For all the criticism that has come Liverpool’s way this season, it continues to represent a high of almost two decades when judged on this particular stage of campaigns.
The best league start since the Premiership was formed in 1992, and the highest points tally in the Champions League group stages since it changed from the European Cup looks to me like clear progress. There are areas that can still be improved, and nothing has been won (because, of course, nothing can ever be won by November), but none of us could have asked for more back in the summer.
Weirdly for a team that has gone up a notch or two since this time last year, most of Rafa’s summer signings have come in for criticism; plenty of people seem to feel that the success has almost been in spite of them, but they have all played their part.
Diego Cavalieri was always going to struggle to get games, and when he did he would beoming in from the cold, but against the Dutch champions his handling was generally excellent. No disrespect to him, but I’m hoping we see little of the Brazilian, as otherwise that will mean problems with Pepe Reina. But tonight’s display was encouraging, should he be called upon in more pressing circumstances.
The one undoubted success of the new boys has been Albert Riera, although in recent weeks he has looked a little leggy and started to draw some barbed comments. His return to form was vital, in order to stop a slump in confidence. Basically, he looks a class act as a footballer, and just needs to adapt to playing so much high-intensity football. And his recent promise to add more goals to his game seems prescient – what a strike.
Robbie Keane has been hit and miss, but certainly not a flop; he’s played in too many important games, and it was great to see him bounce back with an excellent second-half display in Holland, particularly after the ludicrous nonsense about him being sold for a laughable fee of just £5m.
As if Rafa is going to be sufficiently impressed with him over four years in order to pay £20m, then cut his (massive) losses mid-season when the team is flying high. Keane with one leg is worth more to Liverpool than £5m, and that’s before getting onto the need to then bed-in yet another new striker if he was to be replaced in January. Who makes this stuff up?
Keane is a link striker who has good vision; not quite on the same level as Peter Beardsley, perhaps, but probably more prolific over the course of his career. He has set up a few goals this season, and scored four. He has worked very hard, and has contributed in other ways, particularly his dervish display against United. But even at £20m, he has to earn his place in the team, and he also has to accept that rotation is part and parcel of life at a big club; just look at how little Carlos Tevez has played lately, and his transfer fee is set at £30m.
At half-time I admit that I was starting to worry that it was too early for David Ngog. We saw in pre-season that he has talent, but to date he had failed to impose himself in any way, shape or form in his few meaningful appearances; hardly anything to worry about with a 19-year-old new to England, but of course it would have been nice to have the bonus of him wowing us all like some teenage Thierry Henry. But even a 23-year-old Theirry Henry took about four months to look half decent at Arsenal, and that was when playing every week.
I think the main thing we learned from the victory in Holland is that Lucas and Dossena are not bad players; to be honest, I never thought for one moment that they were. These are Brazilian and Italian internationals respectively. They’ve had enough good games and fine moments since joining, but consistency is the key, and that will take more than one game to prove. Tonight was a step in the right direction.
My problem with Lucas has been one of a lack of authority. When he’s alongside Alonso and Gerrard, it’s like he’s looking for them at every opportunity, as more senior players, and not playing his natural game.
Without them, his passing is much better. He takes responsibility, and his closing down and biting into tackles was excellent against PSV. He also delivered two excellent set-pieces into the box, one of which resulted in a goal; a bit like Gary McAllister at his best, he flighted them right into the danger area with accuracy rather than power. Unlike Alonso and Mascherano, he can also get ahead of the ball from open play, and was a little unlucky not to convert Keane’s excellent pass.
Getting Babel sharp and confident was another of the main aims. He’s a player I very much like, and if he’s in the right frame of mind he can be a massive threat to the opposition from any of the attacking areas. Yes, he can be frustrating at times, but as with Keane, I see no Godly reason why he wouldn’t stay at the club and play an important role in this most crucial of seasons. Maybe the media are stirring to try and destabilise Liverpool, or maybe they’re just trying to sell newspapers with nonsense; it wouldn’t be the first time.
On the down side, the Reds’ set-piece defending hasn’t been the best in the last two games, but it’s nothing to do with zonal marking. Two of the three goals conceded from corners in the main competitions this season have been due to poor headers, not poor marking; both Carragher and Mascherano were in the perfect spot, just messed up their clearances. And Blackburn’s goal was down to players switching off; whether or not you need to be in a certain position, you also have to be alive to a short corner.
But of course, it’s the fault of that terrible continental zonal marking nonsense, because a few muppets in the media can’t face facts.
Finally, it was great to see the three young Academy lads come on and add to the roster of kids who’ve done well this week, following on from Insua’s impressive display at Blackburn and Ngog’s first goal for the club, which was calmly taken, despite the understandable nerves that he admitted to in his celebration.
A lot of rubbish was written about Liverpool’s strength in depth after the sorry display at Spurs in the Carling Cup, but it was just one match. There should have been more respect given to the second string, as national champions, with two recent Youth Cup successes also in the bag. How did Liverpool get to the top of the domestic and European tables with Rafa’s ‘crazy rotation’ if the strength in depth wasn’t there, particularly with injuries to key players?
Damien Plessis has also played his part in the first team this season, and while a little older at 22, every time Nabil El Zhar takes to the field the Reds seem to score goals and win games. I have to admit that I thought he wouldn’t come close to making the grade at Liverpool, but it just goes to show how players can develop; he hasn’t ‘made it’ yet, but the signs are good.
Meanwhile, Krisztian Nemeth’s return from injury could see him appearing on the first-team bench this season. In title hunts there is often a striker who emerges from nowhere to make the difference, such as Ronny Rosenthal in 1990, Nicolas Anelka in 1998 and Henrik Larsson for United a couple of years back.
Liverpool are not at that stage yet (we’ll see in the new year), and maybe Nemeth isn’t either, but this kid looks the most natural finisher I’ve seen since Robbie Fowler. It’ll be wonderful if, in the coming years, he can prove that hunch, as it needs to be demonstrated at a higher level than the reserves; but the fact that he was prolific as a 17-year-old in the Hungarian first division bodes well. It may not be the Premiership, but it’s still not an easy place for a kid to shine. He could yet prove a secret weapon as the season unfolds.
I’m still not sure there’s quite the overall strength that Chelsea and United have in their more expensive squads, but there’s clearly far more to this collection of Liverpool players than one embarrassing night at Spurs had people suggesting. Little in football irritates me more than players or teams written off on the basis of one performance, and that was certainly the case that night.
© Paul Tomkins 2008
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