Liverpool can still overhaul Manchester City in the race for the Premier League title, despite their difficult and disappointing start to the season, insists Reds legend Jamie Carragher.
But the former defender warns that one improved display against Ajax does not mean Jurgen Klopp’s side have turned a corner, and the jury will be out until they host their title rivals at Anfield in mid-October.
In an extensive interview with Sportsmail, Carragher said he liked what he saw in the 2-1 Champions League win over the Eredivisie champions on Wednesday following a troubled start to the campaign, which has seen the Anfield outfit pick up just nine Premier League points from a possible 18.
Liverpool beat Ajax 2-1 but Jamie Carragher says it’s too soon to say they have turned a corner
He is greatly encouraged by the performances of Joel Matip and Thiago Alcantara, as well as Virgil van Dijk, whom he believes has been ‘spiked’ into action after a healthy dose of criticism.
And the ex-England international still believes new £85million striker Darwin Nunez, whom Carragher admits he would hate to play against, could be a decisive factor despite failing to settle into the side, so far.
‘They can still challenge for the Premier League, no doubt,’ Carragher told Sportsmail.
‘But in terms of turning a corner it needs more than one game. There have been five or six games where Liverpool have been nowhere near their best.
‘[Against Ajax] there was a typical Jurgen Klopp Liverpool performance, but I think they will need more than one game.
‘You need to see the next four or five games to see if Liverpool are back on track. But it was nice to see Liverpool back to their best.’
Liverpool’s Joel Matip celebrates after scoring the last-gasp winner against Ajax on Tuesday
Jurgen Klopp showed relief after his side put in a better performance after Napoli ‘horror show’
Liverpool don’t play again until October 1, when they host Brighton, which heralds a run of five games in just over two weeks culminating in the showdown with City on October 16.
If the Anfield outfit can recover their form of last season, the games against City are likely to be decisive in the battle for the title. The return game at the Etihad is on April 1.
While Arsenal are the early leaders in the Premier League on 15 points after straight wins in their first five games, the old fears of a false dawn re-emerged with a 3-1 defeat at Manchester United. Arsenal are much improved, but a tilt at the title is surely asking too much this season.
Manchester City, who pipped Liverpool to the top spot last season, finishing on 93 points to the Reds 92, are poised in second place having made an even better start this term.
After six matches of the last campaign, City had lost one and drawn one, giving them 13 points; this time around they have 14 points, having drawn twice and they are yet to lose. With Erling Haaland installed as a ‘real nine’, they look more formidable than ever.
City have shown they are fallible, with Newcastle United and Crystal Palace getting at and behind their defences to take two-goal leads, but like a true heavyweight, they just punched their way out of trouble, coming back to draw with the Magpies 3-3 and defeat the Eagles 4-2.
Liverpool on the other hand have struggled for rhythm and form, and at times, players. Injuries have taken a heavy toll on the Reds and continue to do so.
They have mustered only three wins from eight games in all competitions. Klopp described the ‘horror show’ at Napoli, which saw Liverpool 3-0 down at half time, ultimately losing 4-1, as the worst performance of his seven-year reign at Anfield, but there were warning sides before then.
Liverpool suffered a slow start with a 2-2 draw away to Fulham in the opening fixture, before being held to a 1-1 draw at home to Crystal Palace, which was made worse by Nunez receiving a red card for a headbutt on defender Joachim Andersen.
Jamie Carragher believes Liverpool will be stronger as Klopp’s players return from injury
Carragher is convinced Liverpool can still overhaul Man City – despite Erling Haaland’s form
The Reds then slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Manchester United when they failed to rise to the occasion and they struggled to shake a bad habit of conceding first. It all proved a precursor to the disaster in Naples.
‘You have got a team who have been at the top of their game for five or six years and maybe they have come off that slightly in terms of intensity and that is what the team is built on,’ explained Carragher. ‘Intensity is the identity of that team.
‘They have had injuries and three of four players – who have been outstanding – have not been playing at their best.
