LFC Talk


The Season Ahead by lfctalk
August 18, 2008, 17:14
Filed under: Opinion

Looking ahead to a new season can be a mixed bag for a Liverpool supporter. On one hand we have the potential, and hope, to be a genuine title challenger, but on the other we are on the verge of being a laughing stock to other clubs fans. The reasoning for these two opposing factors are that in the first instance, we have a team spined with some truly world-class players: Torres, Gerrard, Mascherano, Carragher and Reina. But, on the flipside, we have just had our annual title pep-talk from Steven Gerrard on how it’s “been too long” since we last challenged for the title. Many Reds grimace when the club captain comes out with one of these rallying cries, because they’ve tended to make little difference, in all fairness. We do have plenty of players that are worthy of being Premiership champions (if Darren Fletcher can win it..!), but we also have a quotient of players that many feel are clearly not good enough to be part of a side with title aspirations. It’s difficult striking a balance in this age of squad football, especially when the transfer budget available to Benitez is so much less than that his rivals have at their disposal.

Personally, I feel that the exclusive club at the top of the Premiership is in slight danger of factioning into two pairs – United/Chelsea and Arsenal/Liverpool, due to the spending power of the respective clubs. Arsenal have a manager like our own that can squeeze quality out of players, especially youngsters. But it’s not been enough for a few season’s now and the Gunners have failed to take any silverware in recent times. Also, the title race and Champions League coming down to those two sides is another possible indicator that money is talking louder than ever in this business, sorry game, that we all know and love. Chelsea and United have also started to occupy the top two positions in recent seasons, with ourselves and Arsenal left to fight out the remaining two positions. But, in fairness, Arsenal did manage to sustain a title challenge well into the new year last season and could have taken a first title since 2004.

Rafael Benitez is in a difficult position as Liverpool manager. The expectations of many fans and onlookers alike is that we should be challenging for the title. I am assuming that many base that belief on the traditions and history, more than the current on and off field capabilities of the club. In the age of squad football, Chelsea (especially) and United can afford to stockpile quality playing talent and call on them when required. We have found it a lot more difficult to attract enough quality players due to restraints on transfer fees and wages. Another factor, a major one in my book, is the constant game of catch-up being played by Rafa Benitez. Alex Ferguson has been manager of Manchester United for 22 years now, whereas Benitez has been here for a mere four. The Old Trafford boss has been planning ahead for years and is always considering his moves well in advance. He’s been able to incorporate many key aspects of development at United in his time there, whereas our manager’s plans are still in relative infancy. The continuity of having the same boss for over two decades has helped United to get into the dominant position they are with regards to Premiership football. Every Summer that arrives sees the United manager sign ‘finishing touch’ players to an already top quality squad. Benitez, on the other hand, may have spent almost as much money in his time here, but he has had to give Houllier’s squad an almost total overhaul whilst trying to keep sufficient depth to allow for injuries, suspension and the much-vaunted rotation.

This Summer Benitez has stated that he has his best squad yet at the club. And I agree. The Spaniard has made progress with each passing Summer, bar perhaps 2006, in terms of improving his team. But the one glaring omission each time, for me, is the failure to secure a top-class wide attacker. Since the defection of Steve McManaman to Real Madrid in 1999 and the failure of Harry Kewell from 2003 onwards we have sorely lacked a genuine top-quality winger. Ryan Babel certainly looks to have the potential to be a force from the flank, but hopes cannot be pinned to such a young and inexperienced player. I had hoped that a quality, not big name, wide attacker would be signed this Summer, but it looks as though another transfer window is to pass by without this remedied. My case for this new player was heightened, in my view, by the lack of quality coming from the flanks in both the Standard Liege and Sunderland fixtures in the past week. No disrespect to Yossi Benayoun or Dirk Kuyt, but neither is good enough on the wing to be a long-term option there – and by ‘long-term’ I mean this new season. The lack of width and also quality from those wide areas was alarming, even at this early stage of the season. Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane were left feeding on scraps or hopeful long-balls for far too much of those games and I don’t personally think it’s good enough. I think we need someone more dynamic for the right-wing than Kuyt, who for all his hard work is sorely lacking in cutting edge quality. Don’t get me wrong, I have so much time for the Dutchman, but I think there comes a time when pure hard work isn’t enough to keep a player in the side when his final product is below par. Benayoun is a frustrating player for much of the time, however. He is clearly capable of performing at the top level, as proved by his goals and interplay last season, but he can look painfully ordinary too often to be anything more than a highly useful squad player, in my view. After Rafa’s recent comments regarding Gareth Barry, I am concerned that if we do sign him we will be seeing him utilised on the left-wing, which would make him far too highly priced at £18m. If we did manage to sell Xabi Alonso this Summer, then I would be happy with the Villa captain coming in and partnering Javier Mascherano in the deeper midfield two, but as a left-winger he doesn’t cut it for me – least of all at nearly £20m. I recently read a comment by a Liverpool supporter in response to the idea of Barry being used on the left of midfield should he be signed. The fan in question stated that perhaps Rafa wanted to bring him in for that role to act as insurance should Andrea Dossena get caught out of position on one of his forwards runs. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions..!

In terms of how close I think we are to a genuine title challenge, I think it’s a difficult question to answer. Benitez is quite clearly a manager capable of winning titles, as demonstrated by his time at the Mestalla in Valencia, but whether he has the financial power to do so here is the major stumbling block. I think he is easily tactically astute enough, no two ways about that, but whether he can do it when signing so many second (or even third) choice transfer targets remains to be seen. I would consider it one of the most triumphant title victories in Premiership history should he achieve it. The man is doing an excellent job of keeping in touch with sides that have excessively more spending power, it’s a credit to the man that he can juggle consistent runs in the Champions League with Premiership solidarity. Of course he had the indignity of finishing fifth behind Everton in 2005, but we all know the circumstances and results of that and will not complain at how events transpired. And last season we were certainly run close by Everton, Manchester City and Aston Villa throughout stages of the season. But, as usual, Rafa ensured a top four finish and a run to the Champions League semis…where only a dire own goal by John Arne Riise saw us eliminated.

I’m not convinced, and nor should I be in fairness, that our full-back options are sorted out for the new campaign. Andrea Dossena has looked neat and adventurous going forward, but aside from a superb goalline block against Rangers, he has looked quite poor defensively. Hopefully it’s early nerves and he will improve sooner rather than later. Philipp Degen does not inspire much confidence either, despite not making an appearance in a Red shirt as yet. Alvaro Arbeloa is a worrying case also. The Spaniard has done fairly well in his time at Anfield, but rumours of homesickness and a hankering for a move to Sevilla is a concern. Steve Finnan looks to be on the downward slope, but is still our best full-back in my opinion. Fabio Aurelio appears to be made from glass and when he starts to get into form, he always seems to get injured. Hopefully time will prove our full-back options to be sufficient, but my gut feeling is not optimistic.

My expectations for the season are another credible showing in Europe and the standard top four finish. I would also like to see a domestic trophy in the cabinet if we fail to secure one of the ‘big two’ cups.

My top six prediction:

1 – Chelsea
2 – Man Utd
3 – Liverpool
4 – Arsenal
5 – Aston Villa
6 – Spurs

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