'Christmas Time, Missed Chances and Whine?'

Posted by Byrnee on December 20, 2004, 11:57:49 AM

(Or 'Oh Come, All Ye Faithful Reds')

So here we are till after Christmas.

6th.

Below par.

We could be gloomy about this. I mean, I think we all would have accepted a strong possibility of being behind United (especially after they bought fat-arse), Arsenal and Chelsea. But Everton and Middlesbrough? What on earth's going on?

Well, as usual, the table doesn't lie. Although we've had contentious decisions at times, we've also played poorly at times. Everton have been resilient and surprisingly effective at holding onto slim leads and Boro have at times looked excellent going forward, whilst also looking suspect for many games.

So now, as we near the end of a highly eventful 2004 for Liverpool FC, both those teams above us, particularly Everton, are now considered our rivals for 4th and a Champions League spot.

Obviously there are others. Newcastle, despite their awful recent form, cannot yet be discounted and of the other teams around us Aston Villa are generally strong throughout the season and may well finish closest, but Tottenham are probably putting no more stock in getting into the Champions League than we are winning the title this season. Its not impossible, just highly improbable.

And theres the rub, our 'competition' for fourth varies from incredibly unlikely (Spurs) to pretty unlikely (Everton). Am I being harsh on Everton? Maybe, but I'm not dismissing the idea out of hand. A couple of years ago, they ran us close until the last few games so I'll never go down the "You'll finish no higher than the top of the bottom half" cockiness again!

But this year I'd predict Everton's 'assault' on the title will capitulate earlier than last time. I know blues fans who genuinely believe they can win the title and others who believed they'd finish no higher than 12th but now have raised their optimism levels to the dizzy heights of 8th! The average of these two extremes is fourth, of course, but I feel they'll fall short.

Everton, like a lot of the teams we are contesting the fourth spot with, haven't had a 'bad run'. Until last season and Arsenal's magnificent performance it was a long held belief that all teams 'have a bad run' (and you could argue Arsenal did - the time around their exits from both the Champions League and FA Cup, and uninspiring draws against United & Chelsea in the league may not have been lengthy, but it was almost the self destruct procedure completed) and whilst it is fairly true for the top clubs, most clubs form runs in patches - good patches here and there, bad patches here and there.

In these days of forums, phone-ins and fickle fans three games without winning is a 'bad run' (usually resulting in a demand for an instant change of Manager / Chairman / Star Player to remedy the problem!) That's what sets apart the Champions from the rest, reducing the bad runs to one or two parts of the season rather than 5 or 6.

The same should be true for Boro - just see this weekends result a 3-0 'stuffing' over a more adventurous and attacking Villa side. At some point, those counter attacks will fail, and the sucking up pressure will result in lots of goals conceded. The difficulty for them is that nobody can complain when you're winning, even if the display or the goal difference is a concern. Its hard to justify a change in formation, tactics or the first XI if you're higher than expected. In that way, they remind me of us circa the start of the 2002/03 season. Good results, bad performances. A tad harsh summary there - we played excellently at times - but who of us, during those heady days when we topped the Premiership, weren't slightly concerned that we were riding our luck? It eventually proved to be so, with us finishing 5th. I can't see Boro finishing even that high. Though according to Alan Nixon in today's Mirror - 'it will probably come down to the Blues or Middlesbrough for the fourth Champions League slot'! (Remember that in May kids).

It is at Villa Park that I feel a significant threat emerges. Good defence, good youngsters, good manager. A lot of good. Not a lot of great. If Doug 'Scrooge' Ellis ever decided to dip into his pockets and buy a truly great player, their chances would obviously improve. As it is, I think they are 2 or 3 great players away from contesting the top four.
 
Though it may seem so, I'm not dismissing these teams out of hand. I just do not have reactionary opinions based on the Premiership table in December - in the same way that I do not think Chelsea will win everything from the League Cup to the Superbowl because they've been superb for the last two months. A season is a long, hard, grind. Some from the top will drop, some from the relegation contenders will break free and save themselves in the next five months. Its a long time, 20 games and anything can happen. Everyone, including the Almighty Chelsea Immortals will have bad games, bad results and bad luck. If they could have all our bloody bad ref decisions as well, we might progress more quickly!

So can we expect our Mighty Reds to have a bad run too? I would argue they have. Away from Anfield. Our away record is, and forgive me for sounding like I'm going overboard here, shocking. It's awful, bearing more in resemblance to the bottom three than the top three's away form.

It needs fixing. But a closer look at our away fixtures I think reveals some interesting issues. The obvious learning curve of the players using the 4-5-1 / 4-2-3-1 / insert-your-own-take-on-our-formation-here. For whilst they have struggled to get to grips with our away system, we have taken to our home formations and tactics like a duck to water. At times this season our results haven't been right but our playing has - Villa away, Deportivo at home etc where we dominated but lacked the cutting edge.

Which brings me onto the striker issue. Cisse was looking, well, shall we agree on: A possibility? ... at times he was impressive  but then other times just  anonymous. There is no doubt that we have bought a much better striker than Heskey and he will, I am sure, come back with all guns blazing, but to play for a new club with a new manager with new ideas and new players in a new country in an new league learing a new language is difficult at best. For any striker to adapt immediately is asking far too much. We saw glimpses, they will suffice for now in whetting the appetite - what could Cisse do for us next season?

We are clearly going to be recruiting a striker in January - whoever it turns out to be out of the two who are 'DEFINITELY' coming, I am not just hopeful, but expectant that things will improve with them in the squad. I also expect Garcia and Harry to continue improving, and I expect our defence will tighten up as they get to grips with any new systems put in place by the manager and his backroom staff.

Its dangerous for a fan to be expectant, down that road lies disappointment, depression and dismay. But there it is. I am beyond optimistic for the 2nd half of the season. I'm sure of it. More fool me? Maybe. We will wait and see. But I believe that with one or two additions and the ever-increasing confidence of key players we'll not only be above  our 'competition' for a Champions league spot, but we'll blow them all away, ending up in the top four closer to 1st than 5th - at least points-wise.

Hope I've been of some help bringing a little optimism into your day! Merry Christmas to all, and A Very Happy New Year For The Mighty Reds!

© Byrnee 2004

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