Liverpool return to the scene of last season’s true nadir when they face Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday afternoon.
While the Champions League Final defeat to Real Madrid no doubt hurt a lot more, the Reds’ presence in Kiev at least affirmed that the club was on the right path under Jurgen Klopp’s guidance and with owners Fenway Sports Group at the helm.
But there were no such crumbs of comfort in the aftermath of a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of a supposed rival for top-four finish last October, only questions over their capability to qualify for Europe’s top competition once again.
Klopp’s reputation for unwavering loyalty to his players faced its sternest test in his post-match interview, the German coming closer to offering a withering assessment of their abilities than ever before.
He said: “We have to prove we are better defenders than we are today. The only way to fix it is to stay strong.
“The first goal would not happen if I am on the pitch, in my trainers.
“It was just defending in all parts. Everything that happened was so obvious…you cannot get results with performances like [this].”The whole game was pretty much all our fault. We made it much too easy for them.”
The manager’s exasperation was easy to understand given that such negligent defending seemed to be establishing itself as a theme for the campaign.
With just nine league games played, Liverpool had conceded a remarkable 16 goals at a rate of 1.7 per game – figures not befitting a team with top-four aspirations.
But, while Klopp would never thank his opposite number Mauricio Pochettino for the hammering meted out by Spurs that day, it proved to be the wake-up call his side desperately needed.
The 18-match unbeaten run the Reds subsequently embarked on, one which only ended in late January, owed much to that chastening afternoon at the national stadium.
And their overall defensive improvement continued beyond that shock loss to Swansea City; the result at the Liberty Stadium proving to be nothing but a blip on an upward curve.
Between game 10 and 38 of the 2017-18 Premier League season, Liverpool conceded just 22 times at a rate of 0.76 goals per game.
They have kicked this campaign off having been breached just once in four outings, a statistic that sees them top the division ahead of a return to Wembley for their trickiest game yet.
It is often pointed out that the Reds’ new-found solidity pre-dates personnel changes at the back, but it is hard to imagine Klopp’s backline could have consistently played at this level without major surgery.
Last year’s trip to Spurs saw Simon Mignolet, Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Alberto Moreno line up as the visitors’ back five, with Lovren lasting just 31 calamitous minutes before being replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Of that quintet, only Gomez is likely to feature this time – and at centre-back rather than right-back – with Alisson Becker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson alongside him.
And this newly formed fivesome will be keen to prove that their impressive record can withstand the test posed by the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Lucas Moura.
A clean sheet would certainly go a long way to helping Liverpool earn a first win at Spurs since 2014, while three points would boost the visitors’ hopes of ending a wretched run that has seen them finish behind their north London hosts in eight of the last nine seasons.
Saturday’s game also represents a chance for the Reds to send out a statement, to prove that they are worthy of the pre-season hype that saw them declared challengers to Manchester City and Tottenham largely ignored purely on the basis of their respective spends.
Simply avoiding the concession of four goals would be a good start in that regard
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