Saturday 17 March 2018

Dalglish's men must rise to the small occasion

WHEN Joni Mitchell wrote about not knowing what you've got 'til it's gone, it's unlikely she would have had footballers, particularly Brazilian defensive midfielders, in mind. Tonight, Liverpool will take the first step on finding out how they'll cope without Lucas Leiva, whose season-ending injury against Chelsea last weekend was lamented by many of the same people who, at various stages during his Anfield career, would have personally driven him back to Brazil if it meant he never played for the club again.

Of all players, Lucas perhaps embodies the change to the club under Kenny Dalglish, with the derision and despair raining down from the stands justifiably replaced by a hope and optimism. One year ago tomorrow, Liverpool beat Aston Villa 3-0 at Anfield in a game that seemed to lift the pressure off Roy Hodgson, only for consecutive defeats to Newcastle and Wolves to edge the manager, and the owners, towards the exit door.

Of the players that started on that night -- which included Lucas -- five of them are no longer with the club with Paul Konchesky, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Raul Meireles, Ryan Babel and David Ngog all having been shipped out. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Dalglish's revolution has been the efficiency with which players have been changed while improving results.

Steve Bruce, admittedly with less money to spend, showed the difficulty in imposing such wholesale changes and Andre Villas-Boas is struggling with something similar at Chelsea.

And yet Dalglish can't escape some of the issues that have been black marks against his predecessors. At just under £30m, Jose Enrique and Luis Suarez have been superb signings but the jury is still very much out on the £80million splashed out on Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson.

As they did under Rafael Benitez, many will point to the £50m that they received for Fernando Torres in mitigation but the argument over how much they received for one player is irrelevant in judging the quality of the subsequent players coming to the club. Roy Hodgson got £18.5m for Javier Mascherano but that doesn't mean that the £8m he spent on Christian Poulsen and Konchesky was excusable. And while Arsene Wenger has been lauded for his ability to balance the books, it's unrealistic to expect that the £23m he received for Nicolas Anelka reduces the embarrassment of spending £8m on Francis Jeffers from Everton a year later.

Dalglish's other problem is the same as that faced by Gerard Houllier, whose Liverpool team had a fine record against Manchester United but could never find the consistency needed when the pressure wasn't on.

Under Benitez, Liverpool beat Chelsea and Juventus over two legs in the Champions League and then recovered to beat Milan in the final, yet in the same year, they could only finish fifth in the Premier League losing to Crystal Palace and drawing with Middlesbrough before going to war against Jose Mourinho and emerging victorious.

In Benitez's most successful Premier League season, Liverpool went on a three-game run in March of beating Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa by a combined tally of 13-1. Yet, dropping points to Middlesbrough, Wigan and Hull proved their undoing.

Even Hodgson's team once roused themselves with the victory against Chelsea coming thanks to two goals from Torres, who has managed just 10 in all competitions in the 13 months that have followed.

Dalglish's pattern has been similar to his predecessors with wins against Arsenal and Chelsea, a draw with Manchester United and almost stopping the Manchester City juggernaut nine days ago.

There's a myth in the Premier League that it's necessary to defeat the teams around you in order to be successful yet, as Manchester City are proving, beating the likes of Norwich City, Blackburn and Swansea is equally important. If City win the league, it will be because of such dominance against smaller clubs rather than the glamour of 6-1 wins at Old Trafford. In Liverpool's case, there remains the fear that the opposite will be the case and the six home points they have dropped against Sunderland, Swansea and Norwich might ultimately come back to haunt them.

After tonight, Liverpool's next four league games are against QPR, Aston Villa, Wigan and Blackburn before a home tie against Newcastle to round off the year. If Dalglish can inspire them to rise to the small occasion, it might give them some bigger ones to look forward to.

Irish Independent

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