Liverpool finally starting to deliver on last year's promise
The big news to come out of Liverpool last week – off the field, at least – was the release of a television ad for the club’s new official men’s underarm spray partner, featuring Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Simon Mignolet.
A rather surreal press launch was held at Anfield on Thursday, in which the room was filled not with weathered Merseyside writers, but beauty columnists and London magazine correspondents.
The advert itself is fairly typical with players late for some red-carpet function, dashing across town in a fan’s three-wheeled car, making it with seconds to spare and a remarkable absence of sweat patches.
More important than the advert itself, though, was what it represents for this Liverpool side: a certain coming of age, an infiltration of the mainstream, a transition from footballing asset to cultural emblem. Put it this way: the last advert Henderson starred in was a cringe-making effort for his local dental practice in Sunderland that you can still view in all its washed-out glory on YouTube. (Sample line: “It’s a really good dentist. I’m glad I can come here.”)
A leap forward, then, and in more senses than one. Just as Liverpool’s beefed-up commercial department is beginning to mine the financial potential of the club’s spectacular return to the big time last season, the team itself finally appears to have worked out, after an abortive and frustrating half-year, how to build on their success of last season.
Progress to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup on Saturday evening is now followed by a two-legged tie against Besiktas in the Europa League this Thursday. With the top four still tantalisingly within grasp, Liverpool are advancing on three fronts.
“I said at the beginning of the season that the objective is to win a trophy and be as strong as we can,” Brendan Rodgers said after the 2-1 win-from-behind against Crystal Palace. “The team is in good condition mentally and physically.”
It was around this time last year that Liverpool started making their move. The difference this year, though, is that by this stage the Premier League was their sole focus. With a repeat of that second-place finish now impossible, the FA Cup and Europa League offer a chance of salvaging some glory from the season. The elimination of many of the top clubs from the FA Cup offers further encouragement. “Regardless of who is in it, we feel we have got a good chance,” Adam Lallana said.
However, progress in three competitions comes at a cost. The relentless Thursday-Sunday-Thursday plod of Europa League football has derailed many a team’s season, but Rodgers said that he was confident of managing the workload. “We want to play as many games as we can,” he said. “It will be tough, but when you’re winning games it gives you energy. We had tough games this week but the players have been brilliant and came through it well. Now we’ll look forward to the Europa League, because it’s a competition that we want to do well in.”
Rodgers played a near full-strength side against Palace and is likely to do so again against Besiktas. He changed the game from the bench, with the introduction of Mario Balotelli at half-time offering a sharpened threat in the final third. Daniel Sturridge’s volley and Lallana’s rebound from a Balotelli free-kick overturned Fraizer Campbell’s early goal.
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It is a measure of the increased depth Rodgers feels is available to him. Even a year ago, there is little doubt that Liverpool would not have had the numbers to mount any sort of challenge on three fronts. “There is no doubt that you’re always playing catch-up,” Rodgers said. “It can be tough. But it’s a very prestigious tournament. The players are young and hungry, and this group can grow over the next couple of years.”
And this is really the heart of it. The winners of the Europa League qualify for the Champions League, which Rodgers admitted “does make it more attractive”. But really, it is the glint of shiny metal that really interests him.
Rodgers feels that he has made big strides in his three seasons at Anfield. But unless you count individual awards and the prestigious Championship Play-Off Trophy in 2011, he is still waiting for his first major silverware. Like his immaculately groomed squad, perhaps Rodgers is finally ready to take the next step.