'Improved' Reds enter crucial stretch

LONDON • Jurgen Klopp is convinced that Liverpool are a stronger team now than a year ago, but the next week will test his belief to the limit.

His side, second in the Premier League, face a trip to seventh-placed Watford today, followed by a vital Champions League visit to Paris Saint-Germain and a Merseyside derby at home to Everton.

By the end of that run of fixtures, it will be a little clearer if Liverpool have what it takes to maintain a challenge for domestic and European titles this season.

"There's absolutely no reason for criticising the boys, they do a really good job," said the Reds manager.

"So many things are better than last year - defending is better, set-pieces are better. We are much more mature in games, game management is better."

In September, former Manchester United defender Gary Neville - now a television pundit - suggested Liverpool cannot cope with European and domestic demands.

Klopp responded by suggesting that managing a club was significantly different from "sitting in an office and talking about football".

 
 
 

However, Neville has been on the mark so far, with the club's Champions League progress in doubt after losses to Napoli and Red Star Belgrade in the group stage.

Another loss in Paris on Wednesday would leave Liverpool in danger of elimination, although victory would see them through to the knockout stages.

Liverpool do have eight more Premier League points than at this stage 12 months ago. But few would claim they are playing as fluently as they did in their best periods in 2017-18.

Forward Roberto Firmino is not performing as well as he did last season and the midfield has been inconsistent, not helped by the loss of Emre Can to Juventus and the delays in adjusting to English football experienced by new signings Fabinho and Naby Keita.

Liverpool are also missing the creativity of Philippe Coutinho, sold to Barcelona in January, as well as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, recovering from a long-term knee injury.

"We can improve - we have to and we will," added Klopp. "That's how it is and that's what we've done already.

"There has been a lot of improvement so far and there is still space for more."

Liverpool forward Sadio Mane, meanwhile, has signed a new five-year contract until 2023.

The 26-year-old joined from Southampton in June 2016 and has scored 40 goals for Liverpool.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2018, with the headline ''Improved' Reds enter crucial stretch'. Print Edition | Subscribe