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5 key matches for Liverpool

Liverpool
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 By Steven Kelly

Will Liverpool be helped or hurt by a week off in their Europa League quest?

A slightly unfortunate 2-1 defeat to West Ham in the FA Cup in February has indirectly handed Liverpool an advantage for their dream of Europa League progress. Their opponents, Manchester United, have had to play the same West Ham a few days after Liverpool won 2-0 in the first leg of their Europa tie, while the Reds had the weekend off.

It was a strange twist in what has become a strange season. The biggest complaint of Liverpool fans this season was about the demands of fixture congestion. You wonder how they'd have howled if the team had succeeded in the FA Cup.

United boss Louis Van Gaal mentioned his players' tiredness after their tense 1-1 draw with the Hammers. That may be a desperate ruse to try and lead his counterpart Jurgen Klopp into a false sense of security before Thursday's vital Europa League 2nd leg clash. Yet Klopp would have to be a naïve fool to fall for that. Old Trafford will be a seething cauldron and Liverpool, to quote Klopp, can expect the mother of all games once again.

United being busy at the weekend and Liverpool having a rare week off made it seem like a win-win situation for the Merseyside club, but it's worth noting that their performances this season when they've had more than three days between games have not been great. In fact, their worst game of the season was a 3-0 defeat at Watford, following a week spent licking their wounds from a similarly dismal 2-0 defeat at struggling Newcastle.

The last time the Reds had a blank weekend was also due to their FA Cup exit, as the Europa tie with Augsburg saw both legs separated by a week's rest. Did the extended layoff enable Liverpool to turn on the style against their German opponents at Anfield? Hardly. An early James Milner penalty saw them go through but it was not a vintage display.

This must make Liverpool fans appear like permanent complainers: worried when there is fixture congestion, wary when there isn't any. Players themselves often prefer actual matches to training.

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool have shown they actually play better on shorter rest. How will they fare vs. Man United?

Older fans, meanwhile, have a sneering disrespect for the term "rest." They recall the heyday of the 1970s and 1980s when the same 14 or 15 players would get through a 60-game season -- always including 42 league games back then -- and more often than not have a couple of trophies at the end of it. The word such fans use for the modern footballer is "pampered" yet younger fans, mindful of the extra stresses and strains of the modern era, also know that if Liverpool want to continue being the club they claim to be, then fixture congestion is a fact of life.

It was easier for Brendan Rodgers to make a concerted effort for the title in 2013-14 when there was no European football to distract him and precious few domestic cup ties either. Once the continent reared its ugly head and piled on the extra games, Klopp's predecessor simply couldn't cope and nor could his players.

Supporters will be buoyed by the way Liverpool have responded in their last two midweek matches. After a tiring Capital One Cup final with Manchester City, they blew the same team away 3-0 days later. Last Sunday's 2-1 win over a physical and pacey Crystal Palace side was then followed by Thursday's excellent 2-0 win against United in the Europa League.

Given Liverpool's previous workload -- they played 16 games in January and February alone -- there might have been sympathy for the team if they now began to wilt. In fact they seem quite strong, indicative perhaps of a change in method triggered by Klopp's arrival. The occasional break certainly helps, and squad strength is hopefully going to make these calculations easier for Klopp to get right in the future.

Take Nathaniel Clyne, for example. A small injury forced him out of the Palace game but he was adequately replaced by Jon Flanagan. The former Southampton man returned for the Europa tie and played arguably his best game in a Liverpool shirt. This thoughtful rotation of the squad, used judiciously, can make all the difference between Liverpool becoming a force again or simply having to play the percentages and choose the competitions on which they'll focus.

Nathaniel Clyne turned in a superb performance last week having enjoyed the benefit of a sensible rotation.

Liverpool's league position is such that a European place is still possible for next season. There are many who claim Klopp's rebuilding job would be aided by exclusion from Europe in 2016-17, while others feel it would lay the same sort of trap than snared Rodgers. It is clearly advantageous for players to take a week's breather now and then; extended throughout a whole season, it could simply lead to a group of players ill-suited for the struggles of a genuinely competitive club.

Of course much will depend on Klopp's transfer business in the summer. There may be a focus on the club's second-string players, making sure there is quality available to the manager whenever his first-choice team cannot be selected because of tiredness or injury.

Liverpool's next opponents have in a way duplicated their own failings in recent years. United had no European football in 2014-15, which gave them a slight advantage over Liverpool in the race for fourth spot. With Champions League and Europa League football burdens this season, they have fallen backwards and might not qualify again, though teams like Arsenal and City are making heavy weather of their own tasks, handing United a skimpy lifeline.

Though United may well be tired this coming Thursday, they will take heart from the example of their opponents. Arguably Liverpool's best performances have been in midweek, like their 6-1 thrashing of Southampton in December or the previously mentioned 3-0 against City.

Whatever happens, both sets of supporters should be desperate for a punishing schedule next season. That will mean their clubs are in the thick of the chase for success, and at a time when clubs like Tottenham and Leicester are stronger and clubs like West Ham and Everton are "suiting up" for the coming years. Chelsea surely can't be this bad again, can they?

The English game's traditional giants are facing a huge battle -- not just against themselves but against the numerous clubs that want to take their place.

Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and has a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.

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