So here we go again another season another time for picking over our hopes and fears until everything comes to a conclusion in, or before, May 2010.
So what state is the good ship Liverpool in as it sails into its twentieth season without a championship win? As ever there is good and bad, some grounds for optimism tempered with plenty of cause for concern all of which will, as the season unravels, will no doubt be complimented by varying degrees and elation, frustration, anger, bemusement and hopefully, when it all ends, quiet satisfaction?
Off the field is a sad, sorry state of affairs however, I’m looking forward to the season too much to sully it by commenting on the mess Statler and Waldorf continue to “preside” over. They can wait, the depressing, dishonorable and dastardly shadow they cast over the club can, at least for a day, can be ignored in preference to the thing that really matters, the football.
So to the team and going into 2009-10 I guess many will feel we are more equipped to end the twenty year title draught than we have been for some time. As runners up Rafa and his team achieved his best league finish since he took over. We only lost two league games, to Spurs and Middlesbrough and were unbeaten at home with the best goal difference. We also scored more than anyone else and won four out of out six games against the called top four and drew the other two! The only thing we didn’t do, seemingly, is win the title! Now many expect us to do just that. Can we?
Cleary the squad is key. How else are we going win enough games? Towards the end of 2008-09 Rafa correctly bemoaned our lack of strength in depth compared to the title winners. He changed tack slightly over the summer, perhaps due to necessity because of funds available, by suggesting that the squad only needed “fine tuning”. Sure enough he has been as good as his word with only one “fine tuning” signing, Glen Johnson.
Hopefully the arrival of Alberto Aquilani will negate the departure of Xabi Alonso and ensure that the machine continues to run smoothly? The loss of Alonso is a blow but teams do change, move on and adapt. Nothing stands still and the deal was a good one and in all honesty over the years we’ve been fortunate to retain most of our key players whilst other clubs have had theirs snapped up or poached. Thankfully Xabi is the only player to go Javier Mascherano remains, but for how long?
However for all the speculation about other players, it is the commonly held opinion that pushing on this year depends on the fitness of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Many say we are a two player team which of course is as nonsensical as the theory that we were a one player team before Torres arrived. It should be remembered that we started over a third of our games in 2008-09 without either Torres or Gerrard. To suggest that our chances revolve around these two is to insult the rest of the squad and implies there is no confidence in their contribution or ability to improve. It’s a question of collective responsibility and always will be. ALL our players are a year older and a year wiser and surely they know what went wrong last season, as a team or individually, and will be determined to put it right?
Perhaps the most pertinent is consistency? In 2007-08 our undoing was our performances against the top four. However job done in 2008-09 with four wins and two draws. Sadly we regressed against those sides we would, with respect to them, be expected to beat. Simply converting three of the league draws against Fulham, Stoke (twice), Hull, West Ham and Wigan into wins would have seen the title return. Worse still the majority of these games were at Anfield.
So more consistency and more ruthlessness. The ability to finish sides off even when we’re having a bad day. The versatility and nous to deal with sides who come and “park the bus” in front of goal at Anfield as well play football? A more efficient and effective “Plan B”?
And Rafa? It must grate terribly with him that we can achieve some of the draws we did at home and then go on the beat the likes of Real Madrid and The Mancs. One wonders, after five years at the club, just how important this season is for him personally? I guess there will be more expectation than normal but can he deal with it? Perhaps a decent start would be to ignore the snide jibes from down the East Lancs Road and let the football do the talking? Rafa’s new found powers over transfers will be very much under the microscope with the expensive signings of Johnson and Aquilani. However, the Alonso deal had a “silver lining” due to Rafa’s hard ball stance with Real. Would Rick Parry have been so vehement in protecting our interests? And of course in the background is our old friend Mr Rotation how much of an issue will this become in 2009-10? In short this season is as much a personal test for Rafa as it is for his squad, more so in fact. Failure to get the backing he wants and, as a result, failure to kick on and win something, and it’s been four years since we did, and he may well… well who knows there are so many other factors to consider sadly a great deal of them unrelated to football.
So can we win the title? Of course we can. Keep our nerve, play the way we know we can and for longer and it’s there why shouldn’t it be?. Our performances last season showed that we have the players, the flair, skill, physicality and sheer bloody minded force of will (when necessary) to do it. A few slips up did for us and we need to learn from that. The question is having come so close last season, do Rafa, and his players have the determination and fortitude to take it on again?
In both I continue to trust.