By Greg Lea.
If Liverpool supporters were told at the start of the season that they would defeat Leicester City 1-0 at Anfield on Boxing Day, the most common response would probably have been: "only one?"
It is a sign of the times, though, that the Reds' narrow triumph on Saturday was seen as an impressive result; Leicester, after all, are not the relegation fodder that many expected but the unlikeliest of Premier League title contenders.
A top-four finish remains the aim for Jurgen Klopp's outfit this term. Victory at Sunderland on Wednesday night will move Liverpool to within five points of the Champions League places, a gap that would keep them within touching distance of fourth heading into the New Year. The Merseysiders have been consistently inconsistent in 2015/16 although they are far from alone in this most open of Premier League campaigns but still have an excellent chance of returning to Europe's primary continental club competition next season.
The aforementioned triumph over Leicester on Saturday was fully deserved, with Liverpool the better team throughout. Although Claudio Ranieri's charges headed into the game on the back of seven wins in their last eight top flight encounters, they were not really given a sniff by the hosts, who overpowered the then league leaders and pinned them back in their own half for long periods.
Leicester went with their usual approach of sitting deep and springing forward quickly on the counter, but Liverpool's energetic pressing made it difficult for them to play accurate balls forward to the likes of Jamie Vardy, Shinji Okazaki and Riyad Mahrez. Emre Can and Jordan Henderson won the midfield battle against N'Golo Kante and Andy King, with Divock Origi who was replaced by Christian Benteke after picking up an injury late on in the first half causing centre-backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth plenty of problems with his movement in the channels.
Like their high-flying opponents, Liverpool focused on playing early passes forward at speed, closing down high up the pitch to make life uncomfortable for Leicester and going straight for the throat as soon as possession was won back. Benteke's strike in the 63rd minute was just reward for the home side's dominance. Having been played off the park and losing 3-0 to Watford six days previously, Liverpool fans got the response in terms of both result and performance that they were looking for from their team.
The key now is to build on that success in the second half of the campaign. Chelsea's implosion means there is a top-four spot up for grabs this year; while Leicester have overturned all of the odds to challenge, Manchester United's current problems the Red Devils have now gone six Premier League games without a win could see Liverpool end the season in the Champions League places for only the second time since 2009.
It will be interesting to see whether Klopp targets any reinforcements in the January transfer window. Liverpool have scored only 21 times in the league so far, while their concession of 22 goals means Stoke City, Watford and Crystal Palace all possess superior defensive records. There are clearly areas of the squad that can be improved, but Klopp may prefer to focus his efforts on continuing to teach his methods to the players currently at the club.
In ordinary circumstances, Liverpool would be prepared to write off this campaign and wait until 2016/17 for Klopp's work to fully take hold. With no outstanding team in the division and Chelsea and Manchester United both struggling, though, the Reds have been granted a superb opportunity to return to the Champions League. Victory at Sunderland on Wednesday night is a must if Liverpool are to keep the heat on those above them.