After embarking on a miserable run of only one win in nine, after conceding goals left, right and centre to the likes of Birmingham, Sunderland, and Fulham, and after showing such desperation in matches that a player has needed to dive to rescue a point against a relegation struggler, Liverpool appear to have left the door open to the VIP party of the Champions League.
Manchester City, Tottenham, and Aston Villa all sense the chance to gatecrash the biggest show in town, all ready to pounce on Liverpool’s failings this season. This weekend offers the perfect chance for Rafa Benitez and his team to slam the door firmly shut in their face.
When Liverpool kick-off against Manchester City on Saturday lunchtime, it will be time for Benitez’s depleted squad to show Robinho and co. that gaining entry to next season’s Uefa showpiece will not be as simple as might currently appear so.
Liverpool look a mid-table side at the moment, shambolic in one box and wasteful in the other, yet once the half of the squad which currently lie on the treatment table have returned to fully-fledged match action, and once the dream team of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are finally firing as a double-act again, Liverpool will begin to look more like title contenders.
Too many points have already been dropped for Benitez’s team to be a genuine title threat to Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal this season, but there is no reason why Liverpool can’t replicate the scintillating form they produced in the last few months of last season.
The squad is almost identical, so why can’t the results be?
Injuries has been the main reason so far, and Man City surely recognise that Liverpool’s challenge for the fourth Champions League spot will intensify dramatically once the club’s medical staff finally get a few days off. Fernando Torres will replace David N’Gog; Alberto Aqualani will replace Lucas; Fabio Aurelio will replace Emiliano Insua and captain fantastic Steven Gerrard will roar back into action in attacking midfield. What a difference.
Once Liverpool’s squad is fully fit and firing, Man City should beware. When Benitez can field his strongest eleven, as he could do in last season’s climax, there are few better teams in Europe.
Liverpool’s manager will have to add strength in depth to his squad so that injuries don’t make so much of an impact in future, but Liverpool’s current squad is still good enough to comfortably secure a Champions League spot, even with the odd injury.
Though Xabi Alonso’s departure to Madrid was clearly a major loss, Liverpool still boast a formidable nucleus.
With Jamie Carragher marshaling the defence, Javier Mascherano roaming deep and biting into tackles, Steven Gerrard raiding forward and scoring goals and Fernando Torres always liable to flash in a lightning finish, on paper Liverpool are supreme.
If that sublime spine can stay fit for the majority of the remainder of the season, and if other important players like Yossi Benayoun, Glen Johnson, and Dirk Kuyt can stay off the treatment table, then Liverpool should coast to fourth place.
If Benitez can get Liverpool playing anywhere near as well as they were in large periods of last season, when they did the double over Chelsea and Manchester United and thrashed Newcastle 5-1, then Liverpool will simply have too much for most teams.
Manchester City, on the other hand, have had an almost full-fit squad so far this season, and have struggled to beat promoted sides like Birmingham and Burnley. In future years, when Mark Hughes adds more quality to his squad, particularly in defence, then Man City may seriously consider themselves a likely top four team.
For now, though, a fully-fit Liverpool will always beat them to the Champions League. As more and more players gradually pick themselves off the treatment table, Rafa Benitez’s side must start to show why they are still one of the best four teams in England—starting on Saturday lunchtime