The Joy of Six

While we have to keep in mind that it’s early in the season, and of course there’s still an awful long way to go to determine the eventual champions, we can’t help but be overjoyed with the start to this campaign. We’ve now played in six competitive matches, with two in the 3rd Qualifying Round for the Champions League, and four in the Premier League. In all, we’ve played three at home and three away allowing for a well balanced evaluation of how we look so far.

Before we look in a little more detail at this season, let’s take a moment and cast our minds back to early last season and then see how we compare. Our first six competitive games included two Champions League qualifiers against Maccabi Haifa, 2-1 at home and 1-1 away, putting us in the draw for the Champions League first round proper (group stage). We’d brought in players like Craig Bellamy, a proven goal scorer, and also managed to sort out the work permit for Mark Gonzalez, bringing us some added speed on the left and allowing for more options in team selection. Both of them looked good in pre-season, and looked even better on their competitive debuts as they scored a goal each against Maccabi Haifa.

In between those two, we had the 2-1 win over Chelsea in the Charity Shield, which had us drooling with anticipation for our first Premier League match of the season away at newly promoted Sheffield United. We had every reason to believe that we were genuine contenders for the Premiership, especially after serving notice that we could beat the two time defending champions with a starting XI that didn’t include Gerrard or Alonso. But then something went terribly wrong.

We had to fight back from 1-0 down at Bramall Lane with a dubious penalty to salvage a point. Our second Premier League match was better, but not by much, as we had to come from behind again for a 2-1 home win over West Ham. Then followed the disaster to beat all disasters for the season, as we fell 3-0 to Everton at Goodison ‘“ that was a humiliation that we would suffer for the remainder of the season. Three Premier League matches played with one win, one draw, and one loss. We managed to score three goals, but conceded five for a goal difference of minus two. If we add in the two Champions League qualifiers, and the Charity Shield, to make up our first six matches, it doesn’t improve all that much. Six games played with three wins, two draws, and one loss. We scored a total of eight goals in those six games, but also conceded eight goals. It wasn’t the start to the season that we had hoped for and had been expecting, but at least we could say that it was early days and we should look forward to the usual strong finish. That didn’t quite happen as we expected either, but that’s another story.

Earlier this year we finally settled the investment issue, with new co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks coming in with the promise of a new era of success for Liverpool. True to their word they arranged the funds to bring in new players like Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel, and Yossi Benayoun. We looked really good in pre-season, with a few pleasant surprises including Andriy Voronin who quickly showed that he wasn’t here merely as a squad player. Our first real test for this season was to be another away fixture to open our campaign, this time at Villa Park.

Our three previous seasons under Rafa have all started with a single point, against teams that we should have been able to beat if we wanted to be considered as serious challengers. But, the omens were looking good for this season as the last time we won our first away match was back in 2002, which was also at Villa Park. If we could do it again, then we should be off and running, and full of confidence. The 2-1 result was just what we needed, especially after the disappointment of giving up a penalty which allowed Villa to draw level. Gerrard’s spectacular winning goal from a free-kick gave us not just a win, but also showed that this time around we’re not going to settle for a single point when we can go for all three.

Since then we’ve had the two Champions League qualifiers, with an aggregate score of 5-0, as well as a disappointing draw at home to Chelsea and a 2-0 win away at Sunderland. The draw against the former champions was a case of being robbed by a very questionable (and ultimately agreed as mistaken) penalty call by referee Rob Styles. He was later dropped from officiating, while we dropped two points that we should have gained. So far so good, in spite of some complaints and disappointments, and then we come up against Derby County at home.

In the pre-game press conference before this match, Rafa made a few insightful statements about the season so far. He began by saying how pleased he was with the new signings (just as we all are) and how he is also very pleased with the performance of all of his players. When he was asked about whether he thought we were genuine contenders this year, as was being widely suggested in the press, he shrugged it off by saying that it’s too early to talk about that. But, more tellingly, he also agreed with one reporter saying that of course he’s happy that when people are talking about the possible contenders for this season that Liverpool are seriously considered among them.

Rafa then went on to say that this season would be different, in the sense that we would go out and attack more, and would continue to attack even if we are already two or three goals up. In Saturday’s match, that policy was demonstrated with devastating effect, resulting in a six goal display that gave Derby no chance. As if to emphasise the new ‘œtake no prisoners’ policy of attack, Andriy Voronin was brought on as a third striker to join Kuyt and Torres in the seventy third minute, when we were already four-nil ahead. This season promises more of the same, and there’ll be no complaints from any of us if we see the same results.

Now that we’ve played six competitive matches for this season, we can see the vast improvement over the same period from last season. From those first six we’ve had five wins and one draw, with sixteen goals scored and only two conceded ‘“ both of which came from penalties and not from open play. For the Premier League alone we’ve won three and drawn one, with eleven goals for and two against. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a fantastic start. We not only find ourselves in first place as the weekend comes to a close, but we also have a game in hand on both Manchester United and Chelsea – the two sides that were considered to be the most likely champions at the end of this season.

We’ve also shown the rest of the league that we’re going to continue to be as solid at the back as in previous seasons, while going forward to attack and score more goals than before. We have a goal difference of plus nine, with the nearest to that being plus four for Arsenal (Chelsea and Manchester United are both plus one). For the first time in many seasons, the rest of the league has genuine reason to fear us. We have the international break now that gives us a couple of weeks to savour our success, and that also allows Carragher, and one or two others to have a rest and recover from any injuries; and of course I’m hoping that Steve McLaren doesn’t risk Gerrard in the upcoming England qualifiers. Two more weeks is also that much closer to the return of Fabio Aurelio and Harry Kewell. If we are scaring the opposition now, what will it be like when we return to League play with a full squad?

Yes it’s early in the season, but the future hasn’t looked this bright for many years. Let’s take the pleasure of it now, and then we’ll see what comes at the climax of the season.

Keith Perkins