When Jordan Henderson last walked off the Anfield pitch, having just been shown a red card for a late tackle, Liverpool were about to beat Manchester City and implausibly assume the role as title favorites with four matches remaining. The midfielder will likely return to the turf on the season’s final day with Liverpool needing something approaching a miracle in order to claim their first championship in 24 years.
In the intervening time Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea and a disastrous late collapse against Crystal Palace has given Manchester City a two point advantage going into Sunday’s final fixtures. It would be a stretch to claim that Henderson’s absence has been a cause for Liverpool’s late collapse, although that loss from a small squad has certainly not helped.
Liverpool’s crucial missteps, though, have been at least as much about the mental side of the game as the abilities of their players or positive tactics of their manager. Despite having no expectations to be in such a lofty position so late in the season, the pressure eventually told in chasing the game too frantically against Chelsea and then chasing goals and being unable to withstand a fight back at Selhurst Park. Regardless of whether it comes in combination with a City defeat at home to West Ham and an incredible late twist in the title race, a final-day win would be a significant fillip for Liverpool. To do so, Brendan Rodgers has a massive job to reset the mindset of his players and get them to focus on what they have achieved and not what they have lost.
Realizing the huge strides that have been made this season will be imperative for the continuation of what was always intended to be a long-term strategy under Rodgers, but may also help remove the pressure and enable a positive showing against Newcastle to bring this season to a fitting finale.
"We've made great strides this season and there's still another game to go,” Rodgers said, according to Liverpool’s official website.
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"If anyone had said to us in August about being top going into the last week of the season, we would have taken that. We've qualified for the Champions League, but we know there is an awful lot of work here that we want to achieve."
In truth, Liverpool couldn’t wish for any better opponents on the final day than ones they have. To the increasing dismay of their thousands of loyal fans, Newcastle’s season effectively ended with the sale of Yohan Cabaye in January. After a good start to the campaign, there was a real opportunity to push for a place in the Europa League. Instead, the club’s owner Mike Ashley sent a clear message that simply safely staying in the Premier League and picking up the lucrative TV money season after season was the limit of his ambitions when selling the club’s best player and failing to replace him. Extraordinarily, when the transfer window reopens this summer, it will be nearly 18 months since Newcastle signed a player on a permanent transfer.
Manager Alan Pardew has also not helped matters. His comments on the Europa League have been far from effusive in their praise. “The Europa League is a massive problem to Premier League teams,” was indicative of them. His seven-game ban from the touchline for sticking his head into that of Hull’s David Meyler only added to the sense that the club was directionless.
It is hardly a surprise that the players have also looked lacking in motivation, losing six consecutive games before beating a Cardiff City side in even greater disarray last weekend. It is doubtful that Newcastle can raise themselves on the final day and end any chance that Liverpool still have of the title, but Pardew’s future could depend on it. A strong showing may provide some optimism heading into the summer, without it Ashley could decide that getting rid of the largely unpopular Pardew may be an easy way to ease the abuse being directed his way for at least the time being.
Where to watch: The Barclays Premier League match will kick off at 10 a.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by NBCSN, with a live stream available on NBC Sports Live Extra.