James Lawton: Rodgers must move beyond the smoke and mirrors
Published 11/01/2013 | 05:00
When they last met, amid the convulsions of the week of the Hillsborough apology, some great names of Liverpool and Manchester United pleaded for a new era of peace and mutual respect. Three and a half months on, expectations at Old Trafford on Sunday will be a lot nearer to the ground – and reality.
Indeed, for Liverpool they could hardly be more basic. The demand facing their manager Brendan Rodgers is not so much victory over bitter rivals striding towards their 20th title but evidence of genuine credibility.
For Rodgers and his team, it is the day when they are asked to step beyond the mysteries of smoke and shadows. A clear pattern of progress has been tantalisingly just beyond the reach of the young manager. Liverpool's results have lurched between glory and painful reappraisal of the work still to be done.
Sunderland were engulfed but Stoke were simply too combative and, just before they began to crumble before our eyes, Aston Villa delivered a crushing defeat.
Liverpool's inconsistencies have been set against the bracing march of their inexpensive rivals Everton and made all the more haunting by the belief that, with a little more significant support, the controversial Luis Suarez might already have carried them into the race for a Champions League place.
Some believe, however, that Rodgers has created for himself more than enough time to complete the first stage of one of English football's more significant projects.
It is not, as he was at such pains to say at the outset, simply the task of dragging Liverpool back to nodding terms with the elite of the Premier League; it is to begin to claw back old priorities, the greatest of which is to play a certain kind of football.
Already impressed, if not entirely convinced, is one of the great names of the team that laid down the tradition of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley.
Ian St John says: "A lot was made of Liverpool's winning of the League Cup and appearance in the FA Cup final last season. It was said that the most vital thing was a win, some tangible link with the past. But I didn't agree.
"What Liverpool needed to do most of all was remind us of the kind of team they used to be – a team which based everything on their ability to play superior football.
"The greatest tribute to my old boss Shankly was that he was the man who made the people happy. Well, he did that because he produced football the people wanted to see.
"I can see some of that in the early work of Brendan Rodgers. The results can wait. But they will come if you lay down the right priorities. I believe this is now being done. In fact when you look at some of the performances this season they have shown qualities we haven't seen at Anfield for a long time, certainly back past the days of Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez."
You have to believe that Rodgers would have settled for such a half-term report when he first insisted that he was stepping in the shoes of the iconic Kenny Dalglish entirely on his own terms. He spoke not so much of refashioning a team as returning it to its roots. Sunday simply represents one of the more important staging posts on a critical journey.
His most crucial decision concerns the role of new £12m signing Daniel Sturridge. Plainly, Rodgers sees the former Manchester City and Chelsea striker as a potentially vital factor in an emerging team. He has made it clear to the young, talented but often somewhat detached figure that this is probably his last chance to establish himself with a major club.
At Chelsea, Sturridge fretted over his limited opportunities but insiders insisted that he created many of his own problems. At Anfield he has announced a fierce ambition to dismiss such doubts about his competitive instincts – and perhaps a new willingness to accept the party line.
"It's down to the manager which team he picks," Sturridge said this week. "I'm just here to train hard and as play much as I can and whatever team he picks will be right tactically.
"I was quite tired against Mansfield on Sunday – as I hadn't been training or playing much in the last few months – but you're always fit to play against Manchester United. If he picks me, great, if not I'll be ready to come on and make some impact."
One solution might be to play Sturridge wide alongside Suarez – with Raheem Sterling held back for the impact role in the second half. Certainly, many see the partnership between Suarez – who has been in blistering form – and Sturridge as key to the second half of Liverpool's season.
Sturridge could hardly be more enthusiastic about the prospects of a new relationship, saying: "Luis Suarez shows you what a good player he is every time he gets the ball. He really loves to get at defenders and I'm looking forward to playing alongside him very much. I believe we can become a very formidable partnership."
For Rodgers, it is a declaration that might just carry him another step forward in a revolution of increasingly impressive boldness. It might just even move him beyond the smoke and mirrors.