Liverpool's Must-Win Game over Christmas to Chase Top 4 Is vs. Cardiff City

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistDecember 18, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 15:  Manager Brendan Rodgers of Liverpool congratulates Jordan Henderson of Liverpool on scoring their second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane on December 15, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Liverpool fans can be forgiven for allowing themselves to get a little carried away at the moment after a resounding win at Tottenham put them back into second place in the Premier League table. The Reds are pushing hard for a top-four spot this season, and with 33 points from their opening 16 games, they're well-placed to make that objective a reality over the coming five months.

The win at Spurs served not only for the confidence boost of beating a rival but also to knock that club further away from the coveted top four—and cost their manager his job in the process. It also, however, gave Liverpool a "won two, drawn one, lost one" rate against last season's top six for this term.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 15:  Jon Flanagan of Liverpool is mobbed by his team mates after scoring their third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane on December 15, 2013 in London, Englan
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Given that last year, Brendan Rodgers and his team took just 10 points from the 36 available against those clubs (one win, seven draws, four losses), seven points from just four games this season puts the Reds on course for a far better return this time around.

Liverpool now face a run of games over the Christmas and New Year period, which could well give them a real idea of how good of a chance they have of finishing in the top four this year, with games at Manchester City and Chelsea soon to come.

First up, though, is another important (and winnable) game—at home to Cardiff City.

In fact, it's not so far-fetched to state that Liverpool's most important match of all their Christmas fixtures is indeed the Cardiff game.


A More Specific Target

Right now, Liverpool's 33 points gives them an average of 2.06 points per game.

To get into the Champions League places, the usual figure to aim for is 70 points. However, such fine margins make a difference at these levels that a little more analysis could serve the club well in terms of their overall aims.

Liverpool last finished in the top 4 in 2008-09
Liverpool last finished in the top 4 in 2008-09Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Over the past eight seasons, teams have required an average of 70.38 points to secure a top-four place, with the highest of those being 76 and the lowest just 67. While "70 points" is close to this average, it has not been enough to guarantee a top-four finish in four of the last eight campaigns.

Given how tightly the league is shaping up at the top end so far, it's reasonable to assume, therefore, that this will be one of the upper-end campaigns in terms of points required, so rounding up to the next full figure of 71 points is a more important target to keep in mind.

Taking 71 points from 38 games requires an average of 1.87 points per game.

Which brings us back to the Cardiff City match.


Reasons to Hope

Forgetting all season averages and top-four chases, as a one-off match, Liverpool should be wiping the floor with the Welsh side.

Anfield has quickly become one of the most difficult places to visit in the Premier League once again, with Liverpool taking seven wins from eight and scoring 22 goals at home, conceding just five. By any considerations, that is extremely impressive home form.

The Reds' most recent form at home is even better: Wins by 4-1 vs. West Bromwich, 4-0 vs. Fulham, 5-1 vs. Norwich City and 4-1 vs. West Ham United have all helped to propel the Reds up into second place.

Cardiff, on the other hand, are a mirror image of that kind of form on their travels. They've managed just one away win from eight, average one goal scored every two games and have conceded 12 times. Their last few away games read a defeat at Aston Villa, a draw at Stoke and another defeat at Crystal Palace. Not once in those matches did Cardiff manage to score, and with the league's second-lowest average total of shots per game (10.4), it's not entirely surprising.

It's well-documented that Luis Suarez has more goals by himself this season than half the league's teams; well, Cardiff are one of them.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 15:  Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates scoring their fourth goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane on December 15, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Paul Gilha
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

But as Liverpool fans are all too often reminded, these have been the types of games where the team's frail mentality or penchant for self-harm come to the fore, and ridiculous defeats are suffered.

Under Rodgers, with this team, this season, however, there is cause to believe that this may be—by and large—a thing of the past.

Early December's defeat at Hull was a shock to the system, a poor game which Liverpool should have won but lost easily. Since then, it's been three wins in a row with 14 goals scored.

Cardiff should not be capable of resisting Liverpool at their recent level of attacking performance, and if the Reds play anywhere near as well as they did against Spurs last weekend, another three points should be as close to a certainty as the Premier League can ever provide.

And so full circle to the points tally.


Top-Four Form, Halfway

If Liverpool win, they move to 36 points from 17 games (and, incidentally, as Arsenal don't play until Monday, they'll go top of the league), which yields an average of 2.12 points per game—good for league runner-up form extrapolated over the season, but it's pointless to look at just yet.

More to the point, it will ensure Liverpool would remain on course for the target of 1.87 points per game, or 71 over the season, irrespective of the outcomes of the table-topping clashes against Manchester City and Chelsea.

The Reds did exceptionally well to beat Spurs and will have hopes of winning more top-end games at home during the second half of the season, but as the Arsenal away match this year showed, sometimes the very best sides can simply dominate at home. Liverpool are doing it, Manchester City are doing it and Chelsea are doing it.

Man City wiped the floor with Premier League leaders Arsenal—but top scorer Sergio Aguero will be missing through injury vs. Liverpool
Man City wiped the floor with Premier League leaders Arsenal—but top scorer Sergio Aguero will be missing through injury vs. LiverpoolClive Brunskill/Getty Images

Those two rivals and Everton, in fact, are the last remaining sides with an unbeaten home record this term.

Right now, City have a perfect home record, so anything from that game at all would put Liverpool in a better position compared to any other team.

But worst case scenario, Liverpool lose both. Should they do that, then at the half-way point of the season (marked by the full-time whistle in the game at Stamford Bridge), they would still have 36 points from 19 games, or 1.89 points per game—just above the set target to reach 71 points.

There's still a long, long way to go of the season and, just as the Spurs match won't automatically give Liverpool a top-four finish, defeat at either City or Chelsea will not end Liverpool's hopes of it.

But if they first win at home to Cardiff, then those potential defeats might be a little easier to take in the knowledge that much of the hard work has already been done to ensure the Reds head into the January transfer window having given themselves much more of a fighting chance of securing their objectives than in any of the previous four seasons.

And then all they have to do is go and do it all over again during the second half of the campaign.