Either by accident or design—and different observers, with different agendas, might argue it either way—it seemed Brendan Rodgers was in the spotlight almost as much as usual during the recent international break.
International fixtures usually focuses the media's attention exclusively on national team matters, giving club bosses a blessed break from the spotlight. But the Liverpool manager remained resolutely a focal point, as the treatment of two of his key players was dissected endlessly in the media.
It started with Daniel Sturridge. The striker withdrew from England availability in a continuation of the spat that saw the Northern Irishman effectively blame Roy Hodgson and his England coaching staff for the injury the striker sustained during the previous international break. That was compounded last week, when Hodgson revealed 19-year-old Raheem Sterling was “tired” and thus left on the bench for the qualifier against Estonia.
Cue claim and counter-claim from club and country over the issues surrounding the two players and how Hodgson handles his squad during national team meetups.
A cynic might suggest that the twin debates have served as a convenient distraction from Liverpool’s start to the season, which has seen them win just three of their opening seven league games. Throwing the spotlight on the form and fitness of two of his key players, rather than his squad as a whole, has helped dampen some of the criticism Rodgers could have faced for that start.
In a way, the international break might have come at a good time for Rodgers. It allowed him to go on the attack in the media. On Friday, he said (per The Independent):
I'm fed up reading about this club v country row, claims we intervened and put pressure on Roy Hodgson.
I've read we sent dossiers to the FA on Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge and I'm having showdown talks with Roy Hodgson on Sunday and all sorts of rubbish. The decision not to play him was a managerial decision. I haven't said a single word but have to say I have never seen such rubbish written over the last few days...
At no point did Raheem Sterling say he didn't want to play for England. The boy is being hung out to dry and I dare say the criticism will continue for a few more weeks to come because of this.
Now—at last—it's back to the business at hand. Sturridge should be back to fitness (or very close to it), while Sterling should presumably be over much of his fatigue after playing less than 90 minutes of football in the last two weeks. Rodgers can no longer use England as a shield with which to deflect attention away from his own side's disappointing start to the campaign.
That leaves just one remaining defence: the form of summer signing Mario Balotelli. The Italian attracts attention and intrigue whatever he does, but his goalless start to life at Anfield has made him another convenient focal point to any discussions about Liverpool’s underwhelming start—over and above the similarly lukewarm arrivals of Lazar Markovic, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert.
Perhaps that is why Rodgers seemed to suggest last week that the decision to sign Balotelli was not his alone. As an example of man management, it was perhaps not the best option. But as a matter of political spin, it helped steer the conversation away from more general questions about his recent managerial decisions.
Even Balotelli himself acknowledge that his first couple of months at Anfield have been less than stellar.
The Italian acknowledged, per the Liverpool Echo:
I need to get in the box more. I can see already that the Liverpool fans really like me, although I know that maybe they are a little upset because I don’t score. I see they appreciate that I am working hard, though, which is nice for me.
With the return of actual games, though, all those machinations must take a back seat to cold, hard results. Even if the game is at Loftus Road, a match against QPR—arguably the team guilty of the worst performances so far this season—is one the Reds really should be winning.
Over the next month, Liverpool go on to play Hull, Newcastle, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Stoke City. It will be a key stretch for them, as they look to kick-start their season without any external distractions.
Week 8 fixtures
All games 3 p.m. BST (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated.
Manchester City vs. Tottenham (12:45 p.m. BST)
Arsenal vs. Hull City
Burnley vs. West Ham
Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea
Everton vs. Aston Villa
Newcastle United vs. Leicester City
Southampton vs. Sunderland
QPR vs. Liverpool (1:30 p.m.)
Stoke City vs. Swansea City (4 p.m.)
West Brom vs. Manchester United (8 p.m.)
1. What to watch out for this week
Who is still in the title race?
Even at this early stage, it is obvious that Chelsea and Manchester City are both genuine Premier League title contenders—just as they were last season. But the noises out of Old Trafford are equally bullish, despite finishing seventh last season and starting this campaign in less than emphatic fashion.
"Everything takes time but if we start to understand the way of playing like we are doing and the results are positive and everything starts to run smoothly, then for sure we have the chance to win the title,” defender Rafael told Sky Sports this week.
