Liverpool must conquer late-game fatigue to claim top-four finish
MANCHESTER, England -- Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool players were breathing hard as the final whistle blew in their 1-1 draw at Manchester City. With the point they gained at the Etihad Stadium, Klopp's team move four clear of fifth-placed Manchester United in the race for Champions League qualification.
(For the record, Pep Guardiola's home side were similarly drained, but given that they arrived back in Manchester on Thursday from a draining Champions League defeat against Monaco the previous evening, their heavy legs were to be expected.)
Liverpool have now played 38 games in all competitions this season, which is seven fewer than City and 10 fewer than United. As such, the Anfield club should be approaching the run-in with energy in their hearts and minds, but Jose Mourinho will have been heartened by the manner of Liverpool's failure to hang on to the lead given to them by James Milner's penalty.
That they dropped two points will boost United, who could yet play a further 16 games in the Premier League and Europa League combined and who themselves resembled a group of players dragging over the line in the final half-hour of their 3-1 victory at Middlesbrough. Their fatigue is understandable, and the fixture list could yet prove too much over the next nine weeks.
But just as at Old Trafford in January, when Liverpool faded badly and threw away victory by allowing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to equalise in the final 10 minutes, Klopp's players were unable to finish the job on the other side of Manchester.
They had the chances to do so, none better than when Adam Lallana was unable to convert Roberto Firmino's cross into a gaping goal from 6 yards after 80 minutes. The England international looked weary, and his mistake was reflective of the final stages as a whole, when it appeared Liverpool were playing in quicksand.
"They were lots of kilometres in our legs," Klopp said. "Adam apologised in the dressing room after the game, but he really didn't have to. His performance was outstanding."
City were also relying on reserves of energy in the closing stages but as the minutes ticked down, they appeared the only likely winner, with Sergio Aguero inexplicably blazing over with a volley at the far post from Kevin De Bruyne's pinpoint cross.
The question Klopp must answer is why his players, having benefited from such a light workload this season due to their lack of European football, are struggling through the final stages of games with two months of the season yet to be played.
Against City, his players clocked up more miles than in any other league game this season, a statistic that would suggest they are still going strong. But the reality is Liverpool are starting strong and putting opponents on the back foot with their intensity and high-pressing, then paying the price in the final moments.
Klopp's style of play asks a lot of his players, but it is a high-risk strategy, particularly in the Premier League, which continues to plough on without the mid-winter break to which he was accustomed while managing in Germany.
He is set to take his non-international players on a sunshine break during the next fortnight in an effort to re-energise tired minds and bodies, but has the damage been done with the energy already spent this season?
If the race for fourth does boil down to a direct battle between this team and United, as the table and recent results suggest it might, Liverpool's less demanding schedule -- they have just nine games left to play -- appears a greater advantage than United's bigger squad.
But from the moment Everton visit Anfield on April 1, it will be a desperate race to cross the finishing line, and restoring freshness in his players' legs and heads will be crucial for Klopp. Another factor in his favour is that he could not have picked a more favourable fixture list.
While United must juggle European commitments with a league programme that includes trips to Arsenal, Man City and Tottenham, as well as home games against Chelsea and Everton, Liverpool have completed their fixtures against the top six -- they went unbeaten in 10 games -- and the Everton game is their last against what they would class as rivals.
The potential problem is that their issues this season have come against the league's strugglers, with the 20 points they have amassed against the top six in excess of the 19 they have gained in matches with the six sides at the foot of the table. After Everton, Liverpool face two of the bottom six, as well as other clubs battling for survival, such as Watford and Bournemouth.
They have been out of both cups for weeks, with only the Premier League to focus on, but Klopp's men are not playing with the same energy and freedom as Chelsea, who also have enjoyed a campaign without the physical demands of European competition. The leaders have played just 35 games overall, but they are cruising by contrast.
The next fortnight offers a chance for a breather, however, and an opportunity to press the reset button. Liverpool currently have the edge in the race for fourth, but the unknown is whether they have the legs.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_