Liverpool face Arsenal as Champions League race heats up
Kenny Dalglish cannot say he wasn't told. Liverpool's principal owner, John W Henry, was attempting to bring an air of realism to the new season when he spelled out, seven months ago, what he expected in return for £105m of transfer spending.
It was, he told the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, "too early for us to start talking about winning the league. Our main goal is to qualify for the Champions League."
Dalglish's typically waspish responses at the time – "Well done, John!" and "Do you argue with your boss?" – made it difficult to assess whether he felt the Americans were underestimating him or overstating what his newly assembled squad was capable of. But as the Scot's Liverpool team today look to build on last Sunday's Carling Cup success by achieving the only target which the financiers care for – Champions League qualification – his publicly stated expectations do appear slightly out of synch with theirs.
While the chairman, Tom Werner, declared the club's first silverware in six years, won on penalties after a 2-2 draw with Cardiff, to be "only one marker" on the road to Champions League football, Dalglish batted away any such suggestions.
"If we stopped right now, it has been a better season than it was last season," said Dalglish, who turns 61 tomorrow. "We'll see at the end whether our points total is good or bad and enough for the Champions League. We've still got the FA Cup to play for [with a quarter-final at home to Stoke City] and the Carling Cup is in the trophy room. There cannot be too many upset by that. They've got the Europa League to come and if it goes better than that, then fine."
If it is to "go better", defeat by Arsenal at home today must be avoided. Arsène Wenger holds the cherished fourth spot and Liverpool trail by seven points, with a game in hand.
It is Dalglish's job to limit expectations, of course, and the manager will not feel that Liverpool are well served by inflating them. But it was always the defender Jamie Carragher's view that the "money men" were more elated with Liverpool's Champions League qualification than any silverware that came from the treble-winning campaign of 2000-01, with which this season is inviting increasing comparison.
Gérard Houllier's team certainly did not stand on ceremony, having beaten Birmingham City to the League Cup – on penalties – that year. They won six of their last seven league games to finish fourth. This season, as that one did, provides Liverpool with a relatively generous run-in.
Dalglish is blessed with fewer certainties than Houllier about how high his group of players might go. The Frenchman's treble-winners – the Uefa Cup was also brought back to Anfield – did not exude the old Liverpool flamboyance but they always took some beating. There was a central-defensive partnership of Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz; Emile Heskey was enjoying the season of his life up front with Michael Owen; Danny Murphy, Nick Barmby and Patrik Berger were a permanent threat from midfield. The masterstroke was Houllier's decision to place the steadying force of Gary McAllister in the midst of it all.
Sunday's harum-scarum triumph over Cardiff revealed something less stable about the current team. The arrival of Arsenal and Chelsea at Anfield in the next two months does present Liverpool with an element of control of their destiny, though something more decisive is required. Only Liverpool and Manchester City are undefeated at home this season, but eight Anfield draws have been sapping.
"We can control our own destiny," Dalglish said, though he did not care for the suggestion that Champions League qualification was a prerequisite. "Every time they get somewhere, something else is put in front of them as to what would make a successful season," he said.
Liverpool have a history of making a League Cup triumph a catalyst – there were 11 trophies in four years after the 1981 success – and Dalglish knows last Sunday at Wembley created an esprit de corps that he can work with.
"You could see the excitement and the togetherness when they celebrated it," he said. "The boys who were unfortunate enough not to be picked were involved. There were suits flying across the grass and everything. They were diving everywhere. They were celebrating together and that is really important for us."
It was Carragher who remarked of the 2001 side that they had discovered "that elusive quality – character." Dalglish is about to discover whether his team have it too.