James Lawton: Rodgers' Reds take right turn on long road to renewal
Published 12/11/2012 | 05:00
The weekend was supposed to be about indomitable United, defiant City and a Chelsea team winning back at least a little of the authority you associate with European champions. It was shaping up as a restatement of some pretty well-established power.
Yet who is so unmindful of those currents in football that spring up with arresting force on the most unlikely of occasions that they could ignore the significance of Liverpool's latest declaration that they, too, are on the mend?
It may be a long job and one ultimately decided by the willingness of their American management to back seriously the vision and the nerve of their young manager Brendan Rodgers, but in the meantime there is no reason to ignore the force of his team's recovery at Stamford Bridge. For some time Rodgers, despite a run of unbeaten Premier League games, seemed to be still locked in impossible odds against a team for whom the midfield axis of Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Ramires is promising new levels of superior touch and coherence. But then something remarkable happened. Liverpool, buoyed by another strike from Luis Suarez, not only started to play better football; they also looked distinctly like, well, Liverpool.
A Liverpool from a somewhat different age, that is. A Liverpool who could create authentic momentum and who on this day, which had for some time threatened a discouraging descent into futility, had more than the extraordinary Suarez to conjure a little belief in a brighter future.
Steven Gerrard (below) found again moments of striking influence. Raheem Sterling's startling precocity has rarely looked so securely moored to a remarkably old head. Jose Enrique supplied width and craft as the course of the match switched sharply in Liverpool's direction -- and if this was just possibly a crossroads for the Rodgers project, who better bravely to signpost new possibilities than the near superannuated hero Jamie Carragher?
His flick on from the impressive substitute Suso's corner re-lit some old Liverpool fire as Suarez detached himself utterly from the Chelsea cover. As a piece of gnarled but brilliantly marshalled old pro savvy, it almost rivalled the supreme example provided by John Terry.
Extraordinary, isn't it, this ability of Terry and Suarez so regularly to produce moments which, for some time at least, put on hold the contortions normally involved in any positive assessment of their contributions to English football.
Their redemption is the one that often persuades their managers to pull down a veil on the worst of their excesses. It is hardly a mystery -- not when Terry comes back from his four-match ban and Di Matteo's decision to leave him out of last week's ordeal of fire against Shakhtar Donetsk with a predatory masterpiece at a corner. It was as much as anything a professional mugging. Branislav Ivanovic tied up Daniel Agger so comprehensively he failed only to apply handcuffs, then Terry stole into the empty space to send a superb header past Brad Jones in the Liverpool goal.
Among the Chelsea faithful there was, inevitably, adoration which was compounded when he was carried off after a gut-wrenching collision with Suarez. There, in a moment, was a physical expression of all kinds of football fear and loathing -- and dogged admiration for the best qualities of these players: Terry, at first howling with pain, then stretching out a knee that there was reason at first to fear had been shattered, and Suarez, unequivocally innocent in this affair, standing over him with his face a picture of genuine concern.
With Gary Cahill in Terry's place and the Chelsea midfielders beginning to ripple pleasingly, it seemed like nothing more than a reassertion of that Premier League power complex, with Chelsea, surely, moving to within a point of United.
Yet Rodgers was not easily discouraged. He sent on the vibrant young Spaniard Suso, reshaped his back-five formation, and Liverpool were once against impressively competitive. Suarez scored his sixth goal in six Premier League games and suddenly he found sources of unusual support.
Rodgers warmly applauded his players at the end, as well he might have done. He is a young manager engaging in a huge task of renewal -- and he is doing it extremely well.