Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Strong enough for a title push?









As the 2008/2009 premier league season came to a close, Manchester United was crowned as champion again for the third consecutive season. Had it not been for late game heroics from players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and a certain Federico Macheda, Liverpool FC may well have taken their 19th league title that year.

Fast-forward to the end of the 09/10 season. Before the season started, Liverpool was a strong favourite to be serious title competitor, and the expectations were for the Reds to finally break their drought and win their first league title since the 1989/1990 season.

Despite a very strong push in the previous year, Liverpool finished a shocking and embarrassing seventh place, and had it not been for Portsmouth going into administration, Liverpool would not have even made the Europa League.

The reasons for the failures of the Reds were plentiful, some of which more pivotal than others. Selling Xabi Alonso and relying on Lucas and Mascherano to sit beside each other every game was a big mistake by Rafa. These two offered little creativity and played virtually the same role as one another.

Rafa’s over-reliance and unwillingness to sub out bench players like Lucas and Dirk Kuyt was also a contributing factor, as the Reds became too predictable and too rigid.

Add to this a vast amount of injuries to key players and a bit of bad luck along the way— the infamous Sunderland beach ball goal comes to mind—and the Reds ended up falling very short of the expectations that were set at the beginning of the season.

The new season began on August 14th, and the majority of the media and viewers of the Premier League had voiced their opinions that the best Liverpool would achieve would be a fourth place finish, barely securing a Champion’s League berth.

With new signings Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic, and Danny Wilson, as well as retaining Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool has strengthened its squad. The general consensus however, was that they had not strengthened enough to challenge the top clubs for the title.

As the season kicked off with Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, and even Manchester City being the favourites to win the league, it was a very fresh and long overdue performance by the Reds against Arsenal that left the doubters with bitter tastes in their mouths.

Liverpool was unlucky to secure full points against the Gunners, only a late and uncharacteristic Pepe Reina own-goal was enough to let the Gunners off the hook. Even more impressive by the Reds though, was that for half of the game, due to Joe Cole’s sending off right before half time, Liverpool played Arsenal with a man down, and played extremely well.

The days of Lucas and Mascherano playing beside each other seemed a thing of the past, as skipper Steven Gerrard partnered Javier Mascherano in the middle of the park and showed not only his range of passing but also his great work ethic as he thwarted Arsenal’s attack with strong challenges time and time again.

Playing Gerrard in this role allows Hodgson to get the best out of him as well as freeing up roles further up the pitch for younger and perhaps faster players such as Joe Cole and Alberto Aquilani.

Liverpool’s defence was also a much stronger looking unit than the previous year, with Carragher and Skrtel forming a decent partnership in the middle, Glen Johnson holding his own on the right-flank, and Daniel Agger showing his versatility with a great performance, even with a little concussion, in the left-back position.

The good thing about Reina’s blunder is that it will almost certainly not occur again this season, as Pepe has shown over the course of his LFC career that he is truly one of the best goalies not only in the league, but in the world.

Jovanovic and Kuyt provide great work ethic on the wings, and up front David N’gog scored a very Torres-esque goal to show that he may be a good back-up striker for the Reds this season after all. If Joe Cole can find his rhythm with the team, Liverpool will have a very strong and versatile front line that will challenge any defence that the league, or Europe, has to offer.

After such a great showing against Arsenal, Liverpool let their fans down as they were humbled in an away fixture to Manchester City today, perhaps proving that the Kop really does add an extra man to the Liverpool squad.

Kuyt and Jovanovic were very poor in comparison to their previous showing, and Liverpool’s defence looked very much like last year's, full of holes and ready to leak goals to teams who have the ability to punish their errors.

Add the lack of fitness and form of Fernando Torres, and the only bright spark was Steven Gerrard, who gave a great deal of effort—a change from previous seasons.

As if losing an important fixture like this was not enough, Liverpool has also let midfield playmaker Alberto Aquilani leave on loan to Italian club Juventus, getting rid of a great, although injury-prone, option in its midfield.

Javier Mascherano has also declared that he wants to leave for Barcelona, and to show that, he asked Roy Hodgson not to play him in the match today against Manchester City.

Losing players like Aquilani and Mascherano is certainly a blow to Liverpool’s midfield quality, and they will need to strengthen these positions in order to seriously contend for the title.

On a good note, young players such as Daniel Pacheco who can play anywhere in the 3 of a 4-2-3-1 formation, and even up top as a lone striker, and Martin Kelly and Daniel Ayala look like great youth prospects and players who may be able to step up if they are needed this season.

A new signing or two would provide added depth to the squad, with Carlton Cole and Arda Turan being my preferred choices, the former being a decent striker who would count as a home grown player, and the latter already stating his love for the club and providing a great option down the wing with his trickery and delivery. Either of these two players may give Liverpool FC the added boost that is needed to restore former glory to the club.

If Liverpool FC can maintain the level of performance it showed against Arsenal, as well as improve on the errors that were exposed by Manchester City and keep key players like Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard fit, there is no reason why the title can not come back to Anfield this season and finally bring Liverpool its 19th success, taking them one above Manchester United.

After such different performances, and just a week apart, it would be wise to say that Liverpool’s greatest enemy is Liverpool. If the club can find consistency within the squad, which to be fair would be much stronger if they had just a fraction of the money of a club like Manchester City, then Liverpool can definitely turn some heads and change the view that they are a club on the down.

If the top clubs fail to recognize the threat that the Reds pose to the title race, they could be taken by surprise, and surely Sir Alex Ferguson does not want to go behind the Reds because of ignorance, so he should beware of the sleeping giants who are ready to wake.

Does Liverpool have the strength to challenge the top clubs, or will Chelsea, Arsenal, and the Manchester clubs have more successful seasons? Only time will tell.


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