Liverpool youngsters key to breaking club's barren run
For most of the young men who play in Liverpool’s current side at the top of the Premier League table, there are no memories of the club’s title near misses in the modern age. What they know is if they are able to break this 24-year run, they will make themselves the most popular team at the club since they paraded the league championship at Anfield as a matter of course.
In the previous two seasons that Liverpool have finished second in the league, they did not throw the title away so much as have it taken out of sight by rival sides with an ability to win matches remorselessly in the closing stages.
In 2009 Liverpool lost out by four points to Manchester United having beaten their old enemy in that famous 4-1 victory at Old Trafford in March. United lost to Fulham the following Saturday and then proceeded to be unbeaten for their remaining nine games, winning all but one.
In 2002, with Gérard Houllier returning to the dugout following heart surgery in time for the Champions League quarter-final against Bayer Leverkusen and predicting that his side were “10 games from greatness”, Liverpool won four of their last five league games. With them eliminated from the Champions League by Leverkusen – “10 games from greatness” became seven – it was what went on elsewhere that was decisive in the league.
The problem that season was Houllier’s side was up against the pitiless Arsenal team who would develop into the great “Invincibles” one year later. From February 2002 to the end of the season Arsenal won their last 13 league games and finished seven points ahead of Liverpool in second place.
The difference this time is that this Liverpool team can control the destiny of the title race in critical home games against the two other leading contenders, Manchester City and Chelsea. It may also help that the years have rolled by and the younger generation seem less inhibited by history. Raheem Sterling, Jon Flanagan, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson, all starters in the 4-0 win over Tottenham on Sunday, were not born when Liverpool were last crowned league champions in May 1990.
One does not get the impression that Sterling spends too much of his time worrying about a barren run that pre-dated his birth by four years and that may be no bad thing as the anxiety levels rise over the last few weeks of the season.
“As the season has been going on, we have had a bit more belief,” Sterling said. “But we won’t get ahead of ourselves. We have got to take it game by game. We are on the run-in now, into the last six games, but there is a really good atmosphere around the training camp. My work rate and confidence have improved, the working and pressing you have to do for the team. I just want to get on the front foot for the team. I also now have the confidence to go and play as I have got players like Luis Suarez and Stevie Gerrard giving me encouragement.”
Sterling was left out by Brendan Rodgers for the wins over Cardiff City and Sunderland, and returned to the team against Spurs to instant effect. He was watched by Roy Hodgson’s assistant Ray Lewington on Sunday, although the debate as to whether the 19-year-old from Wembley will go to the World Cup finals has largely disappeared. He is now almost certain for Brazil and could well start games.
His progress this season has been symbolic of that made by Rodgers’ side, who have come to the boil with six games to play and as one of just two teams with the fate of the title in their own hands.
“It is disappointing when you sit on the bench for two games but I knew I just had to be ready as I couldn’t be on flat heels if I got called up again,” Sterling said. “I got out there against Tottenham and it was just great that the manager had the confidence and belief to put me in for such a big game. I’m just delighted that we got the win to go with it. It was great to have the fans behind us and the manager said they were our 12th man. The atmosphere in the stadium was amazing.
“I hope he [Lewington] will have seen that I worked really hard for the team and it wasn’t just about going forward. I was always looking to track my man back. I was just happy to be on the winning team. It’s great to have a manager that has belief in you. For a young player, that’s all you cry out for. I’m grateful that he has so much belief in me.”
Liverpool have three seasons, including this one, to win the title to make sure they do not exceed the 26 years from 1967 to 1993 it took Manchester United to win their eighth title. Even so, the evidence is that it is less of a concern for their bright young players who, unlike their predecessors, have a strong element of control over the run-in and less reason to worry about what happened in the past.