Another season passes off into the sunset and what to make of it all. August, and a fresh new season with exciting new talent and the promise of a true challenge for honours, seems barely a moment ago, and yet some much has happened in the mean time. Some magic moments from Fernando, six against Derby, some valiant battles with the other ‘big four, the double over the blues, the disappointment of Old Trafford, the grit and class of Mascherano, the operatic drama and atmosphere of the Arsenal tie, a few inspirational moments from the captain, Riise’s moment of madness, so nearly a trip to Moscow, and yet more Torres goals; and of course the ever present off -field soap opera. So how can we sum up the 2007/08 season? and what moments will we remember or hope to forget? Success or failure, or perhaps just somewhere in between?
‘Somewhere in between’ perhaps appears the accurate summation. In the context of the club’s illustrious history it will not, of course, be a season that lives long in the memory. A failure to win silverware for two consecutive seasons now (the longest spell without a trophy since 2001) is not a particularly appealing statistic, nor is the fact that we again have to settle for the consolation of Champions league qualification. And most disconcerting of all of course is the shadow of boardroom uncertainty which continues to lurk over the club and will continue to hinder any progress at all levels until a solution is reached, whatever that may involve. However progress on the pitch is there for all to see. The stand-out positive of the season must surely be finally capturing that illusive, not only 20, but 30 goal-a-season striker, in the form a Fernando Torres. Torres has been a revelation in his first season in the Premier League; his tremendous 33 goal haul probably doesn’t befit finishing a season empty-handed. Cristiano Ronaldo may have earned the plaudits of the masses, but for Torres to score so many goals in his very first season in a foreign country (smashing the record previously held by Ruud van Nistlerooy), without the aid of penalty kicks, and to look so classy and at ease in the process is an outstanding achievement. The even more encouraging fact is that, at a relatively young age and with much still to learn, it appears our number 9 can only get better.
|Skrtel has been rock solid|
Some of Rafa’s other recent signings have also made a promising impression, even if doing so without the plaudits. Martin Skrtel has been rock solid, barring his shocking debut against Havant & Waterlooville – which we will forgive him for nerves and a lack of match practice. He has barely put a foot wrong and has been a major factor in the generally improved defensive performance in the second half of the season. An intriguing battle could be forming for the two central defensive berths next season, what with Skrtel’s impressive start, hopefully a fit-again Daniel Agger, Sami Hyypia’s renaissance and of course Jamie Carragher’s priceless leadership. Elsewhere, Ryan Babel is a player that has divided opinion more often than not this season. Personally I think he has shown signs of his vast potential, particularly with his increased involvement during the latter half of the season. He is certainly a raw talent who could improve in many areas, but if he is to continue to progress in the present manner then he will add an exciting attacking dimension for the new season. Andriy Voronin certainly hasn’t been the greatest of successes, although he did afterall arrive on a free transfer and was injured for a large chunk of the season. Yossi Benayoun has proven that he can act as a useful squad, if never really looking like a first team regular. He is a tricky player who can make things happen, as he proved at Stamford Bridge, and is willing to work hard as is the Benitez way. Another of the new players, Lucas Leiva, has looked competent without appearing capable of providing anything special in attack or defence. But he is a young player and lets not forget a full Brazilian international, which must stand for something, and his increasing involvement in the first team can only aid his progress.
|Money well spent|
Aside from the new faces, the performances of the most recent permanent signing have been one of the major positives of the season. The Â£18.6m paid out for Javier Mascherano is money well spent. He has been a rock in the centre of the field this season and the future of Liverpool should undoubtedly be constructed around the likes of Mascherano and Torres as well as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. The consistency of Pepe Reina this season has also been hugely integral but often understated. Reina can now perhaps be considered the best goalkeeper in the league. So clearly there is a great deal to be optimistic about amongst the playing staff. And all this without barely mentioning two key men – Gerrard and Carragher. Whilst this one may not rank amongst Gerrard’s very best seasons – purely due to his exceptionally high standards – he has still been able to amass 21 goals in all competitions and has again been considered amongst the best players in the England. Gerrard’s influence in some of the biggest games this season perhaps hasn’t been as great as we would have liked but the presence of players such as Torres to take the full burden away from the captain is a plus point. As for the vice-captain, its fair to say that his early season form was not the best, but after so many consecutive seasons of consistence maybe you could allow him a lapse in form. Carragher’s leadership role within the team and the club should never be underestimated however, and in fairness his general performance did return to its usual high level as the season progressed.
A fourth placed finish in the league and another failure to mount a sustained title challenge is a definate underachievement. Two overriding factors are dictated the short comings in the league this season. Firstly, an inability to kill certain games off, particularly in the first half of the season, resulting in too many games being drawn when they should have ended in victories. To only lose 4 matches all season is a decent effort and is in fact one less than the Mancs and only one more than both Chelsea and Arsenal, but a total of 13 draws has been costly, and games at home to Birmingham, Wigan, Aston Villa and even Chelsea all spring to mind. The second, and most decisive, factor has been our continued inability to get a win against one of our top four rivals. We were leading in both matches against Arsenal and Chelsea home and away could have both easily ended in a Liverpool win. But it is these small details that result in the 11 point gap behind the league champions come May. 11 points is at least an improvement on last season (21 points) as is this seasons final total of 76 points (68 last season). But reverse the two defeats against Man United this season into two wins and Liverpool would have finished 1 point ahead of the Mancs rather than 11 behind!
