Fast Start to 2013-14 Important for Liverpool with Sturridge and Gerrard Fit
Liverpool, and in particular their manager Brendan Rodgers, won some plaudits for the way the team's performance improved over the second half of the season, but the Reds won't be able to afford a similarly sluggish start to the campaign once the 2013-14 season gets underway.
Thankfully for the manager, he has been boosted by news that two of Liverpool's key players should be fit in time for preseason and the beginning of the league campaign, after both were reported to be absent until some time into the new term.
Firstly, on Wednesday came the news from the official club website that first-team captain Steven Gerrard was very much on course to recover from his shoulder surgery in the expected time frame, meaning he would be involved in preseason.
Then on Thursday, it was finally announced by the club that striker Daniel Sturridge, injured on international duty with England last week, would also likely be back in time for the new season. Sturridge suffered a "high ankle sprain", which will take some months to recover from, but it is still better news than if he had suffered significant ligament damage which had been feared by some.
Both Gerrard and Sturridge will be of paramount importance to Liverpool for 2013-14 season.
The captain has yet again been asked to perform a slightly altered role, a more withdrawn position in midfield more often than not where he is able to take the time and space on the pitch to consistently pick out passes to his team mates.
Sturridge on the other hand has proven an excellent acquisition for the price, and while question marks will remain about his fitness and consistency until he proves otherwise, he has already quietened many doubters with 11 goals in his first 16 games for the Reds.
For Liverpool, the aim for next season simply has to be to break back into the top four of the Premier League. Four consecutive seasons now have seen them end from sixth to eighth in the table, a far cry from their runners-up spot in 2009. It's not going to be easy, but there is quality in the market and money to spend this summer; what Rodgers and his troop have to do is ensure they get the decisions right on which players to spend it on, and which areas to strengthen.
It is possible to get back into the top four, however.
Manchester United, Manchester City and Everton are all changing managers this summer, and while the Reds might not catch the first two sides for a few seasons yet, overhauling the team who finished directly above them in the league is the first objective. Everton are catchable, and the minimum expectation must be constant progress in league finishes for the Reds.
To have any kind of chance, though, Liverpool need to start the season on the right foot.
Not necessarily to go immediately 10 games unbeaten, but at least to have a settled squad, not scrabbling about later on for an extra player or two in the window, and to begin the season positively with a few victories, especially at Anfield.
The beginning of 2012-13 saw the Reds play six league fixtures before recording their first win of the campaign. It was in part due to some tough fixtures—Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal were all faced within the first five—but already there was also some of the feeling of missed opportunity which would define much of the rest of the year.
Brendan Rodgers certainly wasn't worried, and neither were most of the fans. Both knew it would be an arduous task to return Liverpool to the top...but it did signal that it was hugely unlikely that an immediate return to Champions League action was on the cards. Even by the start of December, Liverpool had still only won four times in the league.
Improvements were needed, and were also realised over the second part of the season, but when you're playing catch-up from October onwards, every set-back can feel one hundred times more difficult to overcome.
While the new fixture list, yet to be decided, will determine exactly how straight-forward or difficult Liverpool's start to next season will be, the club have to ensure that they do everything themselves to be in a strong position from the get-go.
If Liverpool pick up five wins out of their first 10 games next term, they'll be in a fair position to make a real challenge for the top four places from then on. It doesn't sound too many, but only four teams managed to do so in the campaign just ended. Liverpool themselves only won two.
To that end, having the most important players in the squad fit and available will be of paramount importance, and Gerrard and Sturridge certainly come into that category.
Even something as simple, yet as potentially match-defining, as taking a penalty might be worth two or more points to the Reds early on next season.
Gerrard is the regular taker, very confident and reliable in doing so, but with Sturridge it's also nice to see Liverpool finally have a centre-forward capable of taking a mean spot-kick too, arguably the first to do so since Robbie Fowler left.
Simple things, but hugely important ones.
It is yet to be revealed if the side's best player, Luis Suarez, ends up staying or not—but even if he goes, with the likes of midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan as reported by The Guardian, defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos as reported by The Mirror and forward Iago Aspas as reported by MARCA, all heavily linked with Liverpool, there is still much reason for hope for fans and club staff alike.
The top four is the aim, and all those players would aid significantly in trying to achieve it.
Rodgers will take it one game at a time when the season does start, but if his team let too many of those early one-off opportunities to claim victory pass them by again, then once more Liverpool will be having to re-adjust their seasonal objectives well before Christmas.
A fast start is needed, and getting those already at the club fit and healthy to show their best qualities is the first step to ensuring it can be done.
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