Harsh Shah looks at how Liverpool could enter 2014 as serious title contenders for the first time in five years...
Football, when viewed from the bird’s-eye, gives an impression of going through a plethora of changes, spread across the expanse of time since its advent as a game or sporting event. In the same vein, keeping modern club football in perspective, one thing that has become somewhat evident is that almost every major club with the entire league in the backdrop goes through a shift, a cyclical change, an evolution (or revolution) of sorts with time.
While that would make up one side of the coin, the other side would bear the rusted polish of the club’s glory days from the past. In the last few seasons at least, our generation has seen this trend play out at quite a few household clubs. Liverpool might just make the list soon, for the good.
While there are numerous permutations and combinations, contingencies and a host of other factors that have led to Liverpool’s inspired revival this season, there is no denying the fact that there always was a sense of optimism in the air since the time John W Henry (Fenway Sports Group) and Brendan Rodgers assumed power at the club. In this modern day and age with the kind of money being invested into the sport, Liverpool’s dark and doomed days following the 2008-09 season were always seemingly numbered. It was like the answers to all the concerned questions regarding the club’s future were right there. Just that the right person(s) to voice them out hadn’t arrived on the scene.
A brilliant example for such a revival is Borussia Dortmund. They found the answer in Jurgen Klopp, who with his fearless ways and mentality turned around the club’s miserable situation in a matter of a few years with the generous backing of the board. This, after the Ruhr valley giants went through at least half a dozen years of turmoil owing to poor financial decisions after the turn of the millennium. Prior to that, they were a team to beat in the 90s, rising to the ascendancy of German and European football, even winning the Champions League title in 1997, bringing down the mighty Juventus 3-1 in the final.
Another club finding its place back on the European map is Napoli, with some smart signings and an ambitious owner in Aurelio De Laurentiis. Getting on board some quality professionals like Gonzalo Higuain, Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens, Raul Albiol, Pepe Reina with a dependable base in Marek Hamsik and Blerim Dzemaili is only going to help the Italian club come closer to the shining Maradona-era.
These two examples clearly indicate the cyclical nature of football. While the degree may vary from club to club, the progress or regress is pretty much there for anyone to see. If Manchester United does not capsize its ship come the January transfer window, they could slip back into the tumultuous days of the pre-Fergie phase as well as the first few years under the Scot. Sir Alex’s achievements in the past two decades or so make those memories seem like a distant haze for the old-school fanatics and a period of disbelief for the current generation, but history could very much repeat itself under David Moyes if evasive action isn’t taken.
Coming back to Liverpool; the degree, situation as well as position on the cycle is very much on the upside. The Merseyside Reds are a club very much on the rise, thanks to a heady concoction of superhuman attacking (Luis Suarez) and a well-oiled unit that has come through the ranks under the relentless tutelage of Brendan Rodgers that is finally finding its feet after a year of stop-start potential.
Come Boxing Day, Liverpool enter the final leg of fixtures for 2013 sitting atop a fierce and tightly contested heap. Though only 2 points separate them and fifth placed local rivals Everton on 34 points, if all goes well in the ensuing 10 days, the self-pinching and wood-touching Scousers could find their club making a first title-charge in five years. Liverpool fell painfully short of eternal foes Manchester United in the 2008-09 season, becoming the first team to not win the league despite losing just two games. The primary reason for this was 11 draws during the whole season, most of which came against the ‘not-so-strong’ teams, that too at home. So if Rodgers’ men plan to go all the way, they need to make sure they grind out the hard-fought 0-0’s and turn them to 1-0’s or late flourishes.
Though the club is miles away from its golden past, Rodgers’ ‘death by football’ is well and truly catching storm. The wheels of the metaphorical cycle (in this case not vicious, but positive) are very much in motion as constant tinkering, servicing and good care will be required at all stages to ensure the momentum reaches its crescendo.
Speaking of crescendo, Liverpool face two of the top teams of the league in quick succession this coming week: Manchester City (26th) and Chelsea (29th). This will be THE litmus test for Liverpool’s title credentials with both games coming away from home. Not only will Suarez have to be unleashed at full throttle against the third and fourth placed sides, but Liverpool’s defensive assuredness, midfield revelry and the overall desire of the players in the absence of big guns like Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge will have to come to the fore too.
The Daniel Agger conundrum with respect to having Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho in top form is something Rodgers will have to solve soon, given the Dane’s edginess in recent times on not getting a starting berth. Whether to rotate with the central defenders given the closeness of both fixtures as well as the quality of the opposition or to stick with the same pairing so as to drill down some solidity at the back; Rodgers will have to take a call.
Also, while his young turks are firing on all cylinders, their true mettle will be tested against two teams almost unflappable in their own backyard. Liverpool would have to fall back upon Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and Victor Moses if crisis beckons, while Chelsea and Manchester City could turn to the likes of Andre Schurrle, Frank Lampard, Samuel Eto’o, Juan Mata and James Milner, Javi Garcia, Edin Dzeko respectively if the need be. Concerns regarding depth will have to be attended to in the January transfer window with due diligence as the Reds are functioning with a paper-thin 17-man squad.
Another talking point could be Liverpool’s formation. Whether to go in with a 5-man defence like last time out against Chelsea at the Bridge or to go in all guns blazing like they did against the disjointed Spurs? Same goes for the game at the Etihad; that has been the ultimate fortress in English football this season. Rodgers’ tactical nous will have to be at its all-time best if he is to go on and get one over his mentor Jose Mourinho and the vastly experienced Manuel Pellegrini.
The next two fixtures could be the turning point for the Reds as they play all the big guns barring Manchester United in the second half of the season in the comfort zone of Anfield. All of this, coming on the back of their game-changer Luis Suarez signing a contract extension rumoured to keep him at the club till 2018. Massive boost that can so easily make the balance tilt to Liverpool’s advantage during such a tough period.
To reiterate, Liverpool could enter 2014 as serious title contenders for the first time in five years. It could mark the beginning of a new era, an era quite different from the past in terms of style of play, strategy, mix of players and the general evolution of the English top division; but still very much similar to the club’s traditional trend of being a footballing institution right up there with the best of the best. This could be the tangible start (or may we say re-start!) of something exciting for Liverpool, as the cycle seems to be coming full circle after quite a few dark years in the dumps.
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