As for other competitions, defeat at home to Barnsley in the FA Cup was disastrous, particularly when you considered the teams that eventually progressed to the latter stages of the tournament that was a clear opportunity for a trophy missed. That freak result against Barnsley actually appeared to help trigger a strong end to the season, but to struggle against lower league opposition in all 3 rounds of the cup was inexplicable. The obligatory good European run almost end in a third Champions League final in just 4 years, and what an achievement that would have been. The achievement of getting to yet another European semi-final should not be underestimated, particularly when the run included excellent victories over great sides such as Inter Milan and Arsenal. Its interesting to see how much our expectations as fans have changed in just a few short. Reaching the Champions League semi-final in 2005 was lauded as an astounding success – which of course it was – and to go on to not only defeat Chelsea but also win the tournament was purely the stuff of dreams. Fast forward a few short years, strewn with vast European achievement, and the anticipation of a Champions League semi-final is treated more as a matter of course with very real expectations of winning the tournament again.
|Moment of madness|
However reaching the last four of the biggest club competition in the continent must surely remain a similarly great achievement. As it happened Liverpool played better football over the two legs than they did in either of the two previously successful European semi’s plastic, flag waving West Londoners and probably even deserve the right to suggest that the Reds were just about the better team over the fiercely contested two matches. But perhaps 4 semi-final victories over Chelsea in just 4 seasons was a little too much to ask for! In the end it unfortunately probably was John Arne Riise’s (one player whose sell-by date is certain to be up this summer – in fact it probably was 2 years ago) moment of madness in the first leg that was costly, although there is also reasonable strength behind the argument that we should have been 2-0 up before that even happened. Anyway, just maybe it was a blessing in disguise letting Man United and Chelsea scrap it out in the outrageously over-priced setting of Moscow, whilst we concentration on winning it next year in Rome! (We can always live in hope, afterall we always win in Rome!)
So just how can the gap between comfortable Champions league qualification and winning the league title – or at least mounting a serious challenge – be breeched next season? Its an persistent nagging dilemma, and of course has been for many years now. I truth I don’t feel we are too far away. As I have said its just small details that make the difference between sustaining a realistic title challenge and fading away. Reverting those details in our favour will require signing more players with the quality and winning mentality of some of those already at the club (Gerrard, Torres, Reina, Carragher, Mascherano etc.). Whether the off-field wrangling and the size of the funds allow this to happen is a whole other question! Changes are required over the summer and given the funds Rafa should be trusted to make the correct decisions. All-in-all the current spine of the of the team is a match for any team in the country, if not the world, but improving quality and depth in the wide areas is likely to be the focus of efforts, and another top quality goal scorer would always be beneficial. Some players are certain to leave – Riise, Harry Kewell – and Peter Crouch, rather disappointingly, may also imminently join this list. If Crouch is to leave than a striker able to score the regular goals that Crouch is capable of will be a must. Xabi Alonso, Steve Finnan and Jermaine Pennant have all also been touted amongst those potentially leaving the club. Whilst these are far from certainties, selling such players will only be beneficial if players of a significantly higher standard are recruited as replacements. It seems likely that players will have to be sold in order to fund moves in the transfer market. As for new signings, aside from the obvious approach for Gareth Barry, wide men are top of the agenda, and David Bentley has been strongly linked, a player who would be ideal for the current system, other good options could include Martin Petrov from Manchester City and Daniel Alves from Sevilla could provide other options. Although, as usual there are likely to be one or two unexpected moves by Rafa Benitez over the summer.
|Promise is evident throughout the club…|
The 2007/08 will unfortunately be remembered predominantly for the wrong reasons. The shocking nature in which the clubs ownership is being dealt with is threatening to undermine the entire club and any potential future progress. 2007/08 may not be a stand-out years in the history of Liverpool football club, but it could be a crucial one in the future of the football club. Promise is evident throughout the club, not just in the first team squad. The success of the reserve team this season adds to the FA Youth Cup triumphs of 2006 and 2007, with exciting young players such as Emiliano Insua, Krisztian Nemeth and Damien Plessis, amongst others, all touted for increased first team involvement next term. If the first team and youth talent is invested in over the summer then the club are capable of challenging for honours next season and beyond. However, if the boardroom saga is not resolved swiftly and critical investment and development fails to be injected into the club, then the club risks stagnating, and that can only lead to decline. This summer is therefore certain to be a crucial and telling one! August will be here again before you know it, time now to rest, take stock and anticipate another roller coaster season ahead.