By Jack Gaughan
It is a week that has started exceptionally badly for Liverpool, who slumped rather gingerly out of the FA Cup, a competition they take extremely seriously and one which had presented a final chance for silverware before 2013-14.
As it stands, this time in seven days we will know where their season stands: on the cusp of an unlikely campaign-ending surge to the top four or on the brink of ruin. With trips to Arsenal and Manchester City looming large on Wednesday and Sunday, this really is make or break for Brendan Rodgers.
Oldham (A) LOST 2-3
Man City (A)
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of the humiliating 3-2 defeat at the hands of League One strugglers Oldham Athletic, it is difficult to envisage anything but two stern beatings at the Emirates and the Etihad.
What the two fixtures do represent, however, is a chance for a true acid test of how Liverpool are progressing under Rodgers’ stewardship. It is all well and good handing whippings to the likes of Norwich City, Sunderland, QPR and Fulham, but it is another to win the game of chess that the matches against the crème of the division manufacture.
And Rodgers goes into this crucial period having serious doubts over several components of his squad.
Joe Allen, the £15 million summer acquisition, has under-performed. So much so that up until his late volley at Boundary Park flew in via a giant deflection, Allen did not once affect a game involving players with some of the lowest morale in the Football League.
The manager has a stick or twist dilemma ahead of Arsenal. Does he continue to utilise Luis Suarez in the hole behind Daniel Sturridge, which may leave them horribly exposed on the break and lacking an extra body in midfield? Or does he plump for Allen, Lucas and Steven Gerrard, all the while knowing that one of them perhaps is not producing the performances expected after a flurry of early-season solid showings.
That is not Rodgers’ only worry, though. He can only have been all too aware that while nowhere near as poor as Sebastien Coates, Martin Skrtel did not have his finest game in a red shirt against Oldham’s Matt Smith. While Skrtel’s form alongside Daniel Agger in the Premier League has not been overly concerning, it is in the wide defensive areas the Gunners may exert pain. Glen Johnson missed Sunday’s defeat and his absence illustrates fundamental problems. Andre Wisdom and Jack Robinson should not be expected to hold their own against the likes of Lukas Podolski and David Silva.
The routine back four have not been individually poor, but as a unit they are conceding too many goals, especially in the big games. Only against Chelsea on November 11 did they manage to keep it to one goal over the 90 minutes. In the other six matches (Manchester United (twice), Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton and Manchester City) they have conceded two. Because of that, they have won none.
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That became even more apparent when, on the stroke of half-time against Oldham, calamity struck Brad Jones, who gifted the hosts a second goal and eventually, victory. His mistake encapsulated the potential problems facing them if Pepe Reina does not make it for Wednesday. Or, worse still, he leaves the club.
What Liverpool do have, though, is creativity going forward. Gerrard has been imperious over the last couple of months – signifying the importance of getting him to sign another new deal – while Suarez is playing like a man possessed with eight goals in his last eight games. Sturridge has begun well at Anfield – there ought to be no difficulties in an attacking sense.
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That is why, when Rodgers makes his call this week, it could be beneficial to bear the more attacking option in mind. In all likelihood they will not stop shipping goals, but the talent going forward at their disposal – Phillipe Coutinho seemingly now included – means they should pose more of a threat.
A bit of flamboyant naivety from Rodgers might just make their season this very week.