With the relative boredom of international football out of the way, attention for all Reds can now turn to the important stuff and this weekend sees Liverpool continuing with their late charge towards European football. A charge that had until recently looked highly unlikely, but one that now offers real hope for many.
Having already experienced the agony brought about by their earlier elimination from both domestic cup competitions, the lacklustre home draw against Braga combined with an even poorer display and one-nil reverse suffered in Portugal had seen Liverpool’s last chance of lifting silverware this season completely disappear and along with it helped to push the prospect of participating in European football next season almost out of sight.
With three out of the four potential routes into European competition firmly closed off to them, Liverpool players could only focus their combined attentions on the sole remaining and final route in, namely a top five finish. A route that despite being a possibility could by no means be described as an easy task for either the manager or players to navigate.
The fact that this route seemed a possibility, however remote, is itself a real testament to the successful upturn in performances witnessed under Kenny Dalglish’s leadership.
The likelihood was (and may still be) that the numerous poor performances, dire tactics and ultimately the regular disappointing results and points tally, achieved under what can only be described as a nice but ultimately awful Liverpool manager, would mean that a top five finish would prove a challenge too great for both Dalglish and the players to overcome.
Liverpool approached the weekends away fixture at Sunderland knowing that with Tottenham occupying fifth place, sitting 6-points ahead and holding a game in hand over the reds it would take a pretty monumental effort from all involved with the club if they were to succeed in overhauling ‘Arrys boys and finishing the season in a European qualifying position.
Things can change quickly in football and with an excellent performance and 3-points secured by Liverpool, West Ham’s surprisingly holding Spurs to a draw at White Hart Lane reduced Tottenhams advantage to 4-points. The outlook suddenly looks rosier and that route has begun to look a little more passable.
Still, it’s going to require Liverpool display a huge effort in probably each and every one of the eight remaining games. Eight huge games, eight massive games and eight games that some might even describe as cup finals.
Although I doubt very much that Kenny or anyone now associated with the club will make any such public declarations regarding the scale of the challenge at hand.
Nine years ago under very different management the club also found themselves eliminated from what was then the UEFA cup at the hands of Celtic and again facing a battle to achieve European (Champions League) qualification for the following season. At this time, Gerard Houllier chose to drop the weight of expectation firmly onto the shoulders of the team and succeeded only in creating an increased sense of the enormity of the task ahead. Houllier publicly stating at the time that…
“I have told the players that the European journey for this season is over. All we hope now is that Celtic go on to win the UEFA Cup and that we qualify for next season’s Champions League”
“If we do that then I will regard this season as being a successful one”
“We have eight games to play and they are going to be like eight European Cup finals for us. We know what we have to do”
Liverpool did manage to qualify for European competition the following season, however, not in the Champions League as had been the goal, instead falling short in their ‘Eight European Cup finals’ and managing a fifth place finish and a return to the UEFA Cup.
In hindsight it would seem that Houllier’s comments weren’t necessarily inspired, especially you consider that this wasn’t the first time that the manager had decided to try and inspire his side in this way.
In only the previous season and at pretty much the same stage in the campaign Houllier had voiced his thoughts and chosen to assert that his team was a mere
“10-games away from greatness”
His first in a series of very public end-of-season rallying cries coming in the Spring of 2002. Albeit this time his now famous/infamous comments referred to a Liverpool side sitting a solitary point from first place in the league and a side that had just secured their place in that seasons Champions League Quarter-Finals.
Ultimately this statement proved to be folly and a side that had rightly been harboring ambitions of claiming the Premier League Title and/or achieving European Cup glory saw their season unravel, starting with elimination from the Champions League in the quarter-final stages at the hands of Bayer Leverkusen and finishing 2nd place and 7-points behind winners Arsenal as their league challenge fell away. Greatness was not quite achieved.
Some years have now passed since either of these rallying cries were first made as have the names of more than a couple of managers.
Whilst the timings of both statements during the league run-ins of 2002 and 2003 can be considered as being made at a very similar stage in the league and European program to that of the current side, any real similarities between the either predicaments the team found themselves in and the situation facing the current team are quite few are far between. Probably the only similarity being the size of the challenge ahead and the number of league games actually left in the campaign.
Certainly one difference will be the manner that the manager will choose to rally his troops. Instead of building up the enormity of the task and placing extra pressure on the side, he will do what he has done throughout his time at Liverpool, and that’s to take things one game at a time.
If any evidence of that was ever needed it was clearly provided by Dalglish’s comments in the immediate aftermath to Liverpool’s Europa elimination when he said…
“I don’t know if going out of the Europa League is going to help”
“The Europa League was an option for us to get back in it next year if we had won it”
“We will do our best to get as much as we can out of every game so I don’t know whether it will be a blessing or not”
“It is a disappointment if we are not in Europe but you only get there if you win games so it is up to us to win games”
“It is very difficult to predict how many points you are going to need for anything”
“For relegation, for European qualification, to win a Championship – you don’t know what anyone else is going to do or how many points they are going to pick up”
“The next game is the important one, and at the end of the year we will add up the points and see where it has landed us”
“If we win enough games and get enough points we will be in Europe”
The teams’ response with victory at Sunderland and the 2-point gain on Spurs can only give them more belief and encouragement. If Tottenham do continue to slip up we’ve got to make sure that we take full advantage.
Liverpool can take satisfaction from the fact they still have a home game against Tottenham to play and the added positives to take from the potentially prospect of Tottenham suffering more post Champions League fatigue related setbacks in at least two more league games this season, maybe more. Tottenhams continued involvement in the Champions League ensuring four difficult games in the space of 16-days with Spurs travelling to Madrid prior to a home game against Stoke and then hosting Real just days before taking on Arsenal at White Hart Lane.
Undoubtedly these games will take their strain and we must hope that their European exploits might result in them picking up of fewer points in the immediate league games. When you also consider that Spurs must undertake remaining away trips to Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool then the chances of the Reds sneaking up on the rails looks much brighter still.
There are certainly enough reasons to believe that whatever might happen the possibility of a top five finish will survive long enough to keep the side looking forward and fighting to the end of the season.
It’s going to be a big ask and a big challenge for the side but it could be a lot bigger, can you imagine what you might hear from Houllier?
After a dismal start this campaign it’s Liverpool’s final eight games and performances that ultimately dictate the teams destiny.
I for one am confident that if any manager is capable of rallying the players, in the right way, then it’s Dalglish. There are eight games to play, eight performances to muster and very likely eight Cup final wins will be required, but with a lot of hard work and a fair bit of good fortune it may just be that the crop of 2010/12 can attain something that given the start experienced to the season, can only be described as greatness; however relative.