Only a month ago, there was a mood of doom and gloom as Liverpool could only manage a goalless draw away against Blackburn. This came only a few days after a disappointing 1-1 draw at home with Arsenal and a loss to Besiktas in the Champions League. Results were inconsistent, we just could not break down stubborn opposition, and the press was full of the usual talk of a crisis at Anfield. How could this have happened so suddenly, especially after the bright start to the season up until the first international break in September?
In our first four Premier League fixtures, we scored eleven and only conceded two (both of which were penalties). We managed to pick up ten points out of a possible twelve, and so of course the future looked really bright. But, when we returned from that first international break, we went on a run of seven matches where we scored a mere six and conceded four, picking up a measly total of eleven points from a possible twenty one. Results in the Champions League were equally disappointing with only one point from the first three matches, and a goal deficit with two for and four against. It looked as though we were on our way out of Europe in the first round, which hasn’t happened since Gerard Houllier’s time. The entire season appeared to be falling apart in front of our eyes, which was all the more difficult to accept after such a great beginning. Goals just wouldn’t come and points were being dropped against supposedly lesser sides than us. But, there was at least a silver lining in the fact that after our first eleven matches we were still unbeaten, and were within a few points of the league leaders. That’s in stark contrast to the last few campaigns where we were effectively out of contention in the Premiership several weeks before this point in time. We had one of the lowest goals against totals, with six clean sheets, and we also had one of the best away records so far in the season which dispelled some of the fears of previous years. We also had some positive results in the League Cup, which put us into the quarter-finals, equalling last season’s progress in that competition. Some of us (a small minority as far as I can tell) were thinking that perhaps this so-called crisis wasn’t so bad after all, and we might be able to come out of this slump in form even stronger than ever.
That’s exactly what did happen, with a run of results that would be the envy of any club in Europe, never mind in England. In our last five matches – three in the Premier League and two in the Champions League – we have scored an amazing twenty one goals, while only conceding one. That’s four clean sheets out of five, a goal difference of plus twenty, and maximum points giving us a run of fourteen league games without defeat. We have the lowest goals against, second highest goals for, and equal best goal difference with league leaders Arsenal. We’re now being mentioned again as genuine title contenders, as well as being favourites to go through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Our 4-0 win over Bolton last Sunday put us in a fantastic position in the standings, with a week without any matches to be played and a few days time for some much needed rest to get ready for the month to come.
This coming Saturday begins a stretch of thirty days that will be the make-or-break for the rest of the season. We have a total of nine matches to be played over that time, six in the Premier League and one each for the three cup competitions. It all begins away at Reading on Saturday, December 8th, and is followed three days later away at Marseille for our crucial Champions League match on December 11th. Both of them are effectively must-wins as we don’t want to drop any more points in the Premiership, and of course we want to continue in Europe.
|9 games in 30 days|
|Reading (away) Dec 8
Marseille (away) Dec 11
Man United (home) Dec 16
Chelsea (away, Carling Cup) Dec 19
Portsmouth (home) Dec 22
Derby Country (away) Dec 26
Man City (home) Dec 30
Wigan (away) Jan 2
FA Cup 3rd Round (away) Jan 6
It’s often been pointed out that if you want to win the Premier League, then you have to have a respectable record against the big four. We’ve had to accept 1-1 draws at home to both Chelsea and Arsenal, and our opportunity to test ourselves against Manchester United comes up just five days after Marseille, on December 16th. We hope to be in buoyant mood when we return from France, and we have one more day of rest than United before we face them. But, they are already through in Europe and will be resting key players as they prepare for us. If we can win that one, then we will be equal on points with a better goal difference (assuming we both have equal results this coming weekend) plus a game in hand.
Our next fixture is another big one, with a trip to Stamford Bridge for our League Cup quarter-final match, which comes on December 19th, only three days after our date with United. It doesn’t get a lot easier after that, with the usual crammed fixture list over the Christmas and New Year period, where we have four Premier League matches in eleven days. That stretch begins and ends at home, against Portsmouth on December 22nd and Wigan on January 1st. In between those two we have trips to Derby on December 26th and Manchester City on December 30th. None of these should be considered as easy fixtures, and all of them are definite opportunities to pick up as many points as possible.
The usual outcome of this congestion in the fixture list is that the League table starts to take some definite shape by the end of the calendar year. It’s our chance to put some distance between us and the rest, and set the pattern for the remainder of the season. By the time that January comes, we will have already completed more than half the season (twenty out of thirty eight) and we’ll see who are the contenders and who are the pretenders. As it has often been pointed out, we have a reputation (backed up with a clear record) of finishing the season stronger than the rest. It’s therefore vital for us to have a good position in the Premier League to begin the New Year, where we can start to look down at who’s chasing us instead of the other way around.
One more very important match comes early in 2008, which is of course our first appearance in the FA Cup for this season on January 6th. As of today, we don’t know yet whether it will be a trip to Luton or to Nottingham Forest. That will be determined on December 11th (which is the same day as our Champions League decider). That’s something that we don’t have to be too concerned about for now; we can worry about that one when we get closer to it.
Speaking of worrying, there’s also a certain meeting that’s scheduled to take place on December 16th, that was looking so crucial to the club’s future a few days ago and has been all but forgotten in view of recent events and results. It could be a meeting of minds, or it could be a banging of heads. Let’s hope that all of those alleged differences of opinion between the various parties can be resolved satisfactorily, and that we can then move on and concentrate on what’s really important ‘“ winning trophies.
It’s going to be a true test of our abilities and our strength of character over the next month. We really wouldn’t have it any other way, would we? It’s what separates the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, or more accurately the Champions from the also-rans. Right now we are one of the few clubs who can say that we are preparing for competition on four fronts – I hope we’re still saying that after this thirty day period comes to an end.