Sunday, 23 March 2014

To Be the Best You Have to Beat the Best

Eight games to go for Liverpool to win a long-awaited League title.  For a club who won 10 of the 15 titles between 1976 and 1990, it has been a very long wait and for some of us, almost too much to contemplate.  2008-09 represented our best chance to win the title when finishing 2nd to Manchester United.  Their points tally in that season, 86, would’ve been enough to win the title in 10 of the last 23 seasons since Kenny Dalglish’s side won the League in 1989-90.  We picked up 31pts from a possible 33pts from final 11 matches but United’s 25pts during the same period was enough to see them lift the trophy.

All season I have been saying we aren’t good enough to win the title.  I look at the squads at Chelsea and Manchester City and see they are stronger than ours and with more depth.  But at this stage of the season does squad depth really come into it?  There are just 8 games to go and one thing I am beginning to realise from Brendan Rodgers time at Anfield, is that these players are fitter than most Liverpool squads of recent times.  If you look at the way we finished last season, we were fit and strong right to the end of the season.  This was epitomised by the way the backroom staff have managed Steven Gerrard to allow him to play every minute of every game up till he picked up an injury towards the end of the 35th match.  This season has been similar and Liverpool are also benefitting from no European matches to clog up the fixture list.

The team is bulging with confidence and attacking with such pace that defences are unsure whether to sit deep and welcome them on, or push up and risk a ball over the top.  Yesterday against Cardiff, Liverpool showed their ability to play through their opponents with their first equaliser.  Then they murdered them on the break with the last two goals.  Add to that, the ability to score from set-pieces and things are almost perfect.  Well, they are as long as we continue to score more than we concede. 

You have to look down as far as Stoke City in 11th to find a team conceding more goals at this stage of the season than Liverpool.  In fact there are only 9 other sides who have conceded more so far.  But it’s the goals for column which is giving fans a difficult question to answer – “could this be our year?”.  The Champions are traditionally a side with one of the better defences and in the Premier League, no club has won the title and conceded more than 45 goals.  At their current rate Liverpool is projecting a total of 48 goals conceded this season.  But on the plus side they are on target to outscore Chelsea’s 103 total in 2009-10.

All eyes will now focus on the final quarter of the season with many suggesting the title is between Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, after Arsenal’s capitulation at Stamford Bridge yesterday.  With both Chelsea and City still to visit Anfield, the scene is set for a fascinating finale.  There have been some crazy results in one of the most open seasons many can remember, so we’re bound to have one or two twists and turns left to navigate.

For Liverpool, 4 of their 5 home matches are against sides in the top eight, Chelsea, Man City, Tottenham and Newcastle.  But they have just 3 away games, all against sides who are desperate for points, West Ham, Norwich and Crystal Palace.  Chelsea would look to have the easier run-in of the three with Stoke, Sunderland and Norwich at home and a relatively straightforward away list of Crystal Palace, Swansea and Cardiff to add to their trip to Anfield.  Manchester City has 10 matches left with trips to Old Trafford and The Emirates to come next, along with further trips to Anfield and Goodison Park.  An away menu list of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton and Crystal Palace should certainly test them with their home fixtures presenting a rather more straightforward path – Southampton, Sunderland, West Brom, Aston Villa and West Ham.

City’s last two games are at home and with Villa and West Ham the opponents, you would expect those sides to have little to play for by then.

This coming week sees Chelsea sit out and watch proceedings hoping their challengers slip up.  City are involved in a potentially tricky Manchester derby and Liverpool entertain a Sunderland side who are still in the bottom three.  Sunderland has just lost 2 on the road after a run of 6 without defeat away from home, but have they enough to cope with a Liverpool side bang on form and a crowd baying for success?  It’s a month since Liverpool last played in front of The Kop and with home fans having witnessed 4-3, 5-1, 4-0, 2-0, 3-1, 4-1 and 5-1 from the last 7 home games, confidence will be high of further champagne football.

