Liverpool can still achieve a top four finish

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A defeat to Manchester United is never welcomed, however, Liverpool's 2-1 loss to last Sunday has left them five points behind their North West rivals in the Premier League.

There was so much hype around last weekend's game and so much confidence within Liverpool fans prior to kick-off. Unfortunately, things didn't turn out the way they expected.

It was to be the last time that Steven Gerrard would play in the fixture and his sending off after just 38 seconds for stamping on Ander Herrera coming on as a half-time substitute has left a bitter memory in the minds of many.

The clash was also set to make a massive difference to the top-four rat race - and that it certainly did.

Just eight games remain in the Premier League this season and Brendan Rodgers' men have to close a five point deficit on the Red Devils if they are to qualify for next season's Champions League.

Momentum was on a high prior to Sunday's game, but that has well and truly crashed back to the face to reality. Football is a fickle sport with no margin for error and one loss has left Liverpool with an uphill task to achieve Champions League status for the second successive season.

Europa League football is something that no Kopite wants next season. We've seen the negative effect playing on a Thursday evening has had on Everton who sit 14th in the top flight after an encouraging campaign last year.

For most Liverpool fans, they would rather Champions League football or not compete in any European competition. There wasn't a lot of grumbles when they were knocked out of the Europa League by Besiktas earlier this year.

It will be a difficult task for the Reds, but by no means impossible. The question is can Liverpool achieve the impossible and finish in the Premier League top-four this season?

International Break

When comprehensively beaten, the last thing a manager wants is an international break. They would much rather work hard to right the wrongs of the previous loss and improve his side for the next game.

Unfortunately for Rodgers, he sees the majority of his squad leaving Merseyside to fulfil international commitments. Over half of the Liverpool team will return to their motherland's to play for their countries and the majority of players who remain at Anfield are fringe players not part of the Northern Irishman's plans.

Not only does it disrupt preparation but international breaks increase the chances of injury by a large percentage. It is a chance for international managers to implement tactics they've been planning for months and they put players through intense training sessions to achieve this.

As seen last September, injuries occur when players are on national duty.

Daniel Sturridge picked up a thigh injury when training with England which kept him out for five months of the season and left Liverpool with little options up-front.

Likewise, Joe Allen returned to Merseyside unable to compete when he limbed off during Wales' match with Andorra and Emre Can too suffered a similar fate playing for Germany U21s.

The international break increases the chance of injury, something Liverpool cannot afford at the minute.

Sturridge, as his history shows, is prone to injury. However, with the emerging talent of Harry Kane netting freely for Tottenham Hotspur, the former Chelsea man will be determined to impress Roy Hodgson and show he is the forward to lead England to victory in next year's European Championships.

If Liverpool are to catch Manchester United, it could come down to goal difference come the end of the season.

United's goal tally is 13 greater than Liverpool's and if that number is to be reduced Sturridge has to remain fit. When the 25-year-old was out injured, the Reds struggled to find the net and his smart finish against Louis van Gaal's men last Sunday highlighted his eye for goal.

Fixture List

Liverpool made Anfield a fortress last season when they almost clinched the Premier League title.

The Anfield crowd is one of the best in football with Kopites creating an intimidating atmosphere for the opponent throughout.

However, out of their remaining eight games, the Reds have just three on home territory.

They come against Newcastle United, QPR and Crystal Palace - all games that you would expect three points from.

It is the five away fixtures that could be tricky for Liverpool. On paper, their performances on the road are on a similar level as at home, racking up 25 points from 14 games.

However, all five of those away games are going to be extremely tricky.

Hull City showed against Chelsea they are not yet surrendering and still sit three points above the relegation zone. If things don't go to plan, Steve Bruce's men could fall into the bottom three by the time Liverpool travel to east Yorkshire and could face a gritty Tigers side fighting for their lives.

The Reds were awful when beaten 3-1 at the KC Stadium last season and a similar fate cannot be repeated this time around.

West Bromwich Albion have become a steady mid-table side since Tony Pulis took the hot seat and has typically made the Hawthorns a tough place to go. Liverpool struggled away at the Baggies last season and the small pitch in the Midlands makes it difficult for the five-time European Cup winners to play the quick, counter-attacking style they like to.

