Only four of the Premier League’s 20 teams have won each of their last three matches – and two of them will lock horns on Friday evening.
Wolverhampton Wanderers have bounced back from a six-game winless run to collect nine points from the last nine on offer, while league leaders Liverpool have now triumphed six times on the bounce in the top flight.
The opening fixture of gameweek 18 therefore has the potential to thrill, but the superior quality of Jurgen Klopp’s men should ultimately make the difference under the floodlights at Molineux.
Despite their phenomenal start to the season, it is only in the last fortnight that many observers have begun to take Liverpool seriously as title contenders.
That is largely because the Reds only took over at the summit of the standings after Manchester City’s 2-0 defeat by Chelsea on December 8; before that, it was assumed that the defending champions would eventually pull away from their closest challengers and claim another crown at a canter.
That may still happen, of course, but Liverpool’s performances and results in recent weeks suggest, as 5/2 (William Hill) second favourites, they are ready to mount a sustained title tilt for the first time since 2013/14.
The differences compared to this time last year are stark. After 17 games in 2017/18, Liverpool were down in fifth place and already 18 points adrift of Manchester City in top spot, having scored 34 goals and conceded 20.
This time around it is they who are sitting pretty in first place, having amassed 14 more points, scored three more goals and let in 13 fewer.
It is that final statistic which is most instructive. Virgil van Dijk has been a revelation at the heart of the backline since his arrival in January and Alisson, despite his error against Manchester United last weekend, is a clear upgrade on Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet between the sticks.
There has also been a subtle shift in strategy this term; Liverpool have arguably not been as thrilling to watch in 2018/19, but the obvious benefit of their more controlled approach is that they are now less liable to get caught out by opposition counter-attacks.
26 - Following Liverpool's win against Manchester United, Jurgen Klopp has now beaten all 26 teams that he's faced in the Premier League. Collection. pic.twitter.com/AAqEGdBfI2— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 16, 2018
They are making fewer individual errors at the back too, and are better able to win games even when they do not play particularly well. In that light, BetVictor’s odds of 23/20 on a Liverpool clean sheet at Molineux look tempting.
After a promising start to the season which saw some prematurely label them the best promoted team in Premier League history, Wolves took just one point from six matches between the middle of October and start of December.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s charges were unfortunate to draw 1-1 with Arsenal in that period, but they were disappointing in surprise losses to Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City.
They have responded well since defeat by the latter at the start of the month, though, subsequently getting the better of Chelsea, Newcastle United and Bournemouth to climb above Everton and back into the top seven.
Early on in the season, Wolves were mischaracterised as an entertaining, attack-minded team. Yet while they do play technical football and can be easy on the eye, the West Midlands outfit’s biggest strength is their defensive solidity.
Nuno’s men have let in 19 goals – a superior figure to all but Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur – while their record of 12 shots conceded per game is the seventh best in the league.
As far as expected goals are concerned, Wolves’ cumulative figure of 15.02 against is bettered only by City (12.85) and Liverpool (13.58). The Reds will therefore not find it easy to unseat the home side’s rearguard this weekend, making under 2.5 goals worthy of consideration at 11/10 with Black Type.
Above all else, Liverpool’s new-found ability to grind out results is what has transformed them from top-four challengers to title contenders.
That, of course, owes plenty to their improved defensive record – one goal is now often enough for the Reds to win a game – and we should probably expect a low-scoring affair at Molineux on Friday.
Wolves are also resolute at the back and will look to ease their way into the match, which is likely to be particularly tight and cagey in the first half. Back Liverpool to win a game featuring fewer than 2.5 goals, which is available at 13/5 with Betway.
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