For the next two weekends both Chelsea and Man City play on the Saturday with Liverpool not turning out until 24 hours later.  Next weekend Man City travel to Arsenal with Liverpool hoping that’s a draw or a win for Arsenal, as they host Spurs on Sunday.  Chelsea travel to Palace confident of a win.  The one potential spanner in the works for Chelsea could be their participation in the Champions League.  They are up against PSG either side of a home game against Stoke in the League.  Personally, I hope Chelsea get through as the Semi-Finals are scheduled to be played either side of Chelsea’s visit to Anfield.

Television has decreed the following Sunday will see all three sides in action as Chelsea travel to Swansea on the same day Liverpool host Man City.  The following Sunday sees Liverpool travel to Norwich and Chelsea entertain Sunderland.  Man City are at home to West Brom having also met Sunderland at home the previous Wednesday.  Crystal Palace and Sunderland have still to meet all three title contenders for a second time and unfortunately for them, they are away on each occasion.

Sunday 27th April also has all three in action on the same day when Liverpool host Chelsea with City travelling to Crystal Palace.  For some reason May 3rd sees all Premier League fixtures kick-off at 3pm.  Whether that is because Sky and BT have yet to decide how they would like to re-arrange the fixtures, is uncertain, but it could add to the drama if things remain like this.  Chelsea are at home to Norwich with Liverpool travelling to Crystal Palace and Man City at Everton.  This could be where City could drop points as Everton have been beaten just once at home.

For the final Sunday, things could still be undecided with Liverpool and Man City at home and Chelsea away.  Liverpool welcome Newcastle.  You have to go back to April 1994 to find the last time Newcastle won a league game at Anfield and November 1995 since they won a game there in any competition.  Manchester City host West Ham and the visitors record is also a poor one with West Ham picking up just 1pt from their last 6 visits.  Chelsea travel to Cardiff where it’s over 40 years since they were last defeated there, although they’ve only played there 5 times during that time.

If Liverpool are to win the title they may well have to beat both Chelsea and Man City, but their performances in the reverse fixtures last Christmas would suggest they have a right to be positive.  If City drops points at Man Utd, Arsenal and/or Everton then Liverpool could afford a draw against City and still finish ahead of them, but it’s Chelsea who are the worry.  Looking at Chelsea’s fixtures it is hard to see them lose again, other than at Anfield.

If Liverpool beat Chelsea and win all their remaining games they can afford a draw against City and end up on 87pts.  If Chelsea win every game but lose at Anfield they will end up on 87pts.  If City draw at Liverpool, Arsenal and Man Utd, and win all their other games, they will end up on 87pts too.  Of course, if City win any one of those big away games they should win the title.  But it could all come down to goal difference and at the moment City’s is again superior.

Having said all that the odds would still seem to be stacked against Liverpool and for me, third place still represents a success as I think this team will be so much stronger next season.  One could argue both Chelsea and City could also be stronger next year and are they likely to slip up where they did this season?  I thought it would take Rodgers all three years of his first contract at Liverpool to get us into the Champions League.  But as it looks as if he’s done this a year early, it will be interesting to see how the owners now view any improvements required to the squad to negotiate the extra fixtures for next season.

But for now it has been a wonderful season if you’re a Liverpool fan with them playing some of the best football seen at this level.  I have been following them since 1975 and there have only been 3 seasons when we were on more points after 30 matches, than we are at this stage.  So far, our goal tally is our highest after 30 games since I’ve been watching Liverpool, with the previous highest 73 in 1982-83.  This impressive tally has been down to the successful partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.  The two have scored 47 between them this season.  This has surpassed the club’s best tally in the Premier League, beating Fowler & Collymore 42 goals in 1995-96.  They may well beat the total Aldridge, Beardsley and Barnes managed when they hit 56 goals between them in 1987-88.

Going back to squad depth, Liverpool may well struggle if any of their important players suffer an injury between now and the end of the season, but they are fresh at the moment and I fully expect Rodgers training methods to focus them solely on each game at a time.  Of course Chelsea could live to regret the lack of goals from their strikers and even Negredo at Man City is currently lacking in front of goal at the moment.  But there’s plenty still to play for, and it’s a welcome change to see us right in the mix.

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