Liverpool's trip to Crystal Palace a test of whether they've turned a corner
Such has been the completely unpredictable nature of this Premier League season that Liverpool suddenly find themselves on the cusp of a possible challenge for a top four spot after their impressive 3-0 win over Manchester City in midweek. Their prospects appeared virtually dead in the water a week or two ago but the stuttering form of Arsenal -- and, more specifically, City -- has provided a glimmer of hope for the chasing pack, of which the Reds are certainly a part. The gap is down to just six points, which given the amount of games remaining hardly seems insurmountable.
Liverpool were brilliant on Wednesday night. Yes, City looked jaded and did not play well but much of that was due to the Reds' fire and brimstone approach, typified by the robust (but perfectly legal) challenge by Jon Flanagan on former teammate Raheem Sterling after just 20 seconds. That set the tone for an evening of chasing, harrying and tackling that completely unsettled Manuel Pellegrini's side.
It was the perfect demonstration of the type of "full throttle football" supporters expected Jurgen Klopp to bring with him. Though we've seen fleeting glimpses of it this season, overall it's been frustrating for Kopites who have seen their team unable to find any kind of consistency at all. Both Klopp and midweek goalscorers Adam Lallana and James Milner spoke of how the team played with "anger" against City, but that will count for nothing if they fail to perform at Crystal Palace, a side that have caused the Reds all manner of issues in recent seasons, this weekend.
The key now for Liverpool is to maintain -- or at least get somewhat close to -- that level of performance for the remaining fixtures. The problem for Klopp is that every time his team has looked primed for a run of good form, they usually produce a disappointing display that puts them right back at square one. For example, after beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge at the end of October, they lost at home to Palace the following week.
A stunning 4-1 win over City at the Etihad Stadium was followed by two unimpressive, slightly fortunate, home victories over Bordeaux and Swansea. After putting six past Southampton in the Capital One Cup, they took just one point from their next three Premier League fixtures, losing 2-0 at hapless Newcastle, being held to a 2-2 draw at home to West Brom and suffering an embarrassing 3-0 reversal at newly promoted Watford. A 6-0 win over Aston Villa was followed by a damp squib goalless draw in Augsburg. You get the picture.
Yet there is some cause for optimism. Klopp would argue that part of the reason for his side's inconsistent form is their packed fixture list, but that has now been eased considerably. The Capital One Cup campaign is over and the Reds have been eliminated from the FA Cup, which means they have a free weekend in between both legs of the Europa League tie with Manchester United.
Additionally, the once crippling injury list has cleared up nicely and Klopp has close to a full squad from which to choose. Less games and more players available brings a different set of problems to those that he's endured so far, but they are the kind of problems all managers like. Far better to worry about who to leave out than who is available to pick.
The midweek victory over City was achieved without both Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, both of whom were rested after playing 120 minutes at Wembley three days earlier. Both will come back into contention against Palace this Sunday, as will full-back Alberto Moreno and central defender Mamadou Sakho. The performances of those who replaced them on Wednesday will make Klopp's selection this weekend a difficult one. He needs to find the balance between keeping faith with those who performed so well against City and introducing the fresh legs that will be needed against a pacy, direct Palace side that has torn Liverpool apart on the counter-attack over recent seasons.
Reds supporters will not be thrilled to see that their tormentor in chief, Yannick Bolasie, back in the Palace side this week after a lengthy absence that coincided with the Londoners' sudden loss of form. Bolasie is their key man and keeping him in check will be the biggest key to victory for Liverpool.
If they can do that and emerge from South London with three points, perhaps then they can start to believe that a place in the top four might not be so out of reach after all.