Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Liverpool ready to dream again and launch fresh assault

First glimpse: Liverpool ace Daniel Sturridge goes on the attack against City's Matija Nastasic and Fernando at a pre-season tour in the USA

Liverpool should have won the title; there was nobody at Anfield who doubted they had played the better football. Certainly, no team had scored more goals, none had lost fewer games; but the championship had gone to Manchester, to the team with the greatest resources.

That was five years ago and the comments coming from Liverpool now are remarkably similar to those made during the summer of 2009.

"I am not thinking we can win the title, I am thinking we must win the title," striker Fernando Torres had remarked a couple of months after Manchester United had won the league.

"We came so close but for many of our players it was their first time experiencing the pressures of a Premier League title race. But we don't have to improve a lot on last season to win it."

Liverpool did not improve a lot. They finished seventh, 23 points off the pace, and until last season they were to come nowhere near the business end of the Premier League.

Tonight's encounter at the Etihad Stadium matters more to Liverpool than it does to Manchester City. The home side are a known quantity, champions for two of the last three seasons who have used the summer to bolster weaknesses in defensive midfield and central defence.

The question for Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, as it was for Rafa Benitez in the summer of 2009, is whether a thrilling title challenge was an aberration.

Given he has lost Luis Suarez, although his departure to Barcelona last month was less traumatic than anyone expected, it was hard to understand how Rodgers could argue that Liverpool were stronger than they had been in May.

They have, as City's manager Manuel Pellegrini pointed out, lost the scorer of 31 Premier League goals last season.

The Liverpool manager's argument is that with the arrival of Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic and Emre Can, he will have far more midfield options than last season.

For Rodgers, the key to the title race was not Steven Gerrard's slip that allowed Demba Ba to score Chelsea's opener in the pivotal 2-0 defeat at Anfield at the end of April but the limited way Liverpool responded to falling behind.

"People talk of the run-in and the pressure but, of our last 14 games, we won 12 and lost one," he said. "And that loss was so unfortunate because we had played reasonably well before Stevie slipped.

"That didn't cost us the title, it was a slip, but you go 1-0 down and suddenly the game is difficult. We knocked on the door for 70 minutes and I didn't have the depth then to change the game. It wasn't experience (or the lack of it) that cost us, although it helps.

"I think we probably missed a little bit of luck towards the end," Rodgers added. "I have nothing but pride looking back on last year. It was just errors – too many individual mistakes. If we can cut those out and maintain our efficiency going forward, we will be a threat."

Liverpool without Suarez look at first sight to be a neutered animal. Torres scored 14 Premier League goals to take Liverpool to second in 2009 – less than half of the Uruguayan's total last season.

Nevertheless, in one respect they were very different.

Suarez rarely scored big goals in big games for Liverpool – none of his 31 were against Manchester City, Arsenal or Chelsea. Ten of Torres' 14 came against the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton.

However, writing in The Sunday Times, Liverpool's former captain and manager, Graeme Souness, rejected the suggestion Liverpool would cope without Suarez.

"People make the mistake of quantifying the loss of Suarez purely on the goals he scored," Souness wrote. "There are individuals who make others play even in big, successful clubs because of their presence on the pitch.

"Liverpool didn't have to play well and they would win games with him in the team. They have no one who can step up to the mark and be as influential now that Steven Gerrard's role has changed to a more defensive one."

It is possible to imagine this figure might be Mario Balotelli, who is set to join Liverpool today.

It may, however, be Daniel Sturridge, a striker that neither Chelsea nor City really understood on or off the field.

One of the reasons Rodgers feels confident he can revive Balotelli's career at Anfield is that in Sturridge he has taken another "difficult" footballer and made him flourish.

Off the field, Suarez and Sturridge were not close but on it they formed one of the most lethal attacking partnerships Liverpool has known.

With Suarez gone, Sturridge would have felt that at 24 he was now indisputably Liverpool's main striker.

The Italian's imminent arrival on Merseyside may have altered that, although Rodgers is confident Sturridge's ego is less fragile than it once was.

"A top player with a top mentality will respond to the competition," said Rodgers. "I have spoken to Daniel and said how important he is.

"He has 36 goals in 50 games for Liverpool. You can't do that if you're unhappy."

When Sturridge and Suarez were wreaking havoc in opposition defences, Liverpool fans unveiled a banner that pleaded: "Make Us Dream".

Benitez's dream of taking Liverpool from second to champions barely survived the opening match of the season, a 2-1 defeat at Tottenham, and was virtually extinguished by a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa two games later.

Tonight, City will discover just how brightly that dream still burns.

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