EPL: Why October Could Make Or Break Rafa's Reign
Liverpool's start to the 2008-2009 season has been the subject of much debate amongst Reds fans.
On the face of it, the club are unbeaten in 9 competitive matches, with 6 wins and 3 draws (one win coming in Extra-Time), and have already beaten one of the main Premier League rivals in Manchester United. In fact, Liverpool haven't lost a competitive match in 90 mins since the 17th March, when Utd beat them 3-0 at Old Trafford, some 20 matches ago.
In Europe, they have started the Champions League with an away win, something only 5 other clubs achieved on Matchday One.
If you look deeper though, the positivity is fairly easy to extinguish if you choose to view your glass half empty. Liverpool continue to struggle for goals, they haven't scored more than two in a game since the 3-1 win over Blackburn Rovers in April, some 15 games ago.
The goalless draws that soured last terms start to the season have already resurfaced, in the games against Standard Liege, Aston Villa, and Stoke.
While Liverpool are clearly very difficult to beat, even for the very best teams like Chelsea, Manchester United and Inter Milan, they paradoxically seem to find it a little too difficult to win, particularly when faced with a defensive minded, well organised set up.
Many Liverpool fans will have been looking jealously at Arsenal's recent results, Blackburn 0-4 Arsenal, Bolton 1-3 Arsenal, Arsenal 6-0 Sheff Utd, and thinking, 'why can't we beat teams as easily as that? We proved we were a match for Arsenal last season, so why do we only edge past Crewe 2-1 and draw with Stoke City, while they seemingly cruise past such teams?'.
Of course, the grass is always greener on the otherside.
Arsenal may sit narrowly above Liverpool in the table, but they have already lost a league game, 1-0 at Fulham and could only manage an away draw on Matchday One of the Champions League, 1-1 in Kiev thanks to a late equalizer. There would have been much gnashing of teeth on Merseyside had Liverpool managed those two results, so to an extent you have to take the rough with the smooth.
So where do Liverpool stand at the moment? Are they an emerging team who just need Keane and Torres to take off to turn tight games into hammerings, or are they a struggling force getting by with late goals who will be found out sooner or later?
By October 31st, we will have a good idea as to what the future holds, both for the club this season, and maybe the long-term future of manager Rafa Benitez as well.
Next up is the Merseyside Derby, the form book says it should be a Liverpool win, Everton have, after all, made a poor start to the season. They have failed to win any of 3 home games. They have also been far more vulnerable defensively than last term, already conceding 13 goals in just 6 matches (Liverpool have conceded just 4 in their 9 games by comparison).
We all know though that form often goes out of the window on these occasions, and their is nothing like getting your season going by beating your local rivals. Everton will be well up for this match, and it will not be easy.
October begins on the first (as always!), and Liverpool face PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League. Based on Matchday One form this should be a fairly routine home win, but you can never under-estimate the opposition in the Champions League, and PSV still have their share of quality.
October 5th sees another tricky away trip to revitalised Manchester City. Liverpool's record at Eastlands is sketchy, and depending on the Everton result this could be a huge game. Games after a Champions League mid-week are never easy, and this will be another tough one. Win at Goodison, and a draw at Eastlands looks decent, lose or draw against the Toffeemen, and a win at City is simply a must.
You can drop points and win the league, no team has ever won every game, and no team ever will, but you can't expect to keep dropping points and win the league, whatever the stage in the season. Sooner or later you need to go on a winning run of 8 matches or more to be taken seriously as contenders.
We then have an International break, never a favourite time of year for Rafa Benitez as he sees most of squad disappear to travel the world and risk injury.
The Premier League returns on 18th October, and Liverpool face Wigan at home. The Latics earned a draw at Anfield in January, and this will be another one of those 'title winners don't draw at home to them' games. Depending on the results against Everton and Man City, three points might be vital just to keep in touch with the leading teams at all.
On Wednesday 22nd October, Liverpool make a visit to the imposing Vicente Calderon stadium to play a dangerous Atletico Madrid side. With ex-reds Pongolle and Garcia among their number, and Torres returning to his old stomping ground, this game will have added spice. It is another very difficult away game, but could be one of relatively minor importance should Liverpool beat PSV on Matchday Two.
If the PSV game is not won, then suddenly it becomes very important to not lose in Madrid.
The next fixture will be a big game no matter what has one before. Away at Stamford Bridge on October 26th. Who knows how Chelsea and Liverpool would have fared before this match, but it will be a huge encounter regardless.
If October has been positive for Liverpool, it will be another chance to cement title challenge credentials, if October has gone badly, it could be the final nail in the Premier League coffin, yet again a very long way from the climax of the season.
Finally October brings Pompey to Anfield, traditionally a comfortable home win for Liverpool, but Peter Crouch will be keen to show Rafa and the Kop what they are missing, and again, it is not an easy fixture.
October 2008 could see the beginning of the end for Rafa Benitez, it is not inconceivable that Liverpool could lose at Everton, Man City, Atletico Madrid and Chelsea, and three or four defeats in the month would surely bring the axe perilously close to Rafa's neck.
Alternatively, it could be the beginning of a special season, where Benitez' plans come to fruition, and Liverpool finally look like potential title winners. It is not inconceivable that they could win at Everton and Eastlands, and get draws at Atletico and Chelsea, as well as maintaining form against the 'lesser' sides to make it a really excellent start to the season.
So which is it Reds fans and others, a glass on its way to being a full pint, or a glass toppling over and close to shattering? We will know by October 31st, so whatever your predictions, remember that it won't be long before you are proved gloriously right, embarassingly wrong, or somewhere in the middle.
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