Liverpool team ethic at heart of title drive
Rodgers talks up collective as Reds face Norwich trip, writes Paul Wilson
Liverpool's visit to Norwich might be an Istanbul-sized psychological obstacle for the title challengers to overcome, if Steven Gerrard's analogy is accurate, yet the Premier League leaders do possess a not-so-secret weapon to boost confidence at Carrow Road.
Luis Suarez has scored 11 goals in four games against the Canaries, including four at Anfield in December and hat-tricks on his previous two trips to East Anglia. Just one goal today would take the Premier League's leading goalscorer to 30 for the season and strengthen an already-solid case for the Player of the Year award.
While few would argue against such an honour, last season's cannibalistic tendencies nothwithstanding, there is just one tiny complication. Should Liverpool extend their glorious winning sequence beyond 10 games and go on to win a first title in 24 years, the sort of leadership displayed by Gerrard against Manchester City last week will inevitably win him a share of the vote.
Liverpool have several convincing candidates and a split vote could see the award go elsewhere. David Ginola in 1999 springs to mind. The then-Tottenham player was not exactly an undeserving recipient, but that was the year Manchester United won everything in sight. The treble winners were too much of a team for any individual to stand out and Liverpool, with impressive performers all over the pitch this season, might be the same.
"I suppose that's the sort of headache you would want," their manager Brendan Rodgers says. "It means you are being successful. Either of Luis and Steven would be a deserving winner, but the biggest victory for me as a coach is the improvement in all the players. If we have any success this year it is because of our model, which is about player development.
"I'm here to facilitate the players being the best they can be. We work with each individual player and make a plan for them to be better. The player has to have the responsibility to want to improve, and from that you'll get performance and excellence. That's what we sell to the players at Liverpool."
While that might sound like an excerpt from a coaching manual, one only has to look at the way Liverpool have climbed the table to see there is substance behind the self-help rhetoric. Just about every regular first-team player is playing out of his skin most weeks, not just improving.
Daniel Sturridge has weighed in with the goals as well as Suarez, and has made it to the PFA shortlist for player of the year along with Suarez and Gerrard, and is a certainty for Brazil in the summer, as is Raheem Sterling, who seems to get more impudently assured with every passing week.
Philippe Coutinho will probably end up sitting out the World Cup, which will be a shame because he is among the most creative and consistently watchable Brazilians this season. Jordan Henderson has come on well enough to make his mark with England too, and managed in a matter of months to make Alex Ferguson's reservations about his gait look rather silly.
Jon Flanagan has appeared on the scene to make the left-back position his own, while Martin Skrtel has surprised with important goals to add to reliable defending. The Slovakian has shown this season he can play with the ball at his feet, and with seven league goals to date, mostly headers from set-piece crosses, he is outscoring forwards such as Fernando Torres, Shane Long and Juan Mata.
A win today would throw the focus forward a week to Chelsea's visit. The reunion between Jose Mourinho and his former protege Rodgers will be for the highest stakes with the ball now firmly in Liverpool's court after Chelsea's shock defeat yesterday evening.
"That's not the next game," Rodgers says. "Stevie in the huddle after Manchester City encapsulated what I've been saying throughout the season. The next game is not the most glamorous thing to think about but it allows us to focus on the direct rival and not get carried away. I didn't see City against Sunderland, I watched Everton and Palace instead. But the message from both games was obvious. You can't take anything for granted against teams near the bottom. Teams down there are fighting for their lives. They are not going to lay down and die."
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