By Liam Twomey
A familiar buzz is returning to the red half of Merseyside. Liverpool, for the first time since 2009, have emerged as genuine contenders for the Premier League title. With 10 matches to go they trail Chelsea by just four points, have no other competitions to distract them and are still to host both Jose Mourinho’s men and Manchester City at Anfield.
Even more impressive is that this remarkable resurgence – Brendan Rodgers’ side have garnered 17 more points and scored 20 more goals than at the same stage last season – has been achieved while producing some of the most expansive, dynamic and vibrant football of any Liverpool team in the past 20 years.
No wonder, then, that even as Rodgers attempts to play down expectations, more than a few are beginning to believe again. But as optimism grows with every passing victory, and despite the enduring strength of City and Chelsea’s relentless mindset, perhaps a voice of caution is needed.
John Barnes knows what it takes to win a league title with Liverpool. He scaled that peak twice, providing drive, skill and invention on the wing for victorious Anfield sides in 1988 and 1990 – still the club’s most recent league triumph before an astonishing drought. And when he looks at this season’s crop he sees contenders rather than champions.
|LIVERPOOL'S SEASON SO FAR
“If they can keep their best XI fit for the season they can win it, but history has shown that you will always lose a bit of form and lose some players, particularly in the latter stages.
“They haven’t really got anyone on the bench to supplement that, but in terms of what they’ve achieved they are way ahead of where I expected them to be, and next year they can look to attract better players [from being in the top four] and make a big push.
“If it comes this year I’ll take it, because it can happen, but I’m not expecting it to.”
Barnes was speaking ahead of joining Liverpool fans on free buses provided by Barclays to travel to St Mary’s on Saturday – a trip which proved fruitful for everyone involved, with the Reds running out 3-0 winners. “You look at ticket prices and how expensive things are now, fans probably feel disenfranchised, so the buses are a fantastic scheme,” he insists.
The pleasure feels genuine, even as Barnes comes across as someone not easily carried away by anything, let alone Liverpool’s startling revival under Rodgers.
Youth is a key component of the Northern Irishman’s formidable team, with regular starters Jon Flanagan, Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge all under 24. Many have been awed by their fearlessness this season, but Barnes remains pragmatic.
|“We have to be very careful with young players in case they fail. How do you handle that failure as a young player?”
- John Barnes
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Barnes seems particularly protective of Sterling, whose blistering form since returning to the team in December has so far rendered Liverpool’s failure to acquire either Mohamed Salah or Yevhen Konoplyanka in January insignificant. Despite their vastly different physiques the two boast a shared Jamaican heritage, blistering pace and a skill level rare among English footballers, and it is clear that Barnes is impressed by what he has seen of his heir apparent so far.
“He’s still a young boy, still learning and growing, but what he’s done in the last six weeks has been fantastic,” Barnes enthuses. “He’s been very consistent and hopefully that will continue.
“He started off well for a few games [last season], and I don’t think it was necessarily the right thing to be in the England squad that early, considering he hadn’t really done anything. He suffered for that in my opinion, but now he’s come back stronger than ever.”
On current form Sterling is a certainty for England’s World Cup squad, as are Sturridge and Henderson – two other key components in the Premier League’s most prolific attack. Barnes is as impressed as anyone but stops short of recommending that Roy Hodgson capitalise on some of Liverpool’s biggest assets when building his team for Brazil.
“Wayne Rooney’s the most important player for England, so you can’t talk about building an attacking unit around anyone else. But in terms of a partner for Rooney I think Sturridge would be the most adaptable. With regards to Henderson, Liverpool don’t play the same way as England, so we don’t know whether he’ll be one of two holding players [or playing further forward].
“What I do know is that all three of them are worth their place in the current England squad, and probably in the team. But in terms of building the attacking unit around them, it really depends. They’re three inexperienced players, so you need to combine them with more experienced players.”
If Liverpool’s English stars do take centre stage this summer they will face the unfamiliar and almost certainly unpleasant task of competing against team-mate Luis Suarez as he looks to inspire Uruguay to qualification from a tough-looking Group D, but Barnes does not think he will present the biggest obstacle for the Three Lions.
“Italy represent the biggest threat,” he contends. “I think Uruguay will get out of the group, whether first or second, so if England finish above Italy they’ll get out of the group.”
Beyond that, Barnes cannot see Hodgson masterminding a way through the glass ceiling that has frustrated every England manager at a World Cup since Sir Bobby Robson in Italia 1990.
“What we can expect realistically is to get out of the group, and if they get out of it the last 16 is favourable in terms of the way the draw falls,” he concludes.
“The quarter-finals, perhaps against Brazil or Spain, will be very difficult. I don’t expect them to get past the quarter-finals but if they get out of the group I’ll be happy.”
John Barnes was speaking ahead of a Barclays Buses trip for Liverpool fans last Saturday - a free-travel initiative from Barclays to say 'thank you' to groups of Barclays Premier League away fans that travel the length and breadth of the country supporting their team. Join the conversation on social media using #YouAreFootball.
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