Matches against West Ham United have behaved as banana skins for Liverpool from the not-too-distant past.
A shock 3-0 home reverse spelled the beginning of the end for Brendan Rodgers at the onset of this 2015/16 season, while a 1-1 draw in the London Stadium in 2019 helped put the skids on last year’s title charge.
However, there is an argument that neither of those slip-ups is almost as monumental as another meeting with the Hammers, where the London club threatened a result that could have had much more wide-reaching effects.
Near the end of this 2016-17 year, with Chelsea running away with the name and Spurs sitting comfortably in second, the chasing pack were busy taking it in turns to trip within their pursuit of Champions League football.
Manchester United had put their eggs at the Europa League basket, albeit not before playing out a goalless draw that threatened to push neighbours City under the line, while Arsenal made an almost comically poor streak of four points from five matches in March and April to leave themselves a struggle so uphill it was basically vertical.
A home defeat to Crystal Palace, nevertheless their latest loss at Anfield, was followed by a draw against Southampton where Fraser Forster maintained out a James Milner penalty. Unexpectedly Jürgen Klopp’s men needed maximum points from their last two matches to ensure a top-four finish.
West Ham was tough to forecast for the majority of the season, along with the early May meeting was no exception. They had beaten Spurs the past week to seal their safety from relegation and mathematically refuse their London rivals for the name, but Slaven Bilić’s side were equally capable of raising their game once again as they had been of downing tools, considering their season over bar the shouting.
West Ham would definitely have at least one major chance as long in the lead remained at one, and what an opportunity it was.
Only André Ayew understands how he missed from a yard out, dismissing the wide-open goal and hitting the post. Twice. Yes, the identical post. No, with unique shots, somehow.
The Hammers’ then-record signing had not enjoyed the best season, but this was the type of chance you would be ashamed to miss on your work five-a-side game.
It’s the type of miss that makes a stadium filled with fans to rub their eyes, not able to convince themselves that what they just witnessed was real.
Much like Yakubu’s howler against South Korea in the 2010 World Cup or Chris Wondolowski skied sitter against Belgium in 2014, it is the type of miss that may drag down a team under its own weight. West Ham was never likely to recover, and they proceeded to fall to bits after half-time, sending three more goals with little in the means of resistance.
Liverpool’s fate is no longer in their hands, and the final-day success over Middlesbrough is not sufficient to help them slip into the top four.
Mohamed Salah and Andy Robertson still arrive that summer, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain remains at Arsenal Because of the guarantee of Champions League football.
More crucially, Philippe Coutinho, without elite European soccer at his disposal, is permitted to leave for Barcelona over the summer. Teething issues with his replacement leave the Reds from the top four come January, and Virgil van Dijk decides he’s better off elsewhere.
The lack of forward progress sees a vocal group of Liverpool fans question whether Klopp is the correct person for the job, along with the board cave into their demands, substituting the German with Carlo Ancelotti in December. Outcomes pick up, and Liverpool climb back into the Champions League spots at the end of this 2018-19 year, but the gap between them and Manchester City could not be larger. Loris Karius remains the Reds’ starting goalkeeper. You understand.
The whole landscape of English and European soccer has changed, and it can all be traced back to a man missing the target from a yard out, but these are the nice margins we are handling.
Without Tim Howard spilling a free-kick in 2004, possibly José Mourinho is a strong European trainer. Soccer narratives live and die on the smallest matters, and it is not until long after the fact that we realise how defining they’re.