It says everything about what is at stake for Liverpool and how delicately their hopes of immortality dangle in the balance, that a meeting with a Cardiff team managed by Neil Warnock can share equal stature with taking on Barcelona for a place in the Champions League final.
‘They are both as big as each other,’ is the view of Liverpool full-back Andy Robertson. ‘Barcelona is far in the future. We cannot think about that. We are still going for a league title. We are fighting with Man City. Every game is as big as the next one.’
To take one game at a time is a phrase so frequently recited from the footballer’s book of cliches that there is a crease down the spine and its worn pages have long curled up at the corners. With Robertson, you could tell he meant it.
For Liverpool right now, it could not be more true. There is no let-up. Each win alone is not sufficient to bring glory to Anfield, yet a single defeat could see it all unravel in a heartbeat.
Manchester City’s victory over Tottenham yesterday, some semblance of revenge for their dramatic Champions League exit, sent Pep Guardiola’s side back to the top of the table by a point.
It is the eighth time the lead has changed hands since March 10. One side always playing after the other. Each time winning, each time returning to the summit. Neither letting up, each refusing to leave the door even a fraction ajar for the other to force their way in and claim it all.
Robertson admitted that the Liverpool players would watch their rivals in action yesterday. Jurgen Klopp’s side have not hidden away from the ferocity of battle so far, so why start now?
‘It has no bearing on us,’ said Robertson. ‘We know it is out of our control. All we can do is impact our own games, so it makes no difference if we watch it or not.’
Now it is Liverpool’s move, again. They know what they need to do. They need to win.
Cardiff have lost all 10 of their games against the top six this season. They have not beaten Liverpool since 1959, in Bill Shankly’s first game in charge. Warnock had not long turned 11 years old. Robertson is not ready to leave Liverpool’s fate in history’s hands.
‘Cardiff had a magnificent result against Brighton,’ he said. ‘Warnock will have them up for it, all the players are fighting for their lives and they want to stay in this league. It’s a massive game. Hopefully, we can do enough.’ With Cardiff the pressing matter at hand, at least Robertson does not have to bother himself with the prospect of dealing with Messi for a little longer. ‘I won’t lose sleep just yet,’ he said. ‘I will think about that another day!’
Klopp, meanwhile, is staying in his bubble away from Liverpool fans as excitement builds in the city about a first league title since 1990. Klopp has built a reputation for being a ‘man of the people’ like the club’s greatest manager, Shankly, but does not believe this is the time to get sucked into the title hype by well-wishers.
‘I don’t go shopping, I have enough jeans for the next 20 years, it’s a long time since I went out and bought a pint of milk,’ said Klopp. ‘I’m not silly. I can imagine the mood among fans is good but I don’t need to read it, I don’t need to hear it. I can imagine people want to go out and celebrate, talk about it but we are not part of that. We have to make sure it stays like this.’
Liverpool also being through to the Champions League semi-finals means they are on course for a Premier League-European Cup double, last achieved by the club in 1984.
‘If we are tired we don’t feel it,’ Klopp said. ‘We want to be playing and winning, not sitting at home and hoping the others lose. We know we have to play our best to have a chance to win something.’
To counter any complacency against Cardiff, Klopp will tell his players about the aerial threat of Warnock’s team with the same intensity as he will plan for Messi for the Barca semi-final.
‘Our analysis has to show the strengths of Cardiff and you will see how physically strong they are and can cause teams problems,’ he said. ‘Three weeks ago, you will have seen that they should have beaten Chelsea probably when they were 1-0 up and then conceded an offside goal. Everybody saw that.’Daily Mail