Saturday 21 July 2018

Stephen Hunt: Liverpool primed for big effort against Chelsea so they can relax next week

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: PA
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: PA
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

With the Champions League final sorted, Jurgen Klopp will today be expecting his Liverpool players to get the next job done in the Premier League and qualify for next season's competition. They are a better side than Chelsea and they should finish above them.

Liverpool on form, with the front three at full pelt, should have enough to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge today, but Klopp is bound to make changes to the team which came through the semi-final in Rome on Wednesday night.

Barring injuries, he will start with Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino and I suspect he will be cajoling them to put all their energy into this big game today so they can all relax for next week's final game at home to Brighton.

Chris Hughton's Brighton are safe, Liverpool will only need a point thanks to their superior goal difference over Chelsea, and they will get that at least at Anfield next Sunday. There is plenty of time to rest before Kiev then.

Chelsea have been off the pace from the season's kick-off and never looked capable of competing with Manchester City to retain the title which they won so easily last season. But they had Diego Costa in all his glory then and once he decided he didn't want to play for Antonio Conte again, you knew the Chelsea manager was in trouble.

And it is Conte's inability to change his management style, I think, which has been Chelsea's downfall this season. He seemed very intense in his first championship-winning season in England. But when you bring intensity to intensity, it eventually wears you out.

Keeping players fresh and motivated is part of the modern manager's job and if you keep flogging your players every day, it stops working. Players think it's like being back in school and they switch off.

Two ex-players taking their first managerial roles are Joey Barton and Steven Gerrard and although Gerrard has gone for the bigger club, I think Barton has chosen the best option strategically, because at least he can be successful.

I know the Liverpool legends will come out to say Gerrard will do a great job and it's a wonderful opportunity to cut his teeth etc, but, when I compare the two, I am not sure he has taken the best path to succeed in his first job.

From what I am hearing, Barton has been lined up for three months by League One Fleetwood Town and he has used that time to look at League One, go to plenty of matches, analyse players and have a feel for where the club wants to go next season.

Fleetwood have a decent budget for the division, good infrastructure and scouting network and a plan to continue improving and get into the Championship. Barton is a brave appointment by chairman Andy Pilley. He divides opinion due to his reputation as a player and pundit and will bring the type of media attention Fleetwood has never seen before.

But Barton is not stupid. He is a student of the game and he will know this is an ideal opportunity for him to cut his teeth as a manager and put his many, many words into practice. If he can get into the play-offs, and perhaps even promotion, he will have done a good job.

Not even Jose Mourinho could win the Scottish Premiership with Rangers, never mind Steven Gerrard in his first job. Last weekend's embarrassing Old Firm defeat at Celtic Park showed the chasm between the two clubs. Rangers are at least five years behind champions Celtic - and I don't think the Scottish champions are much better than many League One sides, never mind the Championship.

I do not blame Gerrard for being attracted to Ibrox. Although the current lot are a poor imitation of their great sides, it is a club with a great history and big, loyal support. But I am surprised he has chosen Glasgow. He must understand the division in the city; even he has been seen in the Celtic end more than Rangers' at previous derbies.

It is not like Liverpool. The media will be different and that will bring extra pressure and intrusion. Every Liverpool fan worships him and most Everton fans love him deep down, because he is a Scouser, and he's retired. But in Glasgow, 50 per cent of the population hates you all the time and 100 per cent hate you when you lose.

Gerrard will work at far better facilities than Barton, but that is it. He can build a good working relationship with his chairman and he will be able to attract big names because he is Steven Gerrard, but the budget and the league won't be as attractive.

Rangers are many miles and millions away from denying Celtic an eighth successive title and their third under Brendan Rodgers. But if you go through the current Celtic squad, with the exception of Moussa Dembele, how many would get regular games in the Premier League? Scott Brown is the player of the year, who has never had the courage to step out of his comfort zone in Scotland, and the pick of the rest, Leigh Griffiths, Stuart Armstrong, James Forrest and Scott Sinclair, are not good enough to be consistent in the Premier League.

I admire Gerrard for taking the job but there is a big difference between managing Liverpool under 18s and a club as big as Rangers. The best he can hope for his second place. But how can that be deemed a success, especially for someone like Steven Gerrard?

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