s really important that we can react,” said the German.
“But it’s all good, unless something dramatically changes.”