The Britannia stadium is one of the most difficult places to visit in the Premier League and that is where Liverpool travel on the last day of the season. Stoke City are renounced for being tough to beat at home and took maximum points off Arsenal and Everton this term.

After the international break could not ask for a tougher fixture as they travel to in-form Arsenal.

The Gunners have been superb in recent weeks in the Premier League, winning nine of their last ten games.

Arsene Wenger's men sit just one point behind Manchester City in second and will be hungry to pip the Citizens.

Oliver Giroud has had his critics in the past however he has had his scoring boots on and recently netted twice in Arsenal's 2-1 win away at Newcastle United. 

Manchester United showed that the way to beat Liverpool is to inflict similar tactics of high pressure, fast football. That is something that comes ten-a-penny to the north London outfit.

Pace is what runs through the Arsenal side with the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain which could expose the Liverpool back-four who struggled to contain Juan Mata. 

The Merseyside club also have one other away day when they face league-leaders Chelsea.

Stamford Bridge is the toughest place to go in the Premier League and the Blues are top of the table for a reason. The likes of Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic have all been world class this term and look like they will be easy winners of the Premier League for the first time since 2010.

Jose Mourinho has already outfoxed Rodgers twice this season and is a strong favourite to beat his former apprentice once again.

Those are five difficult away games for Liverpool and it will be a miracle if they take 15 points from those games. 

United's Games More Difficult?

It is firmly in the hands of Manchester United to throw away a top-four finish now.

Five points is a massive gap however they haven't got the easiest run-in either.

Arsenal outclassed the Red Devils in the FA Cup at Old Trafford last month and the same could happen on May 16 when the repeat of the fixture takes place. The Gunners could well be still hunting a runners-up spot and will want the maximum points when they travel to the North West.

We all know how big Mourinho's ego is and he will be desperate to get one over van Gaal when Chelsea entertain United midway through April. 

Robin van Persie's late striker clinched a point for United earlier this season when the Blues travelled to Old Trafford, something that did not please Mourinho in the slightest. Both he and van Gaal are regarded as two of the world's greatest managers and the Portuguese-native will be eyeing up a comfortable win against his rival peer.

The Manchester derby is always an entertaining game and will be another tough fixture for the Red Devils. A top-four spot is not guaranteed for City who have been in poor form and they could be fighting to qualify for the Champions League once again.

Returning Players

Liverpool have been unlucky with injuries in recent weeks to key players.

After a spell firmly out of Rodgers plans, Lucas became a vital member of the Reds' side before being side-lined in February.

The Brazilian was superb in the middle of the park winning the ball well and using it wisely. 

He returned to the squad for the United game and despite being an unused substitute, he will soon likely be back in the starting line-up.

What Lucas offers is not only protection for the defence, but experience. He keeps calm in difficult situations and his persistent chasing allows him to make key challenges And add confidence to the players around him.

Jordan Ibe has been impressive since returning on loan from Derby County and has been sorely missed on the right-hand side.

Raheem Sterling played their against United and although he showed glimpses of his talent, his lack of strength allowed Daley Blind to make easy challenges.

Ibe, however, is a lot strong than Sterling and makes more powerful runs out wide and into the box. He seems hungrier to succeed than his team-mate and his decision making also is better. 

The former Wycombe Wanderers man makes his return later this month and his presence will be relished by Kopites and team-mates.

Not Impossible

Back in 2006 it looked like Tottenham Hotspur were going to pip north London rivals Arsenal I to fourth spot.

However, four losses in eight games meant that Spurs missed out on Champions League football to their bitter rivals Arsenal.

Liverpool don't have the easiest fixtures left in the league, however, lady luck could well be on the side.

United have looked impressive in their last two games however before that they were in terrible form. Many are jumping that they have turned a corner and will continue this form until the end of the season. 

I have to disagree with that thesis. On Sunday, it was only Juan Mata, Daley Blind and Marouane Fellaini who stood out at Anfield, the rest weren't all that impressive.

Liverpool will fight to the death to reach the Champions League once again. Providing that no new injuries are picked up, they are still in a good position to do so.

Stamford Bridge will be a difficult place to go however the Reds were superb there in the League Cup semi-final second leg and will go with confidence and hunger.

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Premier League
Manchester United
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