LAST week’s victory at The Etihad Stadium, and in particular the emphatic 4-1 scoreline, was met by a modicum of shock in most media circles. For most neutral observers Liverpool, despite the recent hiring of Jürgen Klopp, had dropped off the radar when it comes to considering the likeliest challengers to occupy the top four places next May.
While Liverpool fans’ were pleasantly surprised at the ruthless destruction of the Premier League title favourites, perhaps this result suddenly alters, at least for our supporters, the perception of the Reds’ current standing in English football.
Can we now aspire to greater things? Can we shake off the tag of candidates for the Europa League at best — the anomaly of 2014 aside — which has dogged us for several seasons and become genuine Champions League contenders?
Klopp has already — in the wake of the earlier facile away win at Chelsea — dismissed “crazy” talk of a title challenge, but a glance at the table suggests otherwise. Bridging the six-point gap to the top four would automatically propel Liverpool to within reach of the league summit. There’s an element of the pragmatist about Klopp but there ought to be no ceiling on belief.
Having negotiated five of the traditionally most awkward away fixtures, Anfield is due to witness some intriguing big games in the New Year. Before then, a run of matches against lower-ranking opposition — Crystal Palace-type blips notwithstanding — offers the opportunity to make up ground. Dare I say it, by Christmas we could be handily placed.
Of course, as supporters it is easy to get carried away but there was a conviction about Liverpool’s win at Man City that hints at a new dawn. Klopp has only been in charge for five league games but his impact is tangible. If the Reds can win in such style against Manchester City, without a recognised striker, the remainder of this season offers exciting possibilities.
A substitutes’ bench featuring the firepower and flexibility of Christian Benteke and Daniel Sturridge was an eye-opener while Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho ran amok at Eastlands. With Jordan Henderson still to return, suddenly Liverpool have options, at least in midfield and up front. Figuring out formations and selections that tackle the growing complexity of winning home fixtures will be Klopp’s next big challenge. The high pressing and counter attacking looks so well drilled that away conundrums will be simpler to solve.
It is a curious league with nothing more surprising than Leicester City sitting proudly at the top, eight points clear of the Reds. The Foxes visit to Anfield on Boxing Day suddenly looks like a key game.
Man City, with the strongest squad, rightly remain favourites despite occasional aberrations which ask big questions of their stomach for the fight. Manchester United continue to underwhelm even their own supporters but have developed a knack of winning sans style. Arsenal remain flaky; their fans enduringly unconvinced by a latter day Arsene Wenger’s staying power in a title race. Chelsea, though gradually improving under a besieged Jose Mourinho, are still a mile off the efficiency that won last season’s equally uninspiring league at a canter.
The outriders in the competition for the top spots are Spurs. Almost unnoticed they have gone unbeaten in 12 league games since an opening day defeat at Manchester United. The similarities with Liverpool are intriguing — not least our respective 4-1 thrashings of City — and yet we remain largely indifferent to their credentials despite being four points adrift. Something is brewing in North London that suggests Spurs are building momentum that will sustain beyond this year.
Older fans are well-rehearsed in dismissing Spurs as “Fancy Dans” but under the increasingly assured Mauricio Pochettino, the new Tottenham rival the Reds for work ethic, organisation and flair.
They have a reliable goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris, Harry Kane has started scoring again, Erik Lamela has finally adjusted to English football, and Moussa Dembele offers left-foot guile and goals. The emergence of the latest England debutant Deli Alli has added some youthful verve comparative to our own Jordon Ibe.
The recent dominance of Liverpool in fixtures between the clubs has a part to play in our perception of Spurs as genuine rivals but masks a serious threat to Liverpool’s ambitions for this season. The recent goalless draw at White Hart Lane in Klopp’s first game looks a better result with each passing week. Finishing above Spurs will be no small task but using them as a marker might be enough to secure the season’s objective.
Liverpool’s position in the English hierarchy has already been compromised by investments at Chelsea and Man City; United’s enduring wealth and Arsenal’s perpetual Champions League presence. Despite the arrival of Klopp, competing with our supposed, more affluent peers remains a challenge. Klopp deliberately, admirably so, shuns talk of money being the sole factor but in the modern English game football success and finance are close bedfellows.
Off the pitch it seems Tottenham Hotspur Football Club wants to gatecrash the party and it could be Liverpool they are fighting with for an invite. Years of inertia, existing in Arsenal’s shadow, have finally seen Spurs commit to a more ambitious future.
After a clumsy flirtation with the idea of a move to the Olympic site at Stratford, their new stadium project (below) — due for completion in readiness for 2018/19 — will conveniently outstrip the capacity of Arsenal’s Emirates by one thousand seats.
The foundations are already in place for an architecturally stunning 61,000-seater on a footprint next to the existing White Hart Lane site. With abundant corporate hospitality and London weighting on ticket prices, Spurs’ increased matchday revenues puts Liverpool’s shorter-term Main Stand extension in the shade for aspiration and acumen. FSG would have to deliver on a seemingly shelved idea to redevelop the Anfield Road Stand to reach such capacity.
Liverpool, regardless of league position, will always dwarf Spurs as an internationally-renowned football club and brand so the plans for Anfield look somewhat home-spun by comparison. Spurs’ Chairman Daniel Levy, not always lauded by Tottenham fans for dealings in the transfer market, has woken to the fact that narrowing the gap — on Liverpool and others — is reliant on a stadium equivalent to Europe’s finest.
Spurs’ “Glory Glory” days were more fleeting and are rooted even more firmly in the past than those of Liverpool FC. The “Lilywhites” reigned during the early sixties, winning a league and cup double in 1961 but despite a sustained status as a cup side in the 1980s; Spurs have developed a reputation, not unlike Liverpool over the last decade, as a club notable only for its history.
Though it is an unpalatable thought, to outsiders the two clubs are, for now, still bracketed together as mere pretenders to the traditional “top four”.
This however can change quickly. With the innovation and driving force of Klopp and Pochettino behind them, Liverpool and Spurs could easily break the monopoly at the top of English football and soon. There isn’t the same appetite or energy when you conjure in your mind the snarl of Mourinho, the frown of Wenger or the heavy eyes of Manuel Pellegrini.
Everything in this league is up for grabs and, in the wake of last weekend’s statement of intent in Manchester, for Liverpool it feels like a critical time to push on.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo