Liverpool Still Has a Long Way to Go

Liverpool Still Has a Long Way to Go

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On Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after watching his players try to maintain their eight-point lead at the summit of the Premier League, Jürgen Klopp and his Liverpool team will board a plane bound for Qatar, and the Club World Cup.

They will train on Monday in Doha, where there are a number of news media engagements booked for that afternoon. On Tuesday, Klopp will put the finishing touches to his plans for his team’s semifinal on Wednesday.

On Sunday morning, Neil Critchley, the manager of Liverpool’s under-23 team, will be preparing for the biggest game of his career. On Monday, he will be at Liverpool’s training facility at Melwood to give a news conference ahead of the club’s Carabao Cup quarterfinal at Aston Villa. That game is on Tuesday night.

For 72 hours, Liverpool will be a club divided in two: two games in two competitions on two continents in two days. It is a schedule that demands, in effect, two managers. It is not, of course, an even split — that Klopp is taking a full-strength squad to Qatar, leaving Critchley’s batch of hopefuls to face a battle-hardened Aston Villa, indicates precisely where Liverpool’s priorities lie.

It has, unlike Manchester United, never managed to win the Club World Cup, or its forerunner, the Intercontinental Cup. It declined to participate in the first two years it was eligible — 1977 and 1978 — because of the brutality that regularly scarred meetings between the champions of Europe and the champions of South America.

It lost in 1984 to Independiente, of Argentina, and in 2005 to São Paulo, of Brazil. In 1981, it was dismantled by Flamengo, the team it is likely to meet in the final this time around. Quite where this tournament figures in soccer’s firmament is a matter of debate — below both a Premier League title and the Champions League is the correct answer, of course — but then these things are not always logical. Who would, really, turn down the chance to call themselves champion of the world?

Liverpool’s involvement does, though, come at a cost. Ever since Klopp’s team swept past Manchester City at Anfield in November, the Premier League race has been presented as a fait accompli: The gap between Liverpool, the runaway leader, and City, the reigning champion, grew first to nine points, then 11 and now, thanks to Manchester United’s derby win last week, 14 points. Most now identify Leicester City, eight points adrift in second, as Liverpool’s only realistic rival in the league.

The true picture is, perhaps, not quite as rosy (from a Liverpool perspective) or as predictable (from everyone else’s). Few managers are as outspoken about the perils of fixture congestion, as wary of the demands placed on players, as Klopp. The next few weeks may bear him out.

Liverpool has two games to play in Qatar, by which time it will, most likely, have been eliminated from the Carabao Cup. It then must face Leicester, Wolves and Sheffield United in the space of eight days in the Premier League.

Klopp will have seen the first weekend of January, and the third round of the F.A. Cup, as a chance for a break, but no such luck: the vicissitudes of the draw mean that Everton will be at Anfield that day, the occasion as superheated as ever. After that, it is back to the Premier League, with games against Tottenham, Manchester United and Wolves, again.

All of that comes on the back of a run of six games in 17 days, even before next week’s pileup. Liverpool has so many games to play that it has one — away at West Ham, postponed because of the Club World Cup — that does not yet have an official slot. Few of Liverpool’s players had an extended break last summer: Sadio Mané, its standout performer this year, had only a couple of weeks off because of national team duty for Senegal.

Klopp has already spent part of the season without Alisson Becker, his first-choice goalkeeper; Joel Matip, one of his first-choice defenders; and now Fabinho, his first-choice midfielder.

He can hardly plead poverty of resources, of course; he has a rich and deep squad. But, still: Liverpool is being tested to the limit.

It might not look like it now, but it is possible that, should Leicester beat Manchester City next weekend and then Liverpool on Boxing Day, that the eight-point lead could be down to two, just as a daunting January schedule draws into focus. The Premier League is far from done. It is always a long road. For Liverpool, this year, it is slightly longer still.

In further proof that reality is becoming more and more like a video game, Russia, under the terms of the ban meted out by the World Anti-Doping Agency for years of systematic transgressions of its rules, will be able to send a team to the 2022 World Cup if it qualifies, but that team will not be able to be called Russia. And if that wasn’t bad enough, nor will it be able to compete under the Russian flag.

Instead, it will have to find a new flag — something jazzy, hopefully, with a bear on it — and a new name, giving the tournament the air of a video game that has not been able to pick up all of the official licenses.

Readers of a certain generation, and a certain inclination, will remember Liverpool’s being known as Merseyside Red on the Pro Evolution Soccer computer games, or Leeds United’s going by West Yorkshire White, both of which sound like extremist political parties. (A personal favorite: Bolton was always “Middlebrook,” after the shopping mall that sits next to the team’s stadium.)

So what will Russia be? Football Team From Russia is a bit Yakov Smirnov, isn’t it? You could go Orwellian, and call it Eurasia. The safest bet is to go geographical — Top of Asia — though I wonder if fatalistic might work best: Knocked Out In Group Stage.

If this seems like an insufficiently serious response to institutionalized cheating, then it only mirrors soccer’s attitude. For soccer, the long-running Russian doping scandal is something that happened to other people. It has long given the impression that doping is a problem for every sport in the world except the most popular and most lucrative one.

That seems — let’s say — unlikely, at best. Indeed, soccer’s history is peppered with allegations of doping, from Inter Milan’s Caffe Herrera in the 1960s to the Juventus scandal of the 1990s. The fact that the sport can fool itself into believing it is immune might be because nobody is doping. Or it might, of course, be because they’re doing it really well.

Jesse Marsch may feel a little subdued this week after seeing his Red Bull Salzburg team eliminated from the Champions League. Marsch, the first American to coach on Europe’s grandest stage, should be heartened, though, by how his team performed on the way: going toe-to-toe with Liverpool across two games, and matching Napoli, too. Salzburg deserved more than one point from those four fixtures.

The really good news, though, is that — even in defeat — Marsch was in charge of a team that played well against an English team, and on English television. That is more than qualification enough to make him a viable candidate for any job outside the Premier League’s top seven. Expect him to be mentioned as soon as West Ham, for example, gets around to firing its manager.

To most, it would be foolish for Marsch to leave Salzburg — and the Red Bull project as a whole — so soon. He is still gaining experience, and there is a good chance that he is being groomed as a successor to Julian Nagelsmann at RB Leipzig, the empire’s pinnacle. It would, surely, border on idiotic for him to leave for one of the Premier League’s habitual mediocrities.

But it is important to remember that managerial careers are brief, opportunities are fleeting, and fate is capricious. Salzburg’s team next year will be markedly different. It may not be better. Marsch’s reputation will rise and fall, his fortunes ebb and flow, with the players he has at his disposal. He should be forgiven, then, for making hay while the sun is shining.

Another week, and still no conclusion to the climate change debate: Are the scientists really making it all up? Aren’t we due another ice age anyway? Why, exactly, is it that not everyone agrees with absolutely everything I think all of the time?

Many of you have been in touch to take issue with Ken’s suggestion that we shouldn’t discuss it here, and your support is welcomed. (I mean, I’m in charge, so we kind of discuss whatever I want anyway). “I’m much more interested in the intersection of football with these sociopolitical questions than the latest scores or transfer rumors or Mourinho-related drama,” Joe Klonowski wrote.

On another subject, writing from Mumbai, India — as opposed to all the other Mumbais — Murty pointed out that “increasing individualization is a global consumer trend” and wondered if maybe sports broadcasting might go the same way. “I’m imagining a future where people choose to watch the video stream of a game with commentary of their choice: one might be with the broadcaster’s crew, but another might like a statistician’s take, while a third audio stream option offers your favorite podcaster’s voice on the game.”

Judging from what happened in the first week of the Amazon experience here in England, Murty, the option people really want is the one with crowd noise but absolutely no commentary.

And just to prove that I have not been cowed from the big, complex subjects, here is a question from Cory Lubliner: “Why do German teams have the team’s name on the back of the players’ jerseys, and why, in most cases, is the player’s name below the number, so that when watching on TV one hardly ever sees it?”

I’ve wondered that, too, and I’m not going to lie to you: I hate it. It helps, I find, if you just assume that all of the players are called “Dortmund.” (If anyone can help us out, feel free to get in touch).

That’s all for this week. I’ve really enjoyed all the correspondence to askrory@nytimes.com this week, so please keep it coming. There’s always Twitter, of course: help improve my user experience by diluting the number of British politicians on my timeline. And then tell everyone you know about how nice it is to get an email every Friday here.

Have a great weekend.

Rory


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