LONDON — On a night when the Premier League title was being decided in Manchester, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool were many miles away, both literally and figuratively. They needed to come from behind in east London to rescue their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League next season. Those hopes, even after a narrow 2-1 win at West Ham United, remain hanging by a thread.
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There is no doubt it will be an uphill battle. Still trailing six points behind Manchester United and Newcastle United, who both have at least a game in hand, Klopp continues to publicly dispel any notion of a race for the top four. “I can’t see it,” he said postmatch. But some players still hold faith. Last week, Fabinho told ESPN Brasil that Liverpool can still do it, but he admitted there was no room for error. Maybe that is putting it lightly.
“I want at least for a few weeks for us to show our real face,” Klopp told reporters at the London Stadium. “We have gone from an ugly one, a nice one, ugly one, nice one. We’ve shown it for three games.”
That has been the story of Liverpool’s season. In a year that has featured a 9-0 victory over Bournemouth and a 7-0 win over Manchester United, there have been shock losses, too: a 2-1 home defeat to Leeds United, a 3-1 mauling at Brentford, a 3-0 capitulation at Brighton & Hove Albion. Now, Klopp’s side badly need to achieve what they have struggled to all season: consistency. It used to be Liverpool’s hallmark. Last year, they won 16 of their last 18 league games to end the campaign, yet they entered this late-April fixture at West Ham having not won three games in a row since November.
In the opening stages at the London Stadium, it looked as if that trend would continue. West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen should have done better with a cross inside five minutes that would have allowed Michail Antonio an easy headed chance, before Lucas Paqueta danced his way through the Liverpool midfield and delivered a thumping effort from 25 yards. Liverpool fears mounted, only to be quelled at the other end by a piercing low strike from Cody Gakpo from a similar distance that found the bottom-left corner and levelled the score. “What a screamer,” Klopp said of Paqueta’s 12th-minute opener before adding: “We kept playing, and we scored our screamer as well.”
Liverpool dominated possession, with Trent Alexander-Arnold the standout player on the night in his new hybrid role as both right-back and a playmaking No. 6 beside midfielder Fabinho. Yet there were multiple occasions when Liverpool’s consistency was again threatened. A last-ditch intervention from Virgil van Dijk stopped Antonio from tapping in at the back post. Then, in the second half, a razor-tight VAR offside call on Bowen ruled out a goal that would have seen the home side regain the lead and take a big step toward securing their own Premier League survival for next season. That’s not to mention the decision not to award West Ham a penalty in the final stages for a Thiago handball.
Liverpool’s reprieve came in the 68th minute when a thumping header from defender Joel Matip put them ahead and completed the rescue act — not just for the game, but also their ambitions for this season. Wednesday’s victory places at least a little pressure on Man United and Newcastle, who face Tottenham Hotspur and Everton on Thursday respectively.
“I only ask to finish the season as good as possible. I want us to take something out of this season for next year,” Klopp said. “If that’s European competition then great, if not then we will have to accept it and go from there.”
He continues to dismiss Liverpool’s chances in a race for top four, which only confirms the need for a rebuild this summer. Liverpool pulled out of the race to sign Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham at least in part due to the need to spread transfer spending in the next window over several signings rather than one star acquisition. That leaves each Liverpool player fighting to show they still belong, in a team that does not quite function the way it once did so brilliantly.
Wednesday may prove to have been the start of a period of consistency that spurs Liverpool to a place in the Champions League next season. Or it could simply be a brief bright spot. Either way, Matip’s header was enough to ensure it is not time to begin the inquest into Liverpool’s underwhelming season quite yet.