Clearly, this is the best chance Liverpool have had to win the league title for almost 20 years. But it could also be the best chance for the next few years.
Not that I think the Reds will peak this season, because it’s a fairly young team with scope to keep improving, but simply because it’s been a near-faultless first third of the season, and such a start will be hard to replicate; Liverpool could be better, and play better next season and still not get as many points. And it may also be the case because other teams are strengthening all the time, particularly those with more money, and will invest heavily in the coming seasons.
There is also the issue of uncertainty surrounding the club, with talk of the owners looking to sell and speculation over Rafa’s new contract. However, at present there is at least some sense of stability, in that nothing has changed as yet, and there have been no major back-page headlines of the kind that derailed last season. In some ways, no news is good news; it sure beats the negative news of last winter.
If everything can stay low-key then a title challenge can be mounted. Should richer owners come in at some point in the near future, the injection of cash could be vital to sustained title challenges, and it would appease the fans, but equally, the sideshow element might return. At present, it’s refreshingly quiet behind the scenes.
Equally, patience at what Benítez is clearly building (even if that was learned the hard way by Gillett and Hicks a year ago) may be replaced by the need for instant dividends, and that could disrupt the steady progress we are seeing. The Americans must now appreciate that they have the right man in charge, and I hope they sort out the manager’s contract as soon as possible.
Ideally, the ownership issues, however they must play out, will be resolved at the start of the summer, when this season is over and with a couple of months to plan and purchase players ahead of next season. Until May, I’d like to see only the right kind of back-page headlines.
I had started to feel that winning the league was mission impossible. While feeling that Benítez was the best boss we could have, I felt the resources of the other teams, and the head-starts they had worked up before Rafa arrived, left too much ground to make up. However, slowly but surely that gap has been eaten away at. With fewer expensive players at his disposal, Rafa has been able to start matching teams that were 30 points ahead when he took the job.
I still think that Liverpool’s squad isn’t quite as strong as last season’s top two, and that they might have a fraction more quality in their first XI. But the Reds have coped without key men already this season (which makes this rubbish about a ‘definite lack of depth’ after one bad display against Spurs in the cup all the more rash), and I don’t think there is a better organised side in the country. It is also a team that is playing with confidence and style, and most crucially, a fantastic unity.
So while Chelsea and Manchester United may have more match-winners, Liverpool’s team ethic (which admittedly the other two don’t exactly lack) gives them a great chance of winning most games. And a hunger for the title may just compensate for the slight advantage the other two clubs have in terms of personnel.
Also, Benítez clearly has less ‘moody’ players than the likes of Berbatov, Ronaldo, Ballack, Drogba and Anelka, so while such players are fantastic talents, they’ve all, bar the latter, had ‘issues’ this season. While Dirk Kuyt can’t get near them in terms of ability, his never-say-die attitude may prove crucial when the chips are down.
Liverpool now have that Valencian steel. And in Spain, that was enough to land Benítez two league titles. But since arriving in the Premiership the big English clubs have always had more stability at the top, both at boardroom and managerial level, than Barcelona or Real Madrid could ever hope to exhibit; making it an even bigger task for Benítez. So while Liverpool are mirroring Valencia’s style and efficiency, it’s hard to see Chelsea and Manchester United imploding in quite the same in-fighting manner.
But the great start means that, for the time being, Manchester United are trailing in the Reds’ wake. That hasn’t happened for a while. Having said that, United have played each of the other big three sides away from home, so the return fixtures will favour them; Chelsea, meanwhile, have had two home games against the big teams, and failed to win either. Of course, for once their away form is by far their strongest suit.
But it’s hard to see the men of Ferguson and Scolari falling away badly in the second half of the season. Like Liverpool, they tend to get stronger, but we have to believe the effort that’s gone into the Reds’ outstanding start will not be to the detriment of the run-in, as we saw with Arsenal last year. Torres’ injuries may help him stay fresher longer, while I feel Ryan Babel, who is understandably frustrated at a lack of starts, may be the Reds’ secret weapon in the run-in, in the way Pablo Aimar was often saved for Valencia.
