It was always going to be a tricky period to negotiate: Tottenham, Leicester and Chelsea away over the space of two weeks, in a Premier League title race where any slip-up brings a seismic shift in momentum.
Whack some Covid-related absences into the mix too – as well as the immediate issues 2022 will bring – and in the space of 10 days, Liverpool‘s pursuit of Manchester CIty is on the verge of going up in flames.
A draw at Spurs, with some questionable refereeing decisions thrown into the mix, was far from disastrous. Tuesday’s disappointing defeat at a fatigued Foxes was much more concerning for Jurgen Klopp.
The problems are mounting for Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp after the defeat at Leicester City
The Reds failed to score at the King Power and looked unusually bereft of attacking confidence
Now, the gap to the top is six points at the halfway stage. The Reds are back level with Chelsea, who they face in a now-pivotal encounter on Sunday afternoon at Stamford Bridge.
The Liverpool manager didn’t mince his words after the loss at the King Power, no excuses this time: ‘We were just not good enough. It was well deserved for Leicester, a very strange game. We played a really bad game…
‘It was not our plan to give them the chance to run away. If we play like tonight, we don’t have to think about catching them (City) but if we play as we normally do we can win games.
‘My main concern is to find an explanation for tonight, not the gap to City.’
In reality, Klopp is right. The here-and-now is what every manager preaches; it’s the role of supporters to get excited and despondent in equal measure about what the league table shows.
Mohamed Salah missed a first-half penalty vs Leicester before failing to convert the rebound
But for Liverpool, it really does feel like a season-defining period.
Since a convincing Merseyside derby victory over Everton at the beginning of the month, the performance level has dropped. Against Wolves, Aston Villa and Newcastle, they pulled through, marginally, as a result of their abundance of quality and depth.
Yet in the last fortnight, against stronger opponents, their vulnerabilities have shown.
Whisper it quietly, but Mohamed Salah’s last two displays have been underwhelming. Of course, the Egyptian was never going to sustain his astronomically impressive start to the season but, nonetheless, his missed penalty and rebound on Tuesday sums up his current plight.
The Egyptian hero has been underwhelming in his last two displays versus Spurs and Leicester
After Sunday’s encounter against Chelsea, Liverpool’s main man will depart for AFCON
What is worse, however, is the form of fellow African forward Sadio Mane. The Senegalese is ending 2021 how he started it: at best off-the-pace, at worst completely out-of-form.
The 29-year-old has not scored since the 4-0 win against Arsenal on November 20, a barren run of 808 minutes. On Tuesday, he missed a glorious one-on-one chance early in the second half with the scores level, almost inexplicably striking over the bar.
Four minutes later, Ademola Lookman scored Leicester’s winner. How differently the game could, and should, have swung.
However, following the upcoming Chelsea game (when he does really need his stars to come to the fore) the form of Liverpool’s leading duo isn’t actually Klopp’s problem.
Sadio Mane missed a glorious chance to put the Reds in front and hasn’t scored this month
Mane has now endured a barren run of 808 minutes without finding the back of the net
The pair, along with Guinea captain Naby Keita, depart for the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon. With the final on February 6, they could miss up to six matches, dependent on Cup results and rescheduled games.
As a result, Diogo Jota’s role becomes even more crucial, as does Roberto Firmino’s – with the Brazilian yet to catch fire this season.
As for Klopp’s other attacking options, worryingly both Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi were absent from the Reds squad at Leicester. While the Japanese striker was out with minor muscle soreness, Liverpool’s super-sub Origi hasn’t featured in three weeks.
Naby Keita is the third African player who will soon be unavailable to Reds manager Klopp
With a two-legged Carabao Cup semi-final against Arsenal on the horizon too, Klopp needs them fit. And firing too.
Elsewhere, Andy Robertson’s three-game suspension for his reckless kick-out at Emerson Royal in the draw at Tottenham has come at just the wrong time too.
With the postponement of the Boxing Day game against Leeds, Robertson’s third game out is this weekend at the Bridge.
While Kostas Tsimikas has filled in ably, the Reds do miss their adventurous Scottish left back.
Andy Robertson’s three-game ban after his red card at Spurs has come at the wrong time
Liverpool can’t afford to drop any more points against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday
Given a prior run of eight wins in a row in all competitions since the November international break, one point from six does not represent a crisis.
But Sunday at Stamford Bridge is now huge. Both level on points… who will be City’s closest challenger this season?
The Reds began 2021 with a 1-0 away loss. Exactly how it ended too. They need 2022 to buck that trend. Their title challenge, and season’s ambitions, depend on it.
Now, there is no more room for error. Only a win will do this weekend.