Liverpool play Manchester United on Sunday once again hoping to dent their old rivals’ title hopes rather than boosting their own, and also looking to get three points to help hold onto fourth place.
If the confidence they’re showing off-the-field in interviews translates to confidence on the field then it will be a tough match for the current league-leaders. Over-confidence can be a worry and even an incentive to opponents, but it’s better than the completely shattered confidence on display by Liverpool at the mid-point of the season. That lack of confidence arguably ended any faint hopes Liverpool had of challenging for the league this season.
There’s little doubt that off-field problems have played a major part in the issues on the field. There was the Reading match in December, thrown away with Rafa forced to think of the Champions League fixture that he had to win or be unreasonably sacked a few days later. A week later and the owners who’d been plotting behind Rafa’s back to sack him watched as Liverpool were unable to break down a Manchester United side who’d once again arrived at Anfield hoping – and managing – to snatch a goal against the run of their ultra-defensive play. Rafa had been waiting for a well-publicised meeting with the owners in the build-up to that game, but rather than put him out of his misery and clear the air ahead of the game they waited until the late evening afterwards.
There are of course no guarantees that either game would have been won if the owners hadn’t been interfering in that way, but they were the first league defeats of the season, two of only three in total in the league this season. Still in December and Liverpool struggled to beat Derby on Boxing Day before going on a run of four draws and a defeat (their only other league defeat) against teams they were expected to beat, dropping eleven points from the fifteen on offer. Just before Christmas George Gillett spoke in public about Liverpool FC and didn’t speak again until March. There were reports of refinancing difficulties, which coincided with claims Gillett and his partner Tom Hicks had fallen out, and in the middle of this run came the Klinsmann revelations.
Rafa’s authority was clearly in question, and it’s little wonder if some players were less motivated to perform for their manager. But then Rafa started to make it known that he was now happy with Hicks in charge, that their difficulties were all in the past. Whether he was saying this because it was true or saying it because it was the best way of keeping his job until the ownership situation was resolved only Rafa himself could tell you. There have been other claims – and not just from the Hicks camp – that Gillett was the driving force behind the moves to sack Rafa. With Gillett’s decision to run away from Anfield as his darker side was revealed to the Liverpool fans perhaps Rafa genuinely did feel confident he had the full support of Hicks.
The announcement of the refinancing deal, when complete, included a claim that Hicks now had the full support of the owners, but nobody on the playing side seemed to believe that given their performances against Havant and Waterlooville in the FA Cup the day after, or against West Ham five days later. But soon came the beginning of the club’s return to form.
A 3-0 win over Sunderland was looking unlikely at half-time with the score at 0-0, but by the time the next game was played eight days later Liverpool’s confidence had come back. A 0-0 against Chelsea was an escape for the Stamford Bridge side, helped by the absence of Fernando Torres, injured in the international game that had fallen between the two fixtures. Rafa picked a weaker side for the home FA Cup tie against Barnsley, and certain players probably confirmed their Liverpool careers were now over given their performances, when they could have given Rafa something to think about.
The run of confident victories then began. Liverpool kept plugging away against a defensive Inter Milan side at Anfield and came away with a 2-0 win. Against Middlesbrough it was 3-2, Torres got a hat-trick and Liverpool’s biggest sin was their complacency at 3-1 up when they could have tried to demolish Middlesbrough. Against Bolton Liverpool got off to a slow start, but after a fluke goal gave them the lead went on to win 3-1. West Ham got payback at Anfield, facing a Reds team that were all interested this time – it ended 4-0 and included another Torres hat-trick. Against Newcastle Liverpool made it 13 goals in four games with a 3-0 win. The tie in the Champions League against Inter was finished off with another win, before Reading came to Anfield on Saturday to become the latest victims of Fernando Torres.
That game against Reading saw Liverpool go behind, it was a good goal but from set pieces, and it’s set pieces that have cost Liverpool numerous goals in recent times – and both of their last two defeats at Anfield against Manchester United came from single goals scored from set pieces.
