Liverpool title challenge not over yet

By Nick Howson
Rafa Benitez Liverpool managerWriting Benitez's team out of the title race at this stage would be foolish

Rafa Benitez Liverpool manager

It’s 45 years since a team from England’s top flight lost four of its opening nine league games and then went on to win the league title.

This stat might be disappointing reading for any other side in this year’s Premier League title race, but for Liverpool – who have been turned over no more than four times already this season – history is on their side.

They were the side that endured those four defeats in their first nine games, and the same side that turned around that difficult start by winning the league title by four points ahead of Manchester United.

Yes the league seasons have shortened since those days in the 60’s and the margin for error was greater, but it is proof that even with a terrible start like that of the 63-64 Liverpool title-winning team, no team should be simultaneously written off as possible title winners.

But by the same token maybe there’s a good a reason why it’s been so long.

Liverpool, believe it or not, are only six points off the pace in the league despite those four defeats; and as a result they’re already been all but written off as possible champions this time next May.

In truth the fixture list has not been kind to the Reds, with three of their defeats coming against teams that finished in the top eight last season.

The fourth came on Saturday; against Steve Bruce’s reinvigorated Sunderland, who are another club feeling the benefit of a generous American owner and an ambitious new manager.

Managerial frailties of both Roy Keane and Ricky Sbragia meant the Black Cats finished just two points above the relegation zone last season- but now after taking four points off last seasons top two they can firmly set their sights on joining that top eight.

Rafael Benitez could argue his side have now endured the worst of all their away league games and that now their season can properly start.

The thing that for me sets Liverpool above their other title contenders is that they seem to be able to dig out results without their star players – something that is well documented as nothing more than a fallacy.

Last season Chelsea struggled to keep up with the pacesetters after constant injuries and loss of form to Didier Drogba, and then latterly to Joe Cole who made his first league appearance since January on Saturday at Villa Park.

Manchester United constantly needed to rely on both Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo to win matches last season, in fact not a single player apart from the pair reached double figures for goals in the league last season.

The reigning champions have already shown a great deal of vulnerability in defence this season and without the host of goals the Portuguese International consistently provided, the champions purely rely on Rooney for goals, and it was no coincidence that without him United only stumbled past Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.

Only winger Ryan Giggs looks like creating a spark in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team, and the Scot can’t rely on the 35-year old to play every game this season let alone to keeping digging his side out of a hole every week.

Liverpool however seem to be able to call upon the rest of their squad, albeit thin on the ground, to chip in with goals while their big stars sit on the sidelines.

Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard started just 13 league games together last season, and while it’s perceived that the duo are relied on entirely for Liverpool’s success, the reality is far different.

Together they contributed 30 (38%) of Liverpool’s goals as they finished second behind United.

However Ronaldo and Rooney, United’s alternative superstars, scored the same amount of goals, but that amounted to 44% of the team’s overall effort, while in terms of total starts between them they made just six more than their rivals from Anfield.

The extent of Liverpool’s goal threat was summed up by Dirk Kuyt’s goal effort, as the Dutchman – Liverpool’s third top goal scorer last season with 12 – was equal with United’s second top goal scorer Rooney.

I think it is a slight myth that Liverpool only perform with Torres and Gerrard in the side, yes Saturday’s defeat highlighted how much they miss the duo, but I’d debate the defeat was more down to a bizarre change of tactics and bad luck.

And in addition with the amount of defeats last season’s top four have already endured it’s unlikely we’ll see a team win the title with less than five defeats to their name-the gap between the ‘top four’ and the rest of the league seems to be shrinking with an increasing number of foreign investments littering the league.

Next weekend sees a pivotal game for the Red’s title hopes as they host Manchester United in a match they won last season without their two much talked about stars.

A defeat would see a nine point gap open up in late October but writing Benitez’s team out of the title race would still be foolish.

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