Golden chance for fledgling Liverpool

Liverpool have a golden opportunity Sunday afternoon at Stamford Bridge against a wounded Chelsea side that is ripe for the taking. For “King" Kenny Dalglish, this could prove to be a pivotal moment in a season that is already a quarter gone — one that sees the Reds a full 12 points off the lead, making these three points a near-must for the team’s title hopes.

This game is part of FOX’s “Football on Football” showcase: You can see this game in its entirety live on FOX Soccer at 11 a.m. ET, and then on delay either before or after the NFL game in your market (check local listings).

This was supposed to be a heady season for the Reds. In Dalglish – an iconic attacker who won six league titles with Liverpool during the `70s and `80s – the club had their talisman back on the sideline. They had hoovered up a few promising prospects, including Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez, for whom new owner John W. Henry paid a combined $92.6 million last January. Further reinforced by midfielders Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson, winger Stewart Downing and defender Jose Enrique, the Reds were thought realistic title contenders.

Now with 11 games done, Liverpool might consider itself lucky to finish high enough to get back into Europe, barely on the right side of the (current) cut-off for a Europa League spot.

And yet, Dalgish has to like his chances against a Chelsea side that has not managed to record a win against any one of the so-called "Big Four" this season. Despite being held to a draw by Swansea last time out — largely due to goalkeeper Michel Vorm’s brilliant game for the Welsh — Liverpool have risen to the big occasion. They drew with Manchester United earlier in the year, thumped Arsenal, and also took out Stoke and Everton. Yet, Liverpool showed weaknesses when Tottenham sliced them apart in a 4-0 thumping a month ago (hence, their current predicament).

The weaknesses — slow buildup in midfield, a lack of a consistent partner for Luis Suarez up top, some head-scratching gaffes in back — point to a Liverpool side that looks two or three years away from being legit. Fans won’t like hearing this, but the much-maligned Roy Hodgson was right: Liverpool have failed to back up their expensive signings with consistent performers developed from their youth ranks. That is proving to be a massive Achilles’ heel.

The state of their youth system is the reason that their former manager, Rafa Benitez, relied so heavily on transfers, gambling and winning with the likes of Pepe Reina, Dirk Kuyt, and yes, current Chelsea striker Fernando Torres. Even players some think of as youth talent — Lucas, Sebastian Coates, Carroll — were all transfers, the latter two being quite particularly pricey.

Benitez, however, largely ignored the youth problem, bringing in a set of talent so undistinguished that the youth ranks were nearly depleted. Moreover, while small buys like Daniel Pacheco and Daniel Ayala didn’t cost much individually, they added up to a fair amount of bleeding. With nothing to fall back on, Hodgson’s transfer missteps were magnified, though he rarely gets any credit for the work done on Suarez before his departure.

Dalglish and new director Damien Comoli have made steps to buck up those ranks, but even the glimmers of success shown in the likes of Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing and Jon Flanagan are not enough to reverse a decade and a half of decline.

What this has meant is more pressure on a still transfer-driven lineup that has yet to fully gel. Adam, Henderson, Downing, and Enrique may eventually prove to be major contributors, but at present, they still aren’t firing on all cylinders. The hard-working Lucas and Kuyt remain Dalglish’s best options, adding speed to what is an sometimes ponderous midfield. Moreover, Carroll has yet to form an effective partnership up top with the undeniably brilliant Suarez, and the pressure remains for others to pick up the slack. Adam has lacked finesse in front of net while the return of Craig Bellamy has not given Dalglish a true starting option.

And speaking of concerns, overshadowing this game are the pending charges against Suarez for alleged racial abuse of Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. The Uruguayan faces a six-game suspension if found guilty. Suarez has emphatically denied any such behavior, and the club is standing behind him. Ironically, the man he will be running at on Sunday, Chelsea center-back John Terry, is awaiting similar charges from the FA (and is under investigation by the police, to boot).

Liverpool are getting a questionable boost with the return of Jamie Carragher for the match after the defender missed the last two games with a calf strain. Carragher has been exposed often in the back and should not be preferred to Martin Skrtel, who has looked better this season partnered with Daniel Agger.

The unspoken question is whether or not John W. Henry will show patience for this rebuild. Liverpool is one of those clubs expected to win everything now. They cannot. But they can win this game: should they, it would be a major step and incremental proof that given time, this can be a dangerous side indeed.