The on-field topic of conversation surrounding Liverpool is of course the form of Torres, but he’s only scored twice away from home in the league. So as well as being wary of set-pieces Liverpool have to be looking at other players to contribute to scoring if they are to win this game.
Alvaro Arbeloa feels Torres can score against United, a team who were often linked with him in the past but never felt he was worth the money. Arbeloa said: “I hope he does. He scored against Inter away so why can’t he score at Old Trafford? He is a great player and he can do it.” And he points out that Liverpool’s captain Steven Gerrard has been getting amongst the goals too of late: “Fernando and Stevie are playing really well, scoring goals and have a good partnership. I think the Manchester United defenders will be really worried.”
Arbeloa himself has worries too – in the shape of United’s Cristiano Ronaldo – saying, “There is no secret to stopping Cristiano. He’s playing well and scoring goals, so it’s very difficult. It’s something for the team. The team has to defend very well together to stop these kinds of players. You worry a little bit when you’re going to be up against Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney because they are fantastic players – but that’s my job. We have big defenders here like Carra, Sami and Fabio. They are great defenders, so I can sleep well.”
Arbeloa says form and confidence are linked: “The game is really difficult but we have confidence in ourselves because we are playing really well now. We need to win and we’ll go to Manchester with this mentality. My teammates are happy and have a lot of confidence. Our performances over the last seven games have been really good and I think we can now go to Old Trafford and win.”
Arbeloa rightly says it’s far too soon to talk about the Champions League final and the possibilities of Sunday’s opponents meeting up in Moscow: “Maybe, maybe, but now we are only thinking about this game. Maybe it will be the final, you never know, but we are not thinking of the Champions League. This is about three points for both teams, no more.”
Arbeloa should be playing at right-back on Sunday, with Steven Finnan doubtful through injury. At left-back there is a good chance that John Arne Riise will return to the action, and he too says Gerrard and Torres could be the key to a Liverpool win. “Gerrard and Torres have a partnership like I’ve never seen before. The two of them are in unbelievable form at the moment, both looking strong and both scoring goals. I wouldn’t say I’m surprised with the way Torres is playing because we knew he was a top striker, but sometimes it can take a while to settle in English football. He hasn’t needed time at all. I know for a fact that defenders hate to play against him because he’s so quick and so strong.
Again, asked if United would be nervous at the prospect of facing the likes of Torres and Gerrard, Riise said they would be, but urged caution: “United will definitely be worried about us because we’re the form side at the moment, but at the same time we have to respect them because they are a top side also.”
The United game signals a run of five games that are all massive. After the United game comes the real derby, against Everton, before a three-game run of meetings with Arsenal in the Champions League and Premier League. “These next couple of weeks are going to be unbelievable,” said Riise. “We are playing top games against top teams but we are looking strong at the moment and so we can’t wait for the matches to come around. This is the sort of run of games you train for and work towards during the season.”
He went on: “There’s still a lot to play for for us as we look to secure fourth place and keep going in the Champions League. We’ve closed the gap on the top teams of late but we still need three teams to mess up if we’re going to get back into the title race. For now I think we have to look to finish fourth and that’s why the derby next weekend is going to be so crucial.”
Liverpool are only three points above fifth-placed Everton, and so can’t afford to drop points against either North West rival in those two games. They are eleven points behind United, but looking at the nature of those dropped points in December and January it’s frustrating to think that a victory on Sunday could have been worth so much more to Liverpool.
A win on Sunday could see Liverpool eight points behind Manchester United, and if Arsenal manage to beat Chelsea the same day in the other top-four clash then Liverpool would be just three points from third place. On the other hand defeat would put Liverpool 14 points off the top and draw Rafa’s critics back from out of the woodwork, not to mention leaving Everton level on points with Liverpool if they won their fixture against West Ham tomorrow, and in a position to overtake the Reds in the following week’s derby.
Expect stories in Sunday’s papers designed to unsettle the squad, but given the confidence on show right now don’t expect those attempts to work. Considering the turmoil Rafa and his players have just been ignoring during their recent run, there’s little left that could really upset them now.