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Liverpool’s chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League improved immeasurably over the past eight days. The 4-2 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford and defeats for Chelsea and Leicester City makes ending the campaign in the top four a viable ambition.
To make that happen, Jurgen Klopp’s team need to win the final three games. West Bromwich Albion, Burnley and Crystal Palace have little to play for but the managers of all three clubs would take pleasure in contributing to Liverpool’s misery. The deposed champions are facing trial by nemesis.
First up is Sam Allardyce tomorrow. The Albion manager has suffered relegation for the first time this season but his team’s 1-1 draw at Anfield in December started Liverpool’s slide from the top of the Premier League and was the catalyst for their gruesome start to the year.
Allardyce’s hostility towards the Merseyside club stretches way beyond the Klopp era. It started almost two decades ago when the then Bolton Wanderers manager began to resent the influx of foreign managers into the Premier League. He started to believe that his Englishness led to him being overlooked by the big clubs.
The feud between Allardyce and Rafa Benitez started in 2004, three games into the Spaniard’s Premier League career when Bolton inflicted a bruising 1-0 defeat on Liverpool at the Reebok Stadium.
Benitez has never been shy about expressing his opinion that Allardyce represents some of the worst aspects of the English game. Seven clubs and 17 years have passed but the 66-year-old’s contempt for Benitez and Liverpool has only hardened.
Klopp was not only one of Benitez’s successors at Anfield but he found himself on Allardyce’s list of enemies. Two months after taking over on Merseyside six years ago, Klopp was involved in a touchline row with Allardyce, who was in charge of Sunderland. Again, the Englishman’s physical approach was the cause. A foul on Mamadou Sakho at the Stadium of Light caused the spat, which led to the intervention of a police officer who told Klopp to calm down. Afterwards, Allardyce called his opposite number a “soft German” for believing the challenge deserved a red card. Neither man has warmed to the other since. Liverpool can expect another rugged encounter at the Hawthorns tomorrow and no quarter from Allardyce.
Turf Moor is another tough place to go and Sean Dyche’s Burnley will test Liverpool’s mettle on Wednesday. The Lancashire side won 1-0 at Anfield in January and Klopp and Dyche squared up to each other in the tunnel at half-time.
The Burnley manager laughed off the incident on a podcast this week, saying that he would like to go for a pint with Klopp. The 49-year-old is as combative as his Liverpool counterpart and the squabble was in the heat of the moment but both parties have a point to prove. Beneath the smiles, Klopp is a fighter. There is a core of anger under his convivial exterior that often gets overlooked. Anyone who upsets him is rebuked in forthright terms – as Sadio Mane no doubt found out after ignoring his boss in the wake of the Old Trafford victory.
One of the 53-year-old’s qualities, though, is that he can put disagreements behind him. Dyche is similar so there is little likelihood that the bust-up will turn into a decades-long Allardyce-style vendetta but because January is so recent there will be an extra dollop of edge at Turf Moor. Burnley, whose Premier League safety was cemented by their 2-0 victory over Fulham on Monday, will not be on the beach when Liverpool roll into town.
The final game of the season could well be Roy Hodgson’s last game as a manager. The 73-year-old is a footballing national treasure and widely loved across the game – except in front of the Kop. It is ironic that his swansong as Crystal Palace manager will take place at Anfield, where his seven-month spell that ended a decade ago is remembered with a shiver.
Hodgson was doomed to failure on Merseyside. He inherited a club riven by civil war and there was little the former Fulham manager could have done to make things better. What few expected was that he would make the situation worse.
He made a bad start by alienating the local media by mocking the Scouse accent and things deteriorated from there. Hodgson’s deference to Sir Alex Ferguson – which continues to this day – was unbecoming of a Liverpool manager. The Kop made their feelings known by chanting ‘Hodgson for England.’ Fans wanted him out and were relieved when he was sacked with Liverpool just four points above the relegation zone. Memories are no fonder in the boardroom.
The Palace manager wants to go out on a high note at Anfield, especially after Liverpool’s 7-0 victory at Selhurst Park in December. On that day Hodgson’s side were the better team for most of the first half before being blown away. Although the Palace boss has no axe to grind with Klopp, leaving Merseyside with a point or more would be Hodgson’s last act of revenge.
The other complication is that teams outside the so-called Big Six are desperate to keep the clubs that signed up for the Super League out of next year’s Champions League. Liverpool, whose owners helped drive the breakaway initiative, are the main target. Opposition players are eager to undermine what they see as Anfield’s sense of entitlement.
The last week will not be easy for Klopp and his team. They will have to fight hard for a top-four place. Qualifying for European football’s most prestigious competition will make a huge difference in terms of finance and recruitment in the summer. If Liverpool get into the Champions League they will have to earn it.