There are a lot of variables, but Sadio Mane's injury makes Liverpool outsiders in race for the top four

Miguel Delaney
The Independent
Sadio Mane may need surgery on his injured knee: Getty
Sadio Mane may need surgery on his injured knee: Getty

After all the questions put to him about Sadio Mane on Friday morning, Jurgen Klopp arguably posed a much more relevant question himself, at least in relation to Liverpool’s latest slip-up against Bournemouth.

“Can you train experience?” the German wondered after his side had so naively thrown away a late lead to draw 2-2. “I’m not sure.”

What is sure is that Arsenal have a lot more experience of this general situation than Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs, and it touches on something that could be the most significant dynamic of all in the chase for the Champions League spots. Because, as that race reaches its final furlongs, recent developments like Mane’s injury make it feel like there’s almost another game that’s relevant for reference here rather than other sports like the Grand National. It is almost like a grand game of rock-paper-scissors, where everyone has their own qualities that beats someone else, but also their own weaknesses.

Consider the characteristics of the chasing teams as we approach the last fixtures.

Liverpool have the points, and presumably the conviction that should come from the exciting manner they generally accrued those points, but that confidence may have been eroded by how so many of their remaining fixtures are exactly the types of games they’ve slipped up in. They don’t have their key goalscorer in Mane, either, not to mention a number of other potential absences for Saturday’s very tricky match away to Stoke City.

Arsenal meanwhile have that experience and most of their most important players back in the team - Arsene Wenger said on Friday that Laurent Koscielny’s injury “should be short-term” - as well as the slight sense of release from coming out of a real slump... but still don’t look back to an especially reliable rhythm ahead of a similarly awkward trip to Crystal Palace.

Manchester United are meanwhile behind both in the table right now but feel in between them in terms of all those factors. They have less experience of this race than Arsenal but more than Liverpool. They have as many injuries as Liverpool, but a deeper squad. They have a slightly kinder fixture list than Arsenal, but more games due to the Europa League and maybe what feels a touch more resilience about them even if they had endured so much frustration. If United have had a tendency to flatline with so many draws, they just don’t fluctuate as wildly as Arsenal… or Manchester City.

City do feel a little different because they have the points, have most of their quality players fit and available, and also have a more forgiving fixture list than all those sides. Their only remaining big game is the Manchester derby at home.

The only problem is that it is precisely all those variables that make looking at the fixture list and trying to judge from it so potentially misleading - and irrelevant. As was so brutally impressed on Liverpool last week, one sudden injury to a key player and the perception of everything changes. The same applies if you frustratingly slip in a match you wouldn’t have anticipated, as with United and West Brom.

It is also, however, why this weekend’s fixtures could be so telling and so influential. They are proper acid-test fixtures for each of the clubs, in terms of potentially exposing their main weaknesses and strengths.

City, for example, have not won in four league matches, but that is generally not too much of a concern because the last three have been against fellow teams in the top six - Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. It will be a concern, however, if they don’t respond by beating relegation-threatened Hull City at home. Pep Guardiola talking about how it was only small details and individual moments that denied big collective performances will not be enough, as they are running out of games and it will make them feel so much more vulnerable to dropping points. It could also remove the advantage of their lead… if the sides below them actually win.

That is no guarantee with United right now no matter who they play, but no side in the Premier League offers as close to a guarantee than a dismal Sunderland. United should easily defeat them and regain that settling confidence to score that has been missing from so many of their last few matches, to then go and beat other bottom-half teams in their run-in. If they don’t defeat Sunderland, though, it really will raise even more questions about who they can beat given their problems in front of goal.

Ozil's goal was the sort of luck United aren't getting (Getty)
Ozil's goal was the sort of luck United aren't getting (Getty)

Arsenal got the breaks that have recently eluded United in their midweek win over West Ham United, especially with Mesut Ozil’s dam-busting bouncing shot for the opening goal, but they still weren’t that impressive. It remains to be seen whether that win only came from those breaks and whether there are still problems with how this team generally functions, or whether that win will actually offer the break they need to bring back their late 2016 form. Wenger was naturally preaching the latter. “Overall I think we had of course a hiccup in recent weeks and what is important now is for us to move on, focus again, keep the way we want to play football in mind and give absolutely everything in every game.”

The question remains over whether Liverpool gave everything too early in the season, given how they were caught late on against Bournemouth, and are now suffering more and more injuries. The team that had so impressively beaten Arsenal and so many others in the top six was not seen, either in verve of in personnel. In that regard, it is why this match against Stoke City could state more about than anything else. For one, they are playing away to exactly the type of mid-to-bottom-of-the-table side that have taken more points per game off them than any of the top six. Secondly, they are likely going to have to do so without many of their key players, with Philippe Coutinho potentially joining Mane on the sidelines.

Coutinho could be joining Mane in Liverpool's treatment room (Getty)
Coutinho could be joining Mane in Liverpool's treatment room (Getty)

If they drop points here, it is impossible not to think it will lead to widespread drop of conviction across the team, to eventually drop out of the top four.

If they win it after Wednesday’s slip, though, there will be no better boost; no better encouragement. It will feel like they can deal with the main challenge this run-in will have to offer, those awkward games, especially with main players to come back.

It has been the nature of this race for the Champions League places, however, to very suddenly change the ground everyone is running on.

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