What is encouraging from a Liverpool point of view is that United have dropped a fair few points by their standards, and that Chelsea, while thrashing teams most weeks, have also now lost games in three competitions. When it’s going their way they look even better than before – but do they have the right balance, in the way they did under Mourinho, when they weren’t as attractive but there was a relentless will about them?
While the Reds should have had five or six goals themselves at the Reebok, there might be an upside to the frustrating failure to pummel Bolton. While Chelsea thrash teams, Liverpool are managing to stay under the radar a little, despite being locked together on 32 points. I always want to see Benítez’s team receive its fair share of praise, but there’s a danger that big victories can only increase hype expectations, as seen with the 6-0 drubbing of Derby last season (of which I was also guilty as charged).
So long as Liverpool win, the only fear is that goal difference will suffer. But if Liverpool lose the league on goal difference, that will have meant an incredible effort just to match their points. The hope is that the wayward finishing is confined to games that are already won.
Two times this season the missing of good chances has cost points: Stoke and Spurs. But in some ways the former game reminded me of both Derby last season, and Manchester United’s victory over Stoke this weekend. Derby’s resistance was broken with an inswinging free-kick from Alonso that sailed straight in; Liverpool had a similar, legitimate effort ruled out against Stoke, at the same early stage as when United broke through with their free-kick. Had Gerrard’s goal stood, Stoke would likely have buckled in similar fashion. That’s football.
But all teams miss plenty of chances. The main thing is to be creating such good chances in the first place, and to put at least one of them away, if you can keep a clean sheet at the other end. When Liverpool have conceded two, they’ve tended to score three.
Then there’s the much-criticised zonal marking, which, after almost 20 games this season, has been a near-faultless method for defending free-kicks and corners, as it was in 2005, 2006 and for the first half of 2007. I can only assume that as he did first time around, Mauricio Pellegrino has helped drill the defence. I do feel nervous with no-one protecting the posts, but bar Carragher’s wayward header, it’s not even looked remotely under threat.
So far, no opponent has beaten Pepe Reina from a header. Bolton’s effort at the weekend was rightly disallowed, with Kevin Nolan twice hanging a leg out to block the keeper. Had he just stood his ground to block Reina, it would have been fine, but you cannot expect to get away with such underhand tactics.
Andy Gray keeps slating zonal marking, but how often did Bolton trouble Liverpool from long throws and corners? He also moans about Liverpool having everybody back for set-pieces, as if it’s this ultra-negative tactic, but then fails to see how much space this offers the Reds to break into. Look at the second goal in each of the last two league games: Robbie Keane scores from a West Brom corner, Steven Gerrard scores from a Bolton long-throw right by the Reds’ corner flag. Lightning 80-yard breaks … goal.
So far, it seems the balance is right across the pitch, and even allowing for the failure of the new full-backs to settle or, in Degen’s case, stay fit, we’ve seen Arbeloa and Aurelio in their best form since arriving, to more than compensate; each is contributing at both ends of the pitch. In time, I feel Dossena will be a great option, but he needs time. He’s been mostly poor so far, but no worse than Patrice Evra was for his first six months.
So with all this in mind, this really could be the golden opportunity.
Although they’re well off the pace this time, Arsenal’s young squad will surely come good in the next 24 months. Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Fran Mérida and Aaron Ramsey, allied to Cesc Fabregas (if they can hold onto him) could form the nucleus of an immense side for years to come. Of course, there is a danger that their current stars will be lured away before the teenage cavalry arrives. Equally, there is a danger that they might miss out on 4th spot; even if they do secure it, they will have to face a top Spanish or Italian team. This season, it’s more imperative to be in the top three than ever before.
In terms of the next few years, Manchester City are perhaps the least predictable package. Can they attract the best players, or just the greediest? It might be catch-22; if they finish mid-table, then the chances of luring the players they want will diminish. Robinho has been surprisingly successful, in that he’s showing a bit of character as well as flair and finishing, but they’re still in the bottom half of the table, just three points off the foot of the league. Silly money, and no Champions League football, may attract mainly mercenaries.
At present, Liverpool are the opposite: top-class players who want to be at the club, and whose hearts and minds are set on making a bit of history. And while it’s not exactly now-or-never, there’s no time like the present.