It’s the final day of February, which is one of my favorite days of the year. Daylight savings is right around the corner, daily temperatures continue to rise, my golf swing suddenly starts to lose some rust, and we start looking into the “business end” to the Barclay’s Premier League season. No matter what team you root for, it seems like everyone has developed a target to shoot for with only eleven league matches remaining. For Liverpool the actuality is that we’ve got two targets in our sights: Champions League and the title.
Most fans that I speak to have already dismissed the notion that Liverpool are title contenders this year. I’ve heard all of the excuses. Our defense isn’t good enough (a point I can’t argue), or that Chelsea and Manchester City are too strong to be caught in the table (quite possibly true). But there appears to be something special brewing with this particular team. We are playing some of the best football Liverpool has played in years, if not decades. Previous rosters would’ve caved in against Swansea, or failed to come back at Craven Cottage before that. We might’ve earned a point or two in those two fixtures a year ago. Not this team. They EARNED all six points by not giving up. As a result, they’ve EARNED my optimism. Many people know the story of our first pilgrimage to Anfield earlier this month. I’ve been reminded by many friends that you couldn’t have scripted a better trip. I choose to believe that the script isn’t quite finished yet. Why shouldn’t my script end with Steven Gerrard holding up the trophy celebrating his first Premiership title, the only cup that has eluded him, in front of the Kop after soundly defeating Newcastle on May 11? There’s no better way to shut up those derelicts that support Manchester United than to remind them that “19 + 5 would be greater than 20 + 3!” I must admit, I feel confident enough in my ability to write a pretty damn good script to finish this season. I’ll gladly wait to see the football gods come up with something better!!! And I know that they can!!!
Let’s not get too carried away with title talk just yet however. The most important match for Liverpool is tomorrow at 12:30 PM EST at Southampton. I don’t think I need to remind anyone that our only loss at Anfield this season has come at the hands of those pesky Saints, so you know this will not be an easy three points for the Reds. Even though Southampton have lost their last two matches, they haven’t played at the Friends Provident St. Mary’s Stadium (yes, that is the name of their home stadium) since February 8th when they drew with Stoke City 2-2. They have three legitimate scoring threats in Jay Rodriguez, Adam Lallana, and Rickie Lambert. All three just got called up to the England camp by Roy Hodgson and will be looking to impress. Rodriguez is particularly worrisome as I’m not convinced that Liverpool has a player to keep pace with him. I firmly believe that he’ll be a fixture for England in this summer’s World Cup. The best way to keep him at bay would be to control the middle third of the field through the midfielders. Easier said than done, and much more difficult when you have “midfielders” like Coutinho and Sterling constantly on the attack leaving tons of space in their wake. Historically, Brendan Rodgers doesn’t like to tinker with a winning lineup. Can you blame him? I expect to see the front six players to remain unchanged. But I think tactically it would be a good play to find a spot for Joe Allen, because once he was inserted into the roster against Swansea we regained control of the midfield and went on to eventual victory. Despite only playing about 30 minutes last week, Allen was my Man-of-the-Match. OK, maybe a three-way tie with him, Jordan Henderson and Daniel Sturridge. Having Allen on the middle of the pitch should help control the possession and minimize the gaps created by our attack. Of course, having him come off the bench to change the tactics of the midfield isn’t a bad Plan B either. We’ll just have to wait and see how Rodgers plays it.
I’ve said on this blog before and I’ll keep saying it. As long as we have #7 and #15, we can win any match. I really expect us to win tomorrow, and you should too. This year’s Premiership is split amongst two different halves. The top 9, where Southampton are bringing up the rear on 39 points, and the bottom 11 where the Saints are eight full points clear. Southampton is the double-wide trailer sitting in a development of million-dollar mansions. The worst of the best, they are. But they are still amongst the best. The good news for Reds fans is that they don’t really seem to play any better at home versus the road. 20 points earned with five wins at Our Lady of the Worthless Miracle St. Mary’s Stadium (or whatever it is called), and 19 points earned with five wins away from the coast. Liverpool, on the other hand, is clearly a better team at Anfield. Since they lost at Stamford Bridge on December 29th however, the Reds have taken all but two points on the road… and those two points were the direct result of one poor Kolo Toure pass at West Bromwich Albion. Clearly this is a game they CAN and MUST win!
After this weekend, Liverpool will go on a temporary playing hiatus. The match the following week against Sunderland has been postponed due to the FA Cup quarterfinals. That means when the boys return to Melwood for training on Monday morning, they have exactly 13 days to prepare for their next match… at Old Trafford against our old nemesis. In my opinion, it’s critical to begin that stretch of training on a high note with a solid road victory against a top-tier foe in Southampton. Get in the right frame of mind for the best possible preparation, rather than filling your thoughts with second-guessing and constant media scrutiny of what could’ve and should’ve been. Manchester United, on the other hand, is currently stewing with the bitter taste of Greek defeat in their mouths. They don’t have the luxury of an easy fixture to get back in the winning ways. Let’s be honest, really. There is no easy fixture for David Moyes and the Red Devils this year. Because their next opponent Manchester City is playing in the Capital One Cup final on Sunday, United will have to wait a whole week before heading to the Hawthorns on March 8th for an away fixture at West Bromwich Albion. Hey Moyesie, I think Kolo Toure may be available for a short loan spell if you want him. Then they get to host a fully rested and prepared Liverpool, ready to add another three points to the increasing gap that separates the fierce rivals. Let them walk out on March 16th scratching their heads wondering what hit them before realizing that they still have got a mid-week fixture in the Champions League against Olympiacos. After they fail to overcome the 0-2 deficit that United are in, then we can really start to have some fun!! Can you start to see why I believe we need these three points at Southampton tomorrow? Come on the Reds!!
Finally I need to mention one other pesky team from north London that seemingly still has aspirations of taking 4th place away from us. I could just simply remind Spurs fans of the 0-5 result they witnessed at White Hart Lane in December. But congratulations to them for advancing to the Europa League’s final 16 with their come-from-behind victory over a Ukrainian team whose best player is clearly looking ahead to playing at Anfield next season. I hope they realize that they have a chance to win the Europa League, and I hope they go for it. They next face a tough Benfica squad, who is leading the Portuguese Liga by five clear points at the moment. Go for the win, Spurs. Get your best players tired and hurt. You will end up playing two matches more than Liverpool in March before having to come to Anfield to face your next reckoning. Good luck with that.
In conclusion, I ask you to keep the faith and remain optimistic. I am! While I will not be at the pub on Saturday afternoon to share some pints while watching the Reds cruise to victory, I will be there in spirit. Rest assured I will return to the pub on March 16th to watch the Reds go to Old Trafford and take care of business in the “business end of the season.” I hope to see you there!!