Saturday 17 August 2019

Rodgers' Reds riding wave of momentum that makes anything possible

Manager Brendan Rodgers of Liverpool looks on
Manager Brendan Rodgers of Liverpool looks on

James Lawton

AMERICAN FOOTBALL legend Vince Lombardi agreed with all rivals that a coach's most potent asset would always carry the name 'Mo'. As in 'momentum', that is. This, we have to guess, is a theory now powerfully fuelling the carefully understated dreams of Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.

Momentum comes in many different ways, superior coaching, dressing-room bonhomie, surges of individual form, but there is one common denominator. It is a sudden growth of self-belief, a sense that as a team your time may indeed have come.

Rodgers, along with his captain Steven Gerrard, had been mostly denying the possibility that Liverpool were serious contenders for their first English title in 24 years.

There was, though, a perceptible change of mood after this week's dramatic, hard-run victory at Fulham. If some things could still not be said, if it was still too soon to punch the most Thames-side air, it is a foolish fighter who does not understand that he has landed some extremely telling punches.

It is also a fact that Rodgers' reticence had been for reasons that were hard-headed enough and certainly far from the coy disavowals of football's supreme propagandist Jose Mourinho.

Yes, Rodgers might allow, Luis Suarez is achieving stunning levels of creative consistency, his partner Daniel Sturridge is maintaining superbly the cold authority of the best gunfighters, and if Gerrard is playing largely from memory it is one which retains an often beautiful clarity of both thought and action.

But then Rodgers was, for the sake of credibility, obliged to make veiled references to his porous defence, the bizarre collapse of Kolo Toure's old swaggering confidence, and he could say that the Champions League qualification which is now beckoning so strongly was a huge step forward before another round of significant signings.

It was a good line in prudence, no doubt, but that was before big 'Mo Mentum' took a hand.

Strategically, his timing is potentially exquisite.

CONVINCING

Liverpool have hit their most convincing stride precisely when the big guns of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal have begun to misfire – and the idea that David Moyes might wrestle Manchester United into some kind of resurrection before the end of the season has never looked further away.

It's true that the closest analysis of the leading contenders still counsels caution in Liverpool hearts. But the thing about momentum is that it creates a life – and a vigour – of its own.

While City and Arsenal respectively consider the challenge represented by Champions League giants Barca and the reigning title-holders Bayern Munich, and Chelsea face their former demi-god Didier Drogba, Liverpool's immediate task carries the sweetest simplicity.

At the weekend they have the chance to re-traumatise Arsenal in the FA Cup – and in the knowledge that they are just four points away from leading the Premier League.

It is the reward for an extraordinary unveiling of psychological strength. There was the stumble of two lost points at West Bromwich after the thrashing of Everton and some feared that at Fulham there might be a repeat of such a lapse in the wake of last weekend's evisceration of Arsenal.

That was, it seemed, a distinct possibility when Fulham, buoyed by their resilient draw at Old Trafford a few days earlier, twice took the lead at Craven Cottage. Yet Liverpool stepped beyond old frailties. Philippe Coutinho scored a goal marked by nerve and perseverance, Sturridge was Cool Hand Luke again, Suarez, it seems inevitable now, produced the game's moment of supreme skill and audacity, and Gerrard was, once more, Gerrard, a man ransacking past achievements for one last run at the glory.

If this was a measurable advance by Liverpool, the comments of Rodgers certainly supported such a view.

Like Lombardi, he was recognising that in the affairs of men, and especially sports teams, there are moments which have the potential to change every reasonable thought you ever had about your prospects,

Rodgers said: "We knew this Fulham game was very important. I said to the players that there were games where you arrive in the Champions League – games like this one here. You are playing a team fighting to stay in the division. We've come off the back of a brilliant performance at the weekend and we've got another three points in a different way.

"So it really proves this team has improved in every facet of the game. We're just going to keep pushing on and I think we've shown enough times that we are a very good side.

"We're chasing but we need some of the teams above us to drop points before anything else happens."

With Europe now crowding their agenda, the three leaders have all shown such a vulnerable disposition, and when Rodgers weighs his chances he can only be consumed by the fact that his team is now just four points away from the mountain top.

City's lava flow of goals has dried up as manager Manuel Pellegrini pines for the almost spiritual force of the absent Sergio Aguero. Arsenal's Arsene Wenger frets over the disappearance of his high-yield scorers Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott and fights to re-animate the Mesut Ozil who was so luminous in the early going.

Mourinho tells parables about little horses but he wasn't so philosophical after dropping the two points which would have created some clear blue water between him and the rest of the pack.

REQUIRED

What is required now in a Premier League race of compelling intrigue is for one coach – one team – to announce that they have the nerve and the appetite to take hold of the season.

Two weeks ago you might have said it was City, a team pushing towards new dimensions. They had Sergio, aka 'Mo Mentum'. Then it was Chelsea, with Eden Hazard touching new levels of inspired craft in the victory over City.

Arsenal, after the months of old, rising promise, are for the moment stricken.

So where, really, are Liverpool and the young coach who in some ways could hardly be further from the image of the old invincible Lombardi, of whom it was said by one of his players: "One thing about him, he never played favourites. He treated us all like dogs."

For various reasons, including changing times and the nature of the man, Rodgers knows that such an approach no longer works.

However, something endures from another age. It is the priceless edge that can come with the idea that, quite suddenly, everything seems possible.

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