Sport Soccer

Saturday 17 February 2018

Johnson: You can't be top at Christmas with a one-man team

Reds defender insists his side can maintain league challenge but tells Ian Herbert they need to respond against Chelsea -- and the man who cut him adrift at Stamford Bridge

Liverpool defender Glen Johnson
Liverpool defender Glen Johnson

Ian Herbert

"I've not paid too much attention to Chelsea," says Glen Johnson, carrying an air of indifference as if it did not matter to him that, 10 years ago, the club had made the right-back the first signing of the Roman Abramovich era, then cast him off like an old sock after Jose Mourinho took a look at him and did not much fancy what he saw.

But these rejections do matter. Four years at Chelsea gave Johnson the sense of what being a Premier League title winner feels like -- he is one of only three members of Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool squad to have claimed the biggest domestic prize.

It's clear he always has something to prove to Mourinho. Just when he thought he was heading into football's stratosphere under Claudio Ranieri, who signed him and cast him into such challenges as Chelsea's Champions League semi-final with Monaco in 2004, Mourinho cut him adrift after one season -- making him a mere FA Cup player in 2005-06, after letting him in on the euphoria of the previous year's title-winning drive.

"I didn't get a fair opportunity," he says. "I knew deep down I was good enough but I was never given a chance."

And though Johnson does not need his Open University course in mathematics to tell him that the laws of probability decree a tense winter and spring for Liverpool -- seven teams who were fourth on New Year's Day made the Champions League places come May in the past 12 seasons -- he will finally journey to Stamford Bridge tomorrow with a sense that Ranieri's faith in him has been vindicated.

The energy and invention of the Liverpool display in St Stephen's Day's 2-1 defeat at the Etihad Stadium -- where Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs have been blown away this season -- revealed a squad capable of challenging the elite sides as well as hammering the weaker ones.

"Sometimes it's easier to play against the big teams and the best players," Johnson says. "It brings more out of you and maybe you prepare that little bit harder. Everyone looks forward to the big games."

If he learnt one thing about becoming a champion under Mourinho it was that putting defeats away is the mark of title winners. "A sign of a good team is one that bounces back quickly after a disappointing result and that's what we will be looking to do," says Johnson (left).

Liverpool's season has revealed a capacity to do that. The 3-1 defeat at Hull on December 1 was the club's worst of the season -- and one in which Johnson's lack of consistency revealed itself -- but it was the catalyst for four straight wins in which the side scored 17 goals.

The display at Manchester City on Thursday was up to the same mark. A dismal loss to Arsenal last month was followed up by the 4-0 hammering of Fulham.

The challenge for Liverpool is to maintain the same level of football in the second half of the season with a squad weaker than that of Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham or either of the Manchester teams.

The lack of depth is particularly evident in a defence where Johnson is the only fixed point. Of course, he does not observe that central defence is a problem, with the ever-changing personnel a product of Rodgers' struggle to find consistent performers.

But this is a far cry from the indomitability of Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher when Liverpool last seriously chased a title, under Rafael Benitez in 2008-09.

Right-back Jon Flanagan has been playing on the left of defence because of injury to Jose Enrique and the unsuitability of the loan signing Aly Cissokho. And Liverpool are also less powerful in central midfield than the other top-four challengers.

Joe Allen's performance against City was one of his best for Liverpool but he, Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson -- another of the season's stars -- are not Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, from the class of 2008-09.

Yet the performances against City and Spurs -- destroyed 5-0 -- have revealed in the past three weeks that Liverpool can compete with strong sides. "We definitely can match City," says Johnson. "(Our performance there) is the most positive you can be with a defeat. Not many teams (go to the Etihad) and play as we did and dominate possession. We had good chances."

Johnson shares his manager's indignation about the decision of referee Lee Mason to chalk off Raheem Sterling's first-half goal at City for offside. "You can't even defend the linesman, can you? It's ridiculous. The players are three yards apart, it's not even close."

He acknowledges that goalkeeper Simon Mignolet felt he should have done better with Alvaro Negredo's winner, the Belgian's first major mistake of the season: "He's been fantastic all year. He's a strong lad and mentally tough so he will bounce back."

And Johnson observes that the precision of Luis Suarez's link-up play with Philippe Coutinho and Sterling -- rejuvenated since his contribution at White Hart Lane -- proves this is not the same one-man team of last season. "You can't be top of the league at Christmas if you are a one-man team," he says. "We know we have got the quality to be up there and on our day we can give anyone a game."

Johnson can put football into perspective now -- in a way he did not when Ranieri signed him from West Ham as an 18-year-old in 2003. He will raise a laugh around Melwood some mornings with his blissful ignorance of the previous night's televised games. The mathematics take up some of the space in his mind.

Formula One and MotoGP absorb him too, and it is an article of his desire for a life beyond the football bubble.

But the desire to barge in on Mourinho's territory and teach him something about patience and success does burn. The tattoo on Johnson's wrist, which he rubs as he talks, tells the story. "Tell me I can't and I will show you I can," it reads. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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