‘Maybe Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, maybe Fabinho in midfield, Mo Salah, these players have been out of this world for four or five years and they haven’t been at their best at the start of this season, but that is allowed, it is normal.
‘They are only human. We have all been there as players.
The former Liverpool defender has reassured fans that they have a fighting chance in title race
‘I think it is a combination of those three factors. Players off form off the back of five or six years being at 100 per cent intensity and injuries. They are just not quite there.’
The disappointment associated with the Napoli defeat, and criticism that has followed it, has helped shock Liverpool back to life this week, Carragher believes.
‘Criticism does spike you,’ said Carragher, who played 737 times for Liverpool over 17 years.
‘You saw a huge turnaround in Liverpool’s performance [against Ajax]. Individually, van Dijk was back to his best.’
The Dutchman has hit back at his critics claiming ‘a lot of ex-football players, who know exactly what we go through, they say a lot to get us down’.
But Carragher feels discussion of performances is part and parcel of the game and players have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth.
Virgil van Dijk was back to his best in the Champions League against Dutch champions Ajax
Carragher and Steven Gerrard, with Ardonagh Retail CEO Ian Donaldson supporting Football for Change
‘If he wants to bite back at whoever that might be – I might be one of them or it might be somebody else – but I think Virgil van Dijk has had more pats on the back in the last five years in the Premier League,’ he said.
‘Maybe only Kevin De Bruyne in terms of classing them as the two best players in the league and in the world in their positions. So, he has done well out of not getting too much criticism in his career. There are people a lot worse off than him.’
Van Dijk has been helped by the return from injury of key players, most notably centre-back partner Matip, midfielder Thiago and striker Diogo Jota.
All three had an impact on an admittedly abject performance when they were introduced at different stages after half time in the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, even if Klopp insisted there were no positives to take from the game.
Matip returned from a four-game absence after picking up a groin injury in training, Thiago had suffered a thigh injury at Fulham on the opening day and Jota has had a hamstring problem that dates from last season.
Thiago Alcantara has returned from injury and immediately improved Liverpool’s midfield
Against Ajax, Matip showed his strength defensively and in bringing the ball out from the back before he scored the winner in the 89th minute.
Meanwhile, Thiago brought control to the midfield, which has been lacking for most of this season, and Jota delivers a goal threat, scoring 21 times in all competitions in the last campaign.
There are still concerning absences for Liverpool, but the postponement of Liverpool’s match at Chelsea on Sunday combined with the international break will give Andy Robertson, Jordan Henderson and Ibrahima Konate the chance to recover.
And it is not just injuries that have upset the ‘mentality monsters’, Nunez’s red card and three-match ban has hindered his integration into the team following his big-money move from Benfica in the summer.
Carragher thinks Nunez has the attributes to fire Liverpool up the table, but he needs more time to find his form and understand his team mates.
Darwin Nunez is a powerful striker who’ll be a handful for top-flight defenders, says Carragher
He also admits he would not have fancied too many battles with the 6ft 2ins powerhouse.
‘I would have found him a handful,’ admitted Carragher. ‘I think anyone would.
‘It is just where Liverpool can have that connection with him, But the size, the pace, the power of him, he has a great goal-scoring record, you don’t want to be coming up against him too often.
‘It has been really stop-start for him. Obviously the sending off was unfortunate and coming on at different times and trying to get up to speed with the rest of the team. But also getting used to the new team as well.
‘He is completely different to what Liverpool had before in terms of Roberto Firmino. He is a completely different profile of player.
‘He looks raw but there is no doubt there are some great physical attributes. He causes big problems for the opposition.
‘It is just the next five or six weeks we will see that integration a lot more. It will be a lot easier then to judge whether he is the right fit, because now he has just not played enough football for the team.’
The win over Ajax was Liverpool’s most important victory of the season, far more significant than the 9-0 rout of Bournemouth.
They now go into the break with some confidence and faith restored and an opportunity to bolster their ranks with returning players because October promises to be a pivotal month in Premier League title race.