Four seasons ago, when Leicester City won the Premier League in one of the great upsets of modern sports, the feat was both of its own making and a fluke of circumstance. Because in that 2015-16 season, all of the biggest clubs had coinciding down years, creating a rare opportunity for an outsider to sneak to an improbable title.
This season, Manchester United remains in its mire, Chelsea is rebuilding, Tottenham Hotspur has all manner of issues, Manchester City can’t seem to replicate last year’s title-winning consistency, and Arsenal remains extremely Arsenal. And so a cleverly constructed and well-drilled Leicester is once again high up in the standings.
But the difference is that this time around, there is also Liverpool, having its best season ever thus far – statistically, at the very least.
And when they met on Thursday in a traditional Boxing Day showdown, it was clear that the gap between the runaway leaders and Leicester is every bit as vast as the difference in points between them. Never mind that Leicester had the stingiest defense in the league going into the game. Liverpool won 4-0, courtesy of a Roberto Firmino brace, a James Milner penalty and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s well-deserved goal. The Reds have now built a 13-point lead over second-placed Leicester – with a game in hand, making it a hypothetical 16-point chasm at the half-way point of the campaign.
Fresh off adding a Club World Cup title to their European crown in Qatar just days ago, in a pair of tight and late-won victories over Monterrey and Flamengo, the Reds were expected to be drained as they traveled to the team directly beneath them in the standings. The dominance of the champions-elect – and no, we’re not even in the year when the champion will actually be crowned yet – was such that the result was never in danger.
From the opening seconds, Jurgen Klopp’s swaggering juggernaut had chances as Alexander-Arnold and Sadio Mane tested Kasper Schmeichel. Mohamed Salah ran riot behind Leicester’s high line and rounded the Danish goalkeeper but couldn’t quite replicate his wondergoal against Watford from an impossible angle with his left foot.
In the 31st minute, Alexander-Arnold dropped a perfect cross to the back post, where Firmino could nod it in freely, as Salah lurked behind him too.
Mane then got a free shot at Schmeichel but didn’t direct his finish well.
And Leicester, well… Leicester was also there. Sort of. It record 0.0 expected goals in the first half.
first half xG map for Leicester – Liverpool
the one good thing you can say for Leicester is they’ve been comprehensively dismantled but only losing by one goal pic.twitter.com/SklnYpdM9n
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) December 26, 2019
Firmino went close to his second 10 minutes after the break, but he dinked Andy Robertson’s cross wide of the far post. And it took an hour before Leicester could finally stage a sustained assault as Liverpool lived through a sloppy spell.
But just then, Leicester defender Caglar Soyuncu elbowed a cross going by him in his area. James Milner coolly slotted in the ensuing penalty.
Minutes later, Firmino took a lovely, deadening touch on another Alexander-Arnold cross and elegantly finished into the top corner for the third.
And Alexander-Arnold capped his transcendent game with a low lash to the far corner to finish off a breakaway for a third goal in less than 10 minutes.
It was all rather easy for Liverpool, which looked like it could have scored another handful of goals but was also safe in the knowledge that it didn’t entirely matter if it got them or not. Because this continues to be all-time great campaign for Liverpool, on the back of last year’s club-record points haul, which still fell a point short of City’s imperiousness.
Liverpool has now lost just once in a season and a half in the Premier League. The Foxes, for that matter, have now failed to win in their last three games, effectively capitulating on their title challenge. City could take over second place on Sunday, if it wins at Wolves and reduces the gap to 11.
Klopp’s superb collective has been the champion-apparent for some time now, but a first Liverpool title in three decades now feels like something of an inevitability. It would take a collapse even more unfathomable than Leicester’s title for the Reds to squander this lead.
Because not even the fixture congestion so fiercely criticized by Klopp can seem to slow his team down. The Reds play again on Sunday, and then on Thursday, and then Sunday again – against Merseyside rivals Everton. But rather than stumbling, this Liverpool looks like it could emerge from the holiday season on even firmer footing than it entered.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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