June 26, 2005

Taken off here


However realistic it may be, the start of every season brings the same dream for Liverpool fans: to win one of the 'big two' trophies. 2005 was the first time in 15 years that the dream of landing either the Premiership title or the European Cup actually came true.

I am almost certain that we will see a reversal of Liverpool's fortunes next season: an improvement domestically, while failing to retain the European Cup. Perhaps that's totally obvious: it is hard to believe Liverpool could again be as bad in the league, or as successful in Europe. But there are a fair few reasons to believe the improvement in the Premiership will be significant.

1. In the second half of the season, Liverpool will more than likely have just the league to concentrate on

If winning the Champions League once is unbelievable, retaining it would be beyond comprehension. Let's face it, it's just not going to happen, right? Chances are that this time we'll be a more rounded team, but come unstuck either unluckily, or against a superior team who, for once, we cannot beat. Certainly we can't use the underdog status a second year running. We are up there to be beaten, and six qualifying games provide extra banana skins.

I see the quarter-finals as our most realistic final destination, and I'd be more than happy with that. As a result of an earlier elimination, there will be more chance to 'concentrate on the league'. The World Club Championship won't help the fixture list, but at least it's out of the way before Christmas.

2. Everton will finish lower in the table

Just as I don't expect Liverpool to repeat the Champions League success, I fail to see how Everton can have anywhere near as good a season in the league next year. Last season, with Everton having their best season for donkey's years, the Blues' long-held position above the stuttering Reds made Benítez' task harder. Any other side looking down from 4th place would have been less of an 'issue'. Getting 4th place became a grudge match, and Liverpool had the pressing issue of major games against Juventus and Chelsea to contend with.

There is more pressure and expectation on Everton than 12 months ago. They now have Europe to sap their energy. However, if they do repeat their success, I will take them a lot more seriously as an up-and-coming side, and not a one season wonder.

Uefa, in relenting to allow Liverpool into the Champions League, will now set in stone the regulation that 4th place is subject to the winners finishing outside the top four, in which case the reigning champions clearly deserve inclusion. All the hoopla surrounding the whole issue never helped Liverpool's cause either: Everton were in the box seat when the FA made its illogical conclusion in April.

3. The refereeing can't be as bad again, surely?

I know this is always seen as a tame argument. But if any team, big or small, doesn't get the decisions it has 'earned', then it can struggle. When it has a new manager, and new players, it's so crucial to get off to a good start.

The second half of the season was pretty non-eventful in terms of bad refereeing either for or against Liverpool in the Premiership. Chelsea on New Year's Day, and the two penalties the Reds were never awarded, was the turning point. There were one or two debatable decisions after that game, but nothing major. The usual 'par for the course' stuff.

But a collection of outrageously poor decisions in the first half of the season stopped Liverpool getting a better foothold in the league table. A good start to the season sets the tone, and it was notable that key decisions went against the Reds in the first two away games: Steven Gerrard clearly fouled in the box at White Hart Lane on the opening day, in a game that was eventually drawn; and a great Luis Garcia goal wrongly chalked off at the Reebok –– a defeat that would have become a draw. That was four points-worth of poor decisions in the first weeks of the season alone.

Had those decisions been correctly awarded in the Reds' favour, there is every chance the Reds would have built some momentum 'on the road'. Instead, Liverpool couldn't buy a win away from Anfield, and the league campaign never really got out of second gear.

4. Rafa now knows the Premiership better, and knows individual teams and players better.

Much of Rafa's success in Spain was down to analysing the opposition, with the help of Pako Ayestaran, to the nth degree. The pair were famed for pinpointing the weaknesses in every team, and utilising different tactics, players and styles of play to exploit them.

This time around, not only will Rafa and Pako better understand the demands of English football, they will know how all the other teams like to set out their stall, and what players are dangerous (as well as those whose weaknesses can be taken advantage of). It stands to reason that our management will be better equipped this time around.

Liverpool could have gone for an English manager in 2004 who might, given that he will have had a deep knowledge of the league, managed to get an extra ten points in the league last season, but who would have had no experience in Europe. And those extra ten points might have proved the best any English manager could manage –– as good as it gets; Benítez has league titles under his belt. He has shown he can win a major league, not once but twice.

Great managers tend to improve their side's results year-by-year, certainly for the first three or four years. So next season should see a marked domestic improvement.

5. Last season's new signings will be more used to the Premiership

For a man who was too lightweight for the Premiership, eight league goals from open play (and two legitimate ones at Bolton and Boro wrongly chalked off) wasn't a bad return for Luis Garcia. Of these ten 'goals', five were away –– where he was supposed to be anonymous. But it's clear he still has room for improvement, and if he is surrounded by better players than last season he will find more freedom and space.

