Can Liverpool still win the league?
After months of promise, Liverpool have reached the critical part of their season. Tonight’s match away to Wigan and the home tie against Chelsea on Sunday will determine whether Liverpool will still be in a position to end their 19 year wait for a league title. Should they fail to get anything less than 6 points, their title challenge is over.
Liverpool fans have had to endure numerous false dawns in their pursuit of a nineteenth league title. Under Roy Evans and Gerard Houiller they have come agonisingly close, but failed to deliver the ‘holy grail’ that the Liverpool fans crave so much.
This season, for the first time under Rafa Benitez, Liverpool have put together a title challenge. In previous campaigns under the Spaniards reign, they have failed miserably to pick up valuable points against their rivals in the top four. But with wins at home to Manchester United and away to Chelsea and a point at Emirates Stadium, already this season, the problem has been rectified.
So the question has to be asked: with key victories over Liverpool’s other main title challengers, and with the other big three all suffering from inconsistent form, why is it Liverpool aren’t eight or nine points clear instead of now trailing Manchester United by three points?
If we consider the facts, it’s obvious that five home draws simply isn’t good enough. Rarely do Manchester United fail to pick up maximum points at home. Looking at previous seasons under Benitez, Liverpool’s Achilles heal has been their away form. Anfield was a fortress – and it was thanks to their endeavours at home that they qualified for the Champions League season after season.
However this year their away form has been impressive, picking up 24 points out of a possible 33. It’s their whimpering home form that may prove their undoing. They have managed a mere six wins out of a possible 11 matches. With five games drawn, one might argue that six wins and five draws is acceptable. This is not the case. The quality of opposition that have managed to come away from Anfield with a point that will have undoubtedly annoyed Benitez. Hull City, Fulham, West Ham, Stoke City and Everton all teams whom Liverpool would reasonably expect to beat.
Worryingly, over the past month, events off the pitch are overshadowing the teams performances on it. Steven Gerrard’s arrest was unwanted publicity. Recently it has been revealed that the owners of the club, Tom Hicks and George Gillet, are seeking out prospective buyers of the club. However most damaging of all are the ongoing disputes within the club.
In Decemeber, Rafa Benitez rejected the offer of a new contract. He cited the main reason for his refusal to sign a deal was the lack of control he felt he had over transfers. He wanted full control. It remains to be seen will the owners and chief executive, Rick Parry grant him this wish.
It’s no secret that Benitez’s relationship with the owners and Parry has detiorated substantially. After the all the internal fighting of last year, Liverpool fans will have been hoping for a season where, Liverpool hit the back pages for the right reasons. It seemed the disagreements had been put aside and paper put over the cracks.
But it seems the dispute over who controls the transfers in and out of the club is still raging. Conspiracy theorists will argue that Robbie Keane is being used subtlely by Benitez as a political pawn. In the summer, the Spaniard made it clear his main target was Gareth Barry. He tried desperately to sign him.
Arguably, Benitez was planning to use Gerrard in the role that had been so successful towards the end of last season: Gerrard deployed for Torres. Barry would play in the holding role along with Mascherano with Alonso exiting the club. But the attempt to sign Barry ultimately failed with the owners unwilling to match Aston Villa’s valuation of the player.
Liverpool went on to sign Robbie Keane. At the time it was bemusing. Why did Benitez want to upset the partnership of Torres and Gerrard that had proved so menacing in the final quarter of the season? It appears Benitez wasn’t in full control of bringing Keane to the club, and it was Parry’s and the Americans choice opposed to Benitez’s.
It seemed bizarre that the owners were willing to lavishly spend £20 million on the Irishman but unwilling to pay an extra couple of million to secure the transfer of Barry, the player Benitez wanted above anyone else. The transfer points to the fact that Benitez doesn’t have full control over which players are brought into the club.
Robbie Keane has been a failure so far this season. It took Keane until October to score his first goal for the club. It took him an additional month to get off the mark in the league. With Torres injured, Keane’s goals were needed more than ever. However they weren’t forthcoming.
Keane’s plight has not been helped by Benitez refusing to give him a sustained run in the team. He has been regularily dropped. On countless occasions when Liverpool were in dire need of a goal, Benitez has turned to more inexperienced players instead of Keane, to change the game.
Rafa Benitez has proved in his public dispute with the hierarchy at the club that he is a stubborn man. Despite pressure to play Keane more often, he won’t have his hand forced. Sections of the media have suggested that Keane is being used by Benitez to prove a point. The point being that the Owners and Rick Parry should have supported Benitez and brought Barry to the club at all costs.
I firmly believe that a manager should have full control in bringing players to a football club. If there was £20m to spend in the summer, Benitez should have been allowed to bring in Gareth Barry (who wanted to join Liverpool and for £18m Villa were willing to sell). But I also think it is ridiculous that the Spaniard can afford to a leave a striker of Keane’s quality on the bench and instead turn to N’Gog or El Zhar. Keane is, after all, a proven goalscorer.
Tonight’s game will be crucial. Should Liverpool fail to win, they will be three points behind Manchester United with the Red Devils also having a game in hand. And with the prospect of the pending visit of Chlesea to look forward to – a team who are a capable of taking more than a point away from Anfield. Come Monday it could be curtains for Liverpool’s title ambitions – once again falling well before the final hurdle.
So can Liverpool win the league this season?
If they win their next two games my answer is yes. Do they need everyone at Anfield to put their differences aside and pull together and put all there effort into securing the title? Yes. Finally, does Robbie Keane need to start more games. Yes.