Finally stable, Liverpool are back
With 15 games to go, I think it can be safely said that the EPL title is staying in Manchester. It is conceivable that United or City might slip enough to encourage Chelsea, but not both. And there’s another worry for London fans – another giant of the north is awakening.
It has been obvious for most of the season that Liverpool, after the ill-fated stewardship of first Roy Hodgson and then Kenny Dalglish, is at last moving in an upward direction under Brendan Rodgers, the former Chelsea assistant coach who made his name by guiding Swansea City into the top division and keeping the Welsh club there last season with a stylish brand of passing soccer.
Results have not always been great and even after Saturday’s 5-0 rout of Norwich City, the stats show Liverpool triumphant in only nine of 23 League games (seven have been tied and seven lost). But performances have won over the fans, persuading them that owners John Henry and Tom Werner got it right in moving outside the Anfield family to hire Rodgers, just as predecessors Tom Hicks and George Gillett were derided for choosing Hodgson.
So the Northern Irishman has got a little time – that most precious of commodities - on his side. He also has the advantage of relatively realistic expectations, for, although Liverpool became accustomed to success while winning 13 English and four European titles between 1964 and 1990, the triumph over Milan on penalties under Rafa Benitez in Istanbul in 2005 is now seen for what it was: a glorious throwback fuelled by tradition. Where once there was pressure – so great in fact that Dalglish had to walk away from his first spell as head coach in 1991 - there is now patience.
But the return to Champions League contention may come sooner than most of the supporters envisioned. The weekend win kept Liverpool in touch with the London clubs most favored for a top-four finish. Chelsea remains the favorite for third, and Tottenham for fourth – but the threat from Merseyside is there. (And it is two-pronged, for cross-city rivals Everton have been staying in touch with the Champions League race as well.)
Liverpool, though, has the resources to kick on more convincingly. Rodgers showed that by paying $16 million at the start of the winter window for Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge, who has scored in each of his first three games, forming a relationship of promise with Luis Suarez.
In midfield, the return of enforcer Lucas after long-term injury must have felt like a new signing to Rodgers. Lucas’ return has certainly coincided with a spurt of vintage form from an appreciative Steven Gerrard. But optimism about Liverpool is not so much about individuals than the spirit fostered under Rodgers and apparent belief in his methods amongst his squad. There was no lack of enthusiasm during Dalglish’s term in charge – quite the opposite – but somehow the team’s effort is more channeled under the present regime. Young players such as the full back Andre Wisdom and potentially prodigious attacker Raheem Sterling are bedded in and learning fast.
If the breakthrough to the Champions League does not happen this season, my hunch is that it will happen in the ensuing campaign – and that Gerrard, revitalized, will still be around.
But who, if it happens, will Liverpool edge out of the elite group? Clearly the parallel ambitions of Tottenham are being challenged by the rise of Rodgers’s men. And Arsenal have for some time seemed likely to take a rare season out of Europe’s top competition, even more so after Sunday’s defeat in a classic game in the Stamford Bridge sleet.
Chelsea, 2-1 victors after taking a two-goal lead in the opening 16 minutes, ought to be concerned too. This club’s future is notoriously difficult to predict and right now it remains torn by the fans’ split loyalties. Most still want Benitez out despite the derby win, but I wonder who could be enticed in his stead after the spectacular snub to owner Roman Abramovich represented by Pep Guardiola’s decision last week to spend next season in the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich.
The top coaches of Europe have become wary of Abramovich after he sacked Roberto di Matteo so soon after the success in last season’s Champions League final. Yet Benitez was engaged as 'interim' coach on the assumption that an exciting name could be unveiled.
Stability is back in fashion. And which club has got that back? Liverpool.