Belfast Telegraph

Rodgers hoping last season's script does not return to haunt him

By Tim Rich

As Andros Townsend, "a man who should be nowhere near the England squad", proved in Turin, Paul Merson's analysis is not infallible. However, for both the sides that meet at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon, one of his comments appears very true.

A few seasons ago, as another Arsenal title challenge proved a familiar thin mirage, their one-time midfielder remarked that Arsène Wenger never seemed to grasp that the final five games of a season were totally different to the previous 33.

The final five games Liverpool played last season could make a film in its own right. It would open with an epic 3-2 win over Manchester City, with Steven Gerrard gathering the squad together on the final whistle and delivering an impassioned team talk that this was a prize that must not be thrown away.

Then came another 3-2 win, at Norwich, before "the slip" against Chelsea that wrecked every calculation. A three-goal lead at Crystal Palace was squandered in a schoolboyish attempt to rack up their goal difference. The moment Samir Nasri stroked the ball past Adrian for Manchester City's first against West Ham, their world was in a thousand pieces.

In those five matches, Liverpool had scored 11 and conceded 10 and only the last, a 2-1 win at home to Newcastle, went according to the script.

Now they have eight matches remaining to achieve this season's reduced goal: a top-four finish. The three at home are straightforward - against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Queen's Park Rangers, teams that have not won a league match at Anfield since the early 1990s.

Their fate will be decided at Arsenal today, at Hull (where they lost badly last season), at West Bromwich (where Rodgers lost his first match as Liverpool manager), at Chelsea and at Stoke (where Liverpool have won once in the Premier League).

That is the draft script - how it will film, nobody knows.

"The final eight games are going to be exciting," said Rodgers. "For us there is still every possibility. We have made it difficult for ourselves because of our performance against Manchester United but it is achievable. People might look at the Arsenal game as a must-win but for me it is a must-perform game."

When Liverpool faced Manchester United on March 22, their momentum demanded that they win. They had not lost in the Premier League since the two sides met at Old Trafford on December 14. Liverpool had found a smooth rhythm in an adventurous but settled formation. Rodgers was no longer being asked about Mario Balotelli. Manchester United were fourth but clinging on.

And yet Manchester United produced what Gary Neville called the finest display against Liverpool in his memory.

"We didn't keep the ball well enough against Manchester United," said Rodgers. "In that first half we were never in a position to press or receive the ball.

"We need to keep and protect the ball more - that is a huge part of our game - and we need that against Arsenal. We have to get something from the game."

At Melwood the international break has crawled as the defeat by United was mulled through while the questions have switched from Balotelli to Raheem Sterling.

And yes, the man who commissioned his own television interview in which he said how flattering it was to be linked with Arsenal - a link made by his own agent - will play.

Rodgers' brief is to requalify Liverpool for the Champions League and for that he will need Sterling. There is no point and nothing to be gained by making a martyr of the boy.

Belfast Telegraph


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