Although Xabi Alonso adjusted particularly well, at times the games seemed a little too frantic for him –– especially when Gerrard wasn't in the team to distract the opposition. Xabi is only just 23, so the potential is massive –– he will get better as a player, and better as a Premiership footballer.

The main benefactors should be Fernando Morientes and Djibril Cissé, neither of whom started even one-third of last season's league matches: Cissé starting only ten league games, Morientes 12. They've had a good taste of the Premiership, and next season should see them reap the rewards.

Cissé appeared to be coming to terms with the nature of the pace of the game here in the final home match against Aston Villa –– although his statement that he 'didn't want the season to end' seems to have been taken rather too literally by Uefa. He will be extremely hungry and determined to make up for lost time, starting early next month.

6. New signings

Not all of Rafa's summer signings will settle quickly and effectively, but the chances are that at least half will. If one of those signings is Jose Reina, the Villareal 'keeper, then the player has to settle almost immediately –– one area of the team where you can't afford an extended period of acclimatisation is between the sticks. If you list the areas where the squad is a little lacking, there could be a fair few additions: two strikers, two midfielders, two defenders and a goalkeeper.

Of those leaving, none will be too sorely missed –– unlike Owen, who left last summer. (Unless, of course, Gerrard does end up packing his bags.)

Players like Biscan and Smicer played their best games for the club in Europe; their league form was never consistent enough, and of course Baros never quite hit the heights he promised. That's why even half-decent Premiership players (if they are effective) might help bolster the squad with regards to the domestic programme, although of course we want the best players possible –– or rather, the best blend possible.

7. The 'big guns' will be fit

Or at least we hope they will.

An injury-free season from Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Djibril Cissé will be like three new top-class signings. Add all the other players who missed too much football last year (Hamann, Kewell, Kirkland, Sinama-Pongolle, Nunez, Mellor), and you have an entire team of players unavailable to Rafa for much of last season.

8. Emerging talent

There's not too much to go overboard about –– no outrageously talented youngsters on the horizon, destined for world superstardom –– but in John Welsh, Darren Potter, David Raven, Zak Whitbread, Carl Medjani, Anthony Le Tallec and Sinama-Pongolle, the club has a very fine collection of 20/21 year-olds, all of whom picked up valuable first team experience last season. That includes Medjani at L'Orient –– the youngster just captained France to the U20 Toulon championship, in case anyone thinks he's average because he hasn't yet broken into the Liverpool first team.

Expect Rafa to sign some youngsters for the future, but one or two might be able to add something to the team sooner rather than later.

Even Alou Diarra –– now a fully fledged French international –– might return, especially now Biscan has been released. He will report for pre-season training like all other Reds, unless he is loaned out once again, or sold.

9. Liverpool will be firmly into the groove by the time the Premiership kicks in

Pre-season matches are handy, but nothing beats competitive games. Not only did Liverpool's season end 10 days after the Premiership concluded, but the club's season will start a whole month before the league resumes. That's nearly six weeks of added fitness. The Reds will now be able to enjoy a nice couple of weeks' holiday, but won't have time to lose too much conditioning.

The worry is that the team will 'hit the wall' in the new year. But it's always better to have points in the bag, as we saw with Everton this season. A good start to the season breeds confidence, and suddenly you find yourselves on a 'run'. That has to be the hope.

A good start to the league campaign will reinforce the idea that Liverpool are actually now a very special side under Benítez. Even if that's still not 100% true, and the side remains essentially one in transition, a good start will give the impression of an unstoppable side.

10. What better place to end than this: Liverpool FC, Champions of Europe

The confidence of being able to say that that gives the players will be significant. Winning one of the 'big two' tells the players of the levels they can achieve. Once you've climbed Everest you can do so again. While the success was in Europe, the confidence will be 'transferable'. The cup success of 2001 enabled the club to do better in the Premiership in 2002, finishing 2nd with 80 points.

2001/02 did not follow a transitional season. But unlike then, this time Liverpool achieved something where they could say they were 'the best'. The Uefa Cup is for those deemed inferior; the Champions League is for the best teams only. According to the name engraved on this season's cup, Liverpool are the 'best of the best'.

It wasn't just winning the Champions League, it was the manner in which it was achieved. Nothing will ever feel like a 'lost cause' again. If you can beat some great teams on the way to the final, and then come back from 3-0 down at half-time to AC Milan in the biggest club game on the planet, you can come back against anyone. It doesn't mean that you will, of course: but the players now know that anything is possible.

That is a powerful psychological boost in football that can be worth a lot of points over the course of a season. Half of the battle takes place in the players' minds, and their minds should now be filled with the idea of possibilities.

© Paul Tomkins 2005