Two-thirds into the season, the jury is still out on Liverpool. Has the storied club moved one step closer to its former exalted position? Or does Kenny Dalglish have his team running to stand still while other clubs leapfrog over the fallen giants?
One of the clubs on the rise is Tottenham Hotspur. “Wheeler-Dealer” ‘Arry Redknapp has built a team that sits in third place, and — along with Manchester City — has displaced long-time Top 4 residents Chelsea and Arsenal. It is hard not to see them in the group stages of the Champions League come September, but there are no guarantees. Meanwhile, five points separate four teams for the last CL spot. So today’s game at Anfield may be rich with meaning and consequence for both sides.
But where are the Reds exactly? They have reached one cup final, and have bested a mighty rival to progress in another. The club has stated that its goal is Champions League football… but they have to go through the aforementioned Chelsea and Arsenal, as well as fight off the football renaissance going on in the country’s Northeast. Newcastle were supposed to collapse after the £35 million sale of Andy Carroll to the Reds, and the defection of Kevin Nolan to play for his old boss, Sam Allardyce. But in a case of addition through subtraction (and the smart pickup of Demba Ba), the Magpies are keeping pace. Meanwhile, Martin O’Neill is weaving that Ol’ Black Magic with the Black Cats: Sunderland are 8-2-3 under the Irishman.
In hope of making sense of Liverpool’s season, let’s look at the numbers.
– Liverpool have six more points than this time last year. But in comparable games played, they are -1. In other words, when you take all the matches they’ve played this year and compared them to the games from last year against the same teams, they are behind.
– The Reds’ record against Top 10 teams is trending to be about the same (just better than 50%), but they have improved against the lower half.
– Their away record has improved significantly, while their home record is worse. Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this year, but they have frustrated fans by drawing a league-leading seven times at home.
– Liverpool’s goal difference is +7 compared to 0 at this time last year. But they have scored three fewer goals. A year ago the ranked fifth in offence, sixth in defence. This year, they are one of the stingiest sides in the Prem, but are 12th in goals scored. Fulham, Villa and Blackburn have all scored more than the Reds.
And therein lies the problem. After spending over £100m on players like Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Luis Suarez, the offence has gone backwards. Carroll and Henderson are young players wilting under the pressure and excessive price tags. Charlie Adam seems to have been a big fish in Blackpool’s small pond. And Suarez has been dubious in both play and disposition, letting shots go errant while embroiling himself in several controversies.
However, there appear to be several lights in the fog. A player who is no stranger to discipline problems himself, Craig Bellamy seems to have been settled down by Dalglish, his boyhood idol. He now leads the team in scoring… not bad for a player who’s started half the games on the bench. Jose Enrique — another wantaway from St. James’ Park — has admirably filled the long-time void at left back, and may be the team’s Player of the Year.
Is it enough? Spurs have amassed a midfield and defence that are as good as any in the league, and snapping up Brad Friedel in the supposed twilight of his career looks like a stroke of genius. But Liverpool have yet to lose at Anfield this season. The talismanic Steven Gerrard will be in the line-up, and Suarez returns after his long stay in the corner, hopefully with something to prove.
If they win the Carling Cup (likely), win the FA Cup (maybe) but don’t reach the Champions League, will this have been a successful season? Or will Kenny have to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide whether he’s the man to lead his team back to the promised land? Tonight’s game may go a long way to answering those questions.
My prediction: 2-2.