- May 8, 2002
- Reaction score
It’s worth reminding ourselves how forlorn Liverpool’s hope of qualifying for the Champions League looked when they were beaten 1-0 at home to Fulham on March 7. It felt they had spent too long gazing into the abyss of their title defence, and the abyss was gazing back. They had lost six consecutive home league games, their longest ever such run, and the first team to do so in the Premier League since Huddersfield Town in 2019. A winless Anfield run had extended to eight games - the last time any Liverpool side was so fallible at home, they had finished bottom of the First Division (in 1954). Most worrying, there seemed no obvious solution because while the primary focus was on Liverpool’s defensive absentees, they had stopped scoring. Excluding penalties and own goals, Liverpool had failed to do so with each of their last 115 shots at Anfield in the Premier League. Liverpool were ten points behind Leicester City, but the talk was no longer about how to catch them. In an interview with German newspaper Bild, Klopp seemed resigned to his club’s fate. “I like to be an optimist, but in the league it is almost impossible to qualify,” he said. Behind-the-scenes, club officials were readying for unknown territory. Never mind missing out on the Champions League and a minimum £50 million in that European bonanza, an even worse scenario beckoned. “It will be an absolute nightmare if we end up in the bloody Uefa conference league,” confided an Anfield official. No wonder there were some higher up the chain of command trying to start their own European tournament with guaranteed mega-millions. Yet as the gloom descended, the roots of recovery were already in place. Why Fabinho was the key to Liverpool’s revival On the day Liverpool lost to Fulham, midfielder Fabinho was a 76th minute substitute. The cameo was a tentative but critical step in his and Liverpool’s recovery. Although it was barely referenced at the time, Klopp’s side looked better in those 14 minutes than in the previous eight weeks - think of it as Lazarus' first muscle spasm. The Brazilian’s injury a month earlier had added to Liverpool’s defensive vulnerabilities because he had spent the first half of the season as an emergency centre-back - one of most of the 19 centre-back pairings before Easter - with Klopp calculating he had plenty of midfielders to cover his relocation. The Fulham loss can be seen as the Liverpool manager’s ‘enough is enough’ moment as he decided there was more to be gained with his number six in his preferred role. Three days after Fulham, Fabinho ran the game in the second leg of the Champions League round of sixteen game against RB Leipzig, and remained there for eight of the last ten Premier League fixtures, starting with an away win at Wolves. Liverpool failed to win only two of those remaining ten games. It is no coincidence that when points were dropped at home to Newcastle and away to Leeds United, Fabinho was forced back into defence due to an injury to Nat Phillips. Based on the evidence of Liverpool’s grand finale, Phillips probably would have challenged Diego Llorrente to prevent Leeds’ 87th minute equaliser, and risen above Dwight Gayle to prevent him teeing up Joe Willock’s injury-time strike for Newcastle. Phillips emerged as an unlikely, heroic figure - first alongside Ozan Kabak and then youngster Rhys Williams. But the stability came from the man just in front of whatever inexperienced duo picked. Fabinho proved to be Liverpool’s most influential player - the gatekeeper and the pivot. Beyond Anfield, there is suspicion people still do not realise how good the South American is. When he plays in midfield, everyone around him looks better and Liverpool perform like champions.