Reds improvement continues

Liverpool’s win over Manchester City yesterday sees them move up to seventh in the table, but to give a more realistic view to their status, they are now four points behind second-placed Arsenal, with a game in hand. Chelsea are still way in front in first place and psychologically for Liverpool it is better to look at the chance they have to improve on last season’s dismal finish in fifth place.

The win was Liverpool’s sixth consecutive game unbeaten, an achievement that seemed unlikely to ever happen when Liverpool’s week of doom and gloom was making them look more like relegation candidates than Champions League contenders for the knee-jerk reactors. That week saw them beaten in the League at Fulham, and knocked out of the Carling Cup by Crystal Palace. In the six games since they’ve kept six clean sheets, and the only game they failed to win was against Real Betis midweek when a draw was the target to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League.

Chelsea benefited from the draw with Betis – if Betis had won then qualification would only be decided on the last day of the group stages and the clash between Liverpool and Chelsea would have been as important as last season’s meeting in the competition. Now the two English sides meet in a game that could look more like a League Cup match than a Champions League clash. Both sides were finalists in last season’s League Cup, but both are out of it at the first hurdle this time round. This means the European match will give both managers a last chance for some time to try out lesser names and rest the bigger names. Liverpool’s lack of "country protection" means that they could still be in line for English opposition in those Champions League last-sixteen matches, with Arsenal already through and Manchester United facing Benfica to get themselves through.

Liverpool’s league game-in-hand will be played on Wednesday when they travel to Sunderland to face Mick McCarthy’s troubled side. Sunderland are bottom of the table, with just five points from fourteen games. It has all the hallmarks of an upset, one that Liverpool fans have grown used to in recent seasons. Rafa Benitez says Liverpool are improving, and the match with Sunderland is the sort that they need to win – and win well – to prove it.

John Arne Riise’s goal yesterday was well taken after the played had looked to be struggling with injury throughout the game. It was his first goal since that opener in last season’s Carling Cup final. Liverpool’s performance was good enough for them to deserve the victory, but not good enough for Reds fans to feel comfortable during the game. After the game Benitez pointed out that the main thing was that they won: "The most important thing is the result and we deserved to win the game. The players worked really hard in the first half and then played really well in the second half. We controlled the second half and played some good football and passed the ball well. In the first half the idea was to use the pace of Cisse linking with Crouch holding up the ball for us. I changed it in the second half and Harry Kewell came on and played well between the lines." Cisse looked bemused when he was taken off with just six minutes of the second half gone, but Rafa explained it was something he’d already planned to do: "The idea was to control the game in the first half and then use fresh legs in the second half to attack more." Rafa seems pleased with the six consecutive clean sheets: "I am happy with the way we are playing and we have a good balance. We are defending much better home and away and we are attacking and creating chances."

Stuart Pearce is still learning as a manager, and feels his team is still learning too. He knows where they are going wrong, he now just has to put it right: "The key for us is to provide the service to Andy Cole and Darius Vassell. We didn’t do that and we have to try and improve that area. We matched them in the first-half, but in the second they had more nous. We have to acquire that know-how and learn how to keep possession in certain areas of pitches."