Liverpool shouldn't give up hope yet in Premier League title race, though fan panic makes sense
Former Blackburn Rovers and Celtic striker Chris Sutton had some scathing words for Liverpool supporters following a 0-0 draw at Everton that saw the Reds relinquish the top spot in the Premier League with nine games remaining.
"It's ridiculous to say Liverpool are bottling it. Liverpool fans are bottling it, not the players," he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
He's half right. Liverpool have kept five clean sheets on the spin so the players aren't "bottling" anything. The forwards are spluttering but, in truth, they haven't looked quite right all season and therefore talk of the team wilting under recent pressure is nonsense.
As for the fans, how can they "bottle" anything?
Liverpool's travelling support at Old Trafford and Goodison Park was terrific, but they can't put the ball in the net for their misfiring team. What happens outside of the stadium has no bearing on anything. Whether it's some frustrated fan calling into a sports talk radio station to call for Jurgen Klopp's head, or the thousands of frustrated Reds blowing off steam on social media, it has absolutely zero impact on the pitch. Liverpool's title hopes are in the hands of the players, not the supporters.
Most of the players have improved this year, but Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino just haven't recaptured last season's magic yet. There have been flashes but no consistency and that's the biggest reason for Liverpool's recent wobble. Of the first-choice front three, only Sadio Mane has maintained the standard he set last season.
Additionally, the midfield has been unbalanced. Naby Keita's lack of impact and the yearlong absence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have made the Reds a little predictable and stoic in the middle of the park, yet despite all of that they have lost only once in the league (away at Manchester City) and sit just one point behind Pep Guardiola's defending champions with nine games still to go.
So Sutton is right: It is ridiculous to say Liverpool's players are bottling it. What they've done to this point is actually remarkable and worthy of praise, not mockery.
The fans are getting unfair criticism though. There seems to be a narrative being peddled in some quarters that the Liverpool fans are now a hindrance to their team -- the "logic" being that the supporters are so desperate to win the title that it puts unnecessary pressure on the players.
All of this rubbish seems to have stemmed from a recent 1-1 draw with Leicester, when the crowd's edginess admittedly did the players few favours. The bigger hindrance to the Reds that night, however, was referee Martin Atkinson, who failed to send off Harry Maguire for a professional foul on Mane (Maguire would later score Leicester's equalising goal) and also denied Keita a seemingly stonewall penalty when he was brought down in the box.
After close to 30 years of waiting, Liverpool fans naturally want to win the title so desperately that the pursuit has become almost all-consuming. Klopp recently described Liverpool as "the most emotional club in the world" and he's not wrong. Of course that brings pressure, but the pressure is there regardless, especially at a big club with ambitions of success. After all, this isn't Liverpool's first rodeo and in most of the others they fell off and were kicked in the head by the bull.
The Reds have had a decade or more of coming up just short. The 2007 Champions League defeat to AC Milan in Athens. Finishing second to Manchester United in 2009. Losing an FA Cup final to Chelsea in 2012. Finishing second to Manchester City in 2014. Losing the League Cup Final to City in 2016. Blowing the Europa League final against Sevilla a few months later. Then, of course, there was the heartbreak of last season's Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid.
Their recent history has had so much promise and hope but never a happy ending. It's not just the losses, it's the often cruel manner in which they arrive. The Steven Gerrard "slip," Sergio Ramos taking out Salah, Loris Karius and his concussion... sometimes it's hard for Kopites not to wonder what further heartbreak the football gods have in store.
In a perfect world, and in spite of the evidence above, every Liverpool fan would keep faith that the Reds were going to win the title regardless of their patchy form since the turn of the year. But human emotions just don't work that way. Some will believe right until the point it's no longer possible, but you can't blame anybody who has thrown in the towel.
You don't need to believe. Just support the team and see how it plays out.