IF you’re not beside yourself with excitement at the prospect of watching The Reds at home to Brighton and Hove Albion then you’re in the wrong business.
This Liverpool side are building dreams and momentum. All that stands in our way is the bearing of the psychological burden that accompanies great expectation.
Greater tests lie ahead than the already despatched West Ham and Crystal Palace, and indeed this weekend’s opponents, but fulfilling minimum requirements has proved too much for countless Liverpool setups over the decades. Ruthlessness must be the new watchword.
It’s been a long, long time since we’ve been able to go into a season sensing that something special was brewing. In my Liverpool-supporting life the most redolent example has always been the early phase of the 1987-88 campaign. Truth be told, optimism wasn’t particularly great on the eve of that season. Yes, Liverpool had been busy in the transfer market — bringing in John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge — but we’d finished the 1986-87 season well behind champions Everton and had lost top scorer and main man, Ian Rush, to Juventus in a record-breaking summer transfer. It was the early results and the nature of the performances that quickly changed attitudes.
After a narrow opening day win over Arsenal, The Reds started scoring goals in big numbers and were swatting away opponents in a fashion that suggested even better things were to come. I recall following the team to Coventry City’s Highfield Road ground, for a fixture the pundits were billing as a “tricky away”. Liverpool put on a show that day. The most expensive new signing, Beardsley, was on the mark and fellow new arrival, Barnes, was imperious in a four-goal victory. All who were there that day left impressed. It was a performance that made the wider football world sit up and take notice.
That was the key thing. The hype, the expectation, the excitement. It was being felt keenly by us as fans, but it was very much out there in neutral land too. We were the team all were talking about. By the time we went to Newcastle and thrashed another fancied team 4-1 on their own pitch, the gushing of praise had become a torrent. I’d seen many good Liverpool teams over the course of the previous decade, but this incarnation seemed to have real momentum behind them. I’d seen it at the start of the 1978-79 campaign too, but I was young then and had fewer reference points. 1987 felt different. It felt very special.
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What differentiated and gave it a sense of its own persona was that it wasn’t just about Liverpool getting it on and winning a few games at the start of a season, it was the gelling of crucial new signings. They were refreshing and galvanised an already solid core. There are echoes of this in Liverpool’s here and now. We’ve added five new men this calendar year. Three already look and feel not just like mainstays, but essential components of an all-new and fearsome Liverpool team.
The big goalie — Alisson Becker — he’s a lovely big lad. As strapping as it gets. We’ve waited what might as well be a lifetime for him. But he’s here now, like a whopping, great-bearded, handsome prince in our goal. At Crystal Palace on Monday night, there he was, throwing himself about, kicking short, arrowing balls long, chucking it out overarm like a world-class bowler. Everything done with decisiveness and confidence, with purpose and accuracy.
Then there’s Virgil van Dijk, a veritable one-man defence. He makes men around him feel like men again. He completes our defence. He completes me. In South London he was arguably the stand-out performer in a Liverpool team of performers.
Running the colossus close as man of that match was another new boy, Naby Keita. We’ve waited a long year for Naby, but he’s proving worth it. Eighteen months ago I doubt any/many of us would have known him had we crashed into him on a Leipzig street corner. Our manager knew about him, though. The impression is that it must have been love at first sight for Jürgen Klopp. Here was a midfielder he could build a team around. An all-purpose running, dribbling, tackling, shooting machine.
That Alisson, Virgil and Naby seem hellbent on fulfilling their Anfield destinies in such a rush, combined with the obvious wider functionality of an already legendary attack, an impressive pre season and a bold start to the actual campaign, are allying to bolster the burgeoning impression that we’re watching a Liverpool team on a mission.
Momentum can be all in football. The risk of a false dawn remains omnipresent, but if Klopp can harness all the positive forces working in Liverpool’s favour at the moment then a truly special era can be beckoned in sooner rather than later.
Chris Hughton’s Brighton shipped nine goals to Liverpool last season, scoring just one in reply. At the weekend though, his unfancied team humbled Manchester United, besting them 3-2. It was an unexpected result and should serve to relax Brighton ahead of what they will realise is a mighty ask at Anfield. Hughton will have taken in Liverpool’s two-goal win at Palace on Monday and noted that The Reds took a while to get going. The home side decided to cede ground to Liverpool from the off and to effectively don the mantle of an away side. Brighton will have no choice as to the role that they will be cast.
As bold as Hughton dares to be, his side will inevitably find itself camped in its own half attempting to deny Liverpool space in which to work. In the past, bus-parking sides have all too often proven a nemesis for Liverpool. That was the case considerably less last term, and into the new season, Liverpool have shown the necessary patience, aggression and focus to cope with low-block setups.
Fitness issues notwithstanding, I think we all expect Klopp to go again with the same side for Brighton. We might have expected to be seeing a midfield of Jordan Henderson, Naby Keita and Adam Lallana a couple of months ago, but Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner simply refuse to be cast off as bit-part actors. Expect the skipper, Hendo, to again be left kicking his heels, and other big names such as Daniel Sturridge, Xherdan Shaqiri, Fabinho and Lallana to be sweating on even making the matchday squad.
The Reds may not deliver the football fiesta and banquet of goals that Anfield now routinely craves, but this all-new, eyes on the prize red wrecking ball should still have enough quality and components to make relatively short work of those plucky and in-form Seasiders.
Take the next step, Reds.
Predicted 11: Alisson; Trent, Gomez, van Dijk, Robertson; Wijnaldum, Milner, Keita; Salah, Firmino, Mane
Kick off: 5.30pm, Saturday
Referee: Chris Kavanagh
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“I don’t understand why people who were so desperate for Liverpool to have strength in depth are now annoyed that Liverpool have strength in depth.” ✊@MelissaReddy_ on Fabinho’s absence vs Palace
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 22 August 2018