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 By Steven Kelly

With so much at stake, can Liverpool silence doubters and land UCL spot?

With confidence draining, fitness ebbing away and Arsenal gaining rapidly, Liverpool's trip to West Ham on Sunday looks like being one of their most important matches in years.

It doesn't help when Hammers manager Slaven Bilic has an excellent recent record against the Reds: when he was in charge of Besiktas he knocked them out of the Europa League in 2015 and since then he's won three and drew two.

Things had looked a little dicey for Bilic. The club's dream move to the London Stadium has been something of a nightmare, but they've recently turned a corner with a deserved 1-0 win against Tottenham that ensured their third clean sheet in a row.

So it's a tight defence coming up against a Liverpool strikeforce firing blanks -- understandable, then, that some fans are apprehensive about this game.

There seemed little to fear from Arsenal. The Gunners had suffered a severe slump in form before their FA Cup victory over Manchester City galvanised the club and reminded them of their incredible run of top four finishes since 1997 under Arsene Wenger.

Now they visit Stoke on Saturday just four points off Liverpool with a game in hand. Stoke is normally an awkward place for them to go, indeed they have not lost to them at the Britannia since 2010, but recent form -- including a 2-1 home loss to Liverpool -- doesn't hold out much hope of a helping hand for the Reds this week.

The "easy" solution to that of course is for Liverpool to get the job done themselves. It's an interesting psychological point that whenever they've looked like securing a top four spot, they've gone out of their way to blow it. The reverse is also true. Write them off, or claim a game will be too difficult for them, and they rally round. That could make the trip to West Ham one of those games where Liverpool tend to hit back at their critics.

Given the remaining fixtures, Liverpool should still be slight favourites to keep Arsenal's late challenge at bay, but there are plenty of nerves among the supporters right now. The manager too, if he genuinely believes Southampton did Arsenal "a favour."

Arsenal's last two home games against Sunderland and Everton ought not to be too taxing; Liverpool face relegated Middlesbrough on the final day and even with their knack of making easy things difficult they should win that game.

It's beginning to look like it all boils down to this weekend's results. By the time the final whistle blows at London Stadium, the league positions will probably be set in stone unless there's a late miracle or two.

There is so much at stake. This isn't just about whether Liverpool get the chance to appear in Europe's premier competition for one season -- they've missed out on that plenty of times recently -- it's about whether they can silence years of chatter about being "nearly men."

Liverpool have won one trophy in 11 years, and even that was after a penalty shootout against Championship opponents Cardiff City in 2012.

There have been losing finals, losing semifinals and two runners-up spots in the Premier League in that time. Many blame the dominion of the Champions League for diluting Liverpool's trophy ambitions. But if the Reds were to even blow fourth place from a seemingly advantageous position that would be too much for some to take.

It would also spell big trouble for the future. There are plenty of rumours about the club's big transfer plans this summer. Some believe that could only be propped up by sales of unwanted players, but the lack of Champions League money would reduce the amount that the owners are prepared to hand Klopp.

Everyone knows Liverpool's rivals for the top places will be making serious adjustments of their own this summer, so the Reds already faced a massive challenge next season. Without getting into the Champions League this time around, fans' concern could turn into a despondency that infects the entire club. No pressure on Sunday, then.

Klopp needs his best players -- Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana among them -- to dig out one more outstanding performance and help secure three vital away points to make Liverpool favourites for fourth place.

It's been a nervy, erratic season. Why should the final week be any different?

Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.


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