Liverpool travel to Exeter on Wednesday night hoping to improve on a wretched run in domestic cup competitions. Since lifting the FA Cup in 2006 the reds have toiled badly and still await a bow at the new Wembley. They have failed to progress past the fourth round of the Carling Cup since 2007 and not hurdled the fifth round of the FA Cup since their last triumph.
But with European football off the menu for a season supporters expect a greater push for silverware this term. Kenny Dalglish has already earmarked both tournaments as central to Liverpool’s plans and will presumably pick a strong side at St James Park.
Indeed with greater squad depth there is a window to select players on the cusp of the first team and hardly considered second rate. Obviously the likes of Pepe Reina and Luis Suarez will be spared, while Lucas, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll are unlikely to start. But Dalglish’s team selection will nonetheless contain a raft of experience.
Maxi Rodriguez, Fabio Aurelio, Joe Cole, Jay Spearing, perhaps even Raul Meireles, will make-up a side surely strong enough to oversee the League One outfit. Meanwhile proven youngsters such as Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson should be able to continue their development in this second round tie.
For a club the size of Liverpool trophies are a life-blood and we have been starved of such for too long. But a healthy cash-injection, coupled with the ideal manager, mean the team are now well placed to compete on three fronts. A top four finish is evidently the season priority but a return to Anfield South would be a great tonic.
King Kenny collected his fair share of pots during his first stint at Anfield and is well aware of the importance supporters place on the FA Cup particularly. Privately he may accept a title tilt is beyond him but his competitive streak should inspire a better crack at the two additional competitions. As fans we simply wish to banish memories of embarrassing exits at the hands of Northampton and Barnsley!
The campaign itself has started promisingly. A one goal lead was scant reward for a blitzing opening against Sunderland, something which cost us dear as tiredness beset the team in the second half. But a point was hardly a disaster, especially given the positives evidenced in that first 45 minutes.
To follow that stalemate up with a win at Arsenal was magnificent. For all their current frailties the Gunners remain a top class side and not many teams will succeed at the Emirates in 2011/12. The reds were well marshalled and totally bossed proceedings once Emmanuel Frimpong saw red.
Of the new recruits Jose Enrique has settled the best so far. Just two games into his Liverpool career the Spaniard looks completely at ease. He is composed when in possession and ventured forward at the right times on Saturday. Further tests lie ahead defensively but a key problem position appears to have been solved with his signing.
Charlie Adam has also impressed to date. Tellingly he has featured alongside Lucas in a holding role, no doubt with a view to spraying balls across the park in the vein of Xabi Alonso. The one concern with this duo is the lack of outright pace and ingenuity, something Steven Gerrard will add when he finally returns from injury. Adam’s set pieces will also prove a healthy addition to our play. His delivery at the Emirates was strangely awry but generally he can provide excellent service in dead-ball situations.
Jordan Henderson struggled against Sunderland and looked far from comfortable on the right of midfield. He improved against Arsenal and showed some neat touches but will take time to adjust to his new surroundings. His major problem will be featuring in his favoured central role. The aforementioned Lucas and Adam look certainties right now, while Gerrard will always play when fit. Add Meireles to the mix and the situation resembles a lockout. At 21 he has time to establish himself and knows he has the trust of his manager, who forked-out big money to secure his services. It may be worth starting Henderson centrally in midweek and seeing how he fares.
Stewart Downing meanwhile has been a breath of fresh air since signing from Aston Villa. His three friendly appearances all contained flashes of class and his constant movement and versatility have been a feature of the two league fixtures. He will create and score goals for Liverpool and in Anfield he has the perfect platform to prove doubters wrong. The winger’s performances and ammunition will also be crucial to bringing out the best in Andy Carroll, who must start imposing himself on games far more than he has thus far.
The England front-man, though visibly leaner, was overawed by Tomas Varmaelen at the Emirates and must utilise his brute strength when up against such opponents. His mobility too is lacking just now and must be improved if he is to command a starting berth ahead of Dirk Kuyt, who finished last season terrifically.
The brightest spark of all however has clearly been Suarez. Liverpool look a totally different team whenever he features. His movement is brilliant, while his class on the ball adds that creative spark otherwise void. Pairing him with Steven Gerrard in the starting eleven will elevate Liverpool to a new level and hopefully set-up a real assault on Champions League qualification.
That is the Holy Grail this season but collecting a trophy or two en route would be a welcome distraction. It seems strange entering the League Cup at this early stage and the reds will want to ensure a repeat is not forthcoming next year. Winning the competition outright is one way to guarantee that.