It is an interesting point to consider. United are currently eight points behind Chelsea and three behind their local rivals after a recent uptick in results. They play both sides over the next few weeks. If they win both meetings—along with Monday’s visit to West Brom—it is not inconceivable that, by the end of that run, they could have leapfrogged Manuel Pellegrini’s side and eased within a point or two of the Blues. Then they would certainly be in the midst of the title race.
Achieving all that won't be easy, and obviously two defeats in the coming weeks would leave them almost irreparably off the pace. But for now, Manchester United cannot be dismissed lightly.
"We have three difficult games against West Brom away, after this we face Chelsea, and then Manchester City in their stadium,” Rafael added. “These games will be very important for us.”
Saints' start primed to continue?
Southampton return to action against Sunderland this weekend, hot on the heels of Graziano Pelle and Ronald Koeman winning the Player of the Month and Manager of the Month awards for September, respectively.
After the high-profile exodus of so many players and staff in the summer, not one of those departed individuals is currently above the third-placed Saints in the Premier League table. How long can Koeman and Co. keep that up?
Blues' revenge could send a statement
League leaders Chelsea will travel to Selhurst Park this weekend to take on Crystal Palace, a game they lost 1-0 last season. On that occasion, a John Terry own goal condemned the Blues to defeat in one of the most memorable victories of an unforgettable campaign for the Eagles.
That result and other similar losses (to Aston Villa and Sunderland) in the title run-in were cited as the primary reason for the Blues' eventual failure. Jose Mourinho, a master of producing tactical plans for games against big sides, appeared unable to prepare his side to break down teams themselves.
This time around, of course, Mourinho has Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa to add that extra dimension. Revenge over Crystal Palace, especially by an emphatic scoreline, could send a message to the rest.
That elusive first win
Only two sides are yet to claim their first win of the season: Newcastle and Burnley. Both sides are at home this weekend, against Leicester City and West Ham, respectively. If you wanted a better chance to get a first win on the board, you would have to look pretty hard to find it.
“I’ve had some real dark days here recently,” Newcastle boss Alan Pardew said this week (per The Guardian). “I don’t think I’ve lost a dressing room before but sometimes you can be slightly misguided because you’re always thinking positively and think people are behind you.
“But certainly there have been signs that the players are desperate for a win. They are making mistakes rather than not wanting to win.”
Approaching the quarter mark of the season, it is still soon for panic to set in (especially for Newcastle). But it is getting increasingly imperative for both sides to acquire that first three-point haul.
2. Video of the week
3. Player to watch
He has had a lot to say in recent weeks with the publication of his new autobiography (heinously titled #2sides). He will also face an FA charge for the use of an offensive word in a tweet—an embarrassing example of a 35-year-old man using a variation of a “your mum” retort online.
Amid all of that, and his side gig in punditry, it is easy to forget that Rio Ferdinand is still actually playing football occasionally (although QPR fans might baulk at the use of the word "playing"). Since signing for the London club, the veteran has singularly failed to turn the newly promoted side into a settled defensive unit. His defensive partner Steven Caulker has often been forced into desperate measures to help cover Ferdinand's glaring lapses in concentration and lack of pace.
Ferdinand talked the talk in recent weeks. Against Liverpool on Sunday, he has an opportunity to prove he can still walk the walk too—in a more effective and emphatic manner than anything he could write...or tweet.
4. Game of the weekend
Manchester City vs. Tottenham
When the latest international break rolled around, Manchester City seemed to just be hitting a little bit of form. Despite a few injuries in key positions, Manuel Pellegrini’s side have won three of their five league games since the defeat to Stoke City at the end of August—drawing the other two (against Arsenal and Chelsea).
Tottenham, too, had made steps in the right direction. They looked solid in a 1-0 home win over Southampton just a week after they could have edged to a derby victory over Arsenal.
After an enforced break, both managers would prefer to pick up where they left off against slightly easier opposition. For casual fans, however, it is a great game for the Premier League to return to—last season the two meetings between these sides ended 6-0 and 5-1 (both to City). Surely Mauricio Pochettino can improve on that?