Chelsea, 9 points behind Manchester United, have stopped talking about defending their title and are focusing on winning their next game and ensuring Champions League qualification. A good run of wins coupled with disastrous results elsewhere could still see them be involved at the top come May, but it’s a hopeful punt even given their recent league titles and quality of players at their disposal.
For Liverpool then, 10 further points behind Chelsea, talk of European football is foolish. The focus now is surely to aim for a top-half finish this season, and as embarrassing as that might be for a side aiming to win the title two seasons ago, they only need a handful of good results on the trot to make up the difference between 13th (Liverpool’s current position) and 7th (Bolton, 5 points ahead).
The Guardian’s cheeky poll asking readers whether Blackpool would finish above Liverpool this season is just playing to the gallery, but the results tell us more about reader biases than what might actually happen. At the time of writing, 51.5% of voters thought Blackpool would finish above Liverpool in the Premier League, a testament to how much a large section of football fans are loving the underdog story of Blackpool / would like to see Liverpool crash and burn. The rest? Presumably fans who have seen enough football over the last few years to know that the top sides almost always manage to make up the difference in the second half of the season.
Trouble is, we kept expecting Liverpool to do that last season and they couldn’t. They’ve gone backwards this season, so unless something drastic happens in terms of shuffling the playing squad or unless Torres decides to fight back instead of falling over when a defender enters a 2 yard radius around him, there will be no fantasy revival.
But the other half of the equation is just as important. Blackpool have done well to win 28 points in 20 games in their first season back in the top flight, but they’re not home and dry just yet. Their game in hand is against Manchester United, and they have 17 other games against Premier League teams who have a) played Blackpool once before, so they know what they’re dealing with and b) are also fighting tooth and nail for points. As the case was with Hoffenheim, Holloway’s major task in the second half of the season (and in the coming summer) will be to keep his players happy and on board as opposed to letting them get carried away with their newfound (relative) success or with transfer offers from other Premier League clubs.
It’s not so much whether Liverpool can improve, but whether Holloway can keep Blackpool players on the right track. A few poor results and they could end the season barely avoiding relegation. As much as I love the underdog story, and as much as I would love to see Liverpool in the bottom half of the table as Manchester United lift their 19th league title, it’s difficult to bet against Liverpool finishing ahead Blackpool.
One thing is for certain though – Liverpool won’t be relegated. At least they’ve got that going for them.