Liverpool, Champions Of Pre-Season
You know our friends down the M62: every summer, they find the missing piece of the jigsaw... Did they really do it this time?
Liverpool are always going to win the league during the close season, it's now a tradition as it's been going on since... 1990, I suppose. However, they are usually out of the title race by October and this unmitigated failure is explained by a number of excuses but mostly, the-last-piece-of-the-jigsaw-theory is cited.
Once upon a time, Liverpool needed a tough defensive midfielder, then had to sort out their defense and now, for the last three years, they've been looking for a 20-goal-a-season striker.
They were supposed to find it last season in Dirk Kuyt but he failed to be nearly as prolific as he had been in Holland while Craig Bellamy proved he's not very good at football anymore. He's been promptly sold at the end of the season, sighs of relief followed him from Anfield.
Andriy Voronin from Leverkusen might be the new Berbatov but he's more likely to be another squad player in the world of bloated squads. The star of the show would be Fernando Torres - at least, that's what they wish.
A lot of pundits and fans expect Torres to be the man who finally hits 20 goals for Liverpool but I must point out two things. First, he's never done that at Atletico Madrid where everything was arranged to satisfy him, where he was the greatest hero. Surpassing his best ever haul in his first season in England might be too much to ask.
Secondly, I really can't understand the pundits going on about how every title-winning side need a goalscorer who can score 20+ goals in the league. Neither of last 3 seasons' champions boasted such a man, in fact, Chelsea's top scorer were Frank Lampard in 2005 and 2006, too, while ours was of course Cristiano Ronaldo - so two midfielders were the most prolific at both teams.
But, for the sake of our argument, let's accept that Liverpool indeed need a 20-goal striker. But who will create chances for him?
Of course, one would say that options are aplenty. Apart from Chelsea, they have the strongest central midfield collection - but is there enough creativity? Well, on paper there is. Xabi Alonso and Gerrard are supposed to be wonderful players who should supply tons of opportunities for the forwards - the thing is, they didn't do that last season. I would not go into the 'should Gerrard be used on the right or in the centre'-debate because he did not perform outstandingly in neither position.
The problem is, I think, Liverpool's attitude. Too rarely they try a killer pass and too often go for the safety option - surely you can recall any match when their players were passing the ball around the penalty area for five minutes before swinging in a hopeless cross or shooting from 40 yards? The sale of Luis Garcia deprived them further from the chance of conjuring up something unexpected. So it seems they could revert to hopeless crosses and shooting from distance (I think that's the reason why Liverpool always have the most shots on goal in the Prem) again.
And while we are at crosses: lack of quality wide players is the next missing jigsaw, it seems. Yossi Benayoun is meant to fill the void on the right wing and he should add creativity, too. But he must prove he's a player who win you titles because outstanding though he's been at West Ham, performing at Liverpool is quite different. But of course he will do better than Jermaine Pennant.
On the other wing, Riise, Fabio Aurelio and Kewell all failed to offer permanent solution so step forward Ryan Babel. He did not have a very good season at Ajax but impressed during the European U21 Championships. He can play as a striker and as a winger and it remains to be seen which is his best position. The same applies to him that to Torres, though: you can't expect him, especially at his age, to set the world alight in his first season in the Premiership. He can't be expected to be one of the main men in Liverpool's title challenge.
Their defense is very strong: the Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise backfour is as strong as you can hope for but they lack cover in this area. Fabio Aurelio is another Riise in the sense that his strongest suit is not defending but attacking. I suppose this is why Benitez is so desperate to sign Heinze - though I still don't understand why it's better to be Riise's understudy at Liverpool than Evra's at the Champions. Of course, one might say that Benitez wants to strengthen his team's defending even further - so Riise off, Heinze on, another attacking option cancelled, even fewer goals scored for Liverpool. Would suit me fine, of course.
If they have a slow start, they are doomed: the fear of failure will be there again and they will never win the league if they must play catch-up with us and Chelsea. But will they win the league anyway?
I think that the quality of their players, especially their central midfielders, is enough to overpower most teams at Anfield. But unless they are ready to take more risks, especially away from home, they will suffer again. They do not create enough chances away from Anfield and even there, they often have problems - they dominated us but had no more than three real scoring opportunities, and that's not much.
But this could be solved, as I said, with a little less cautious approach and if Benayoun and Babel both prove a hit. My point is, though, that it's unlikely to be enough. It's simple: though Liverpool have a quality squad now, United's and Chelsea's are better. In order to mount a title challenge, Liverpool need to perform with hitherto unseen consistency AND pray that Chelsea and United both perform below par. That is possible, of course, but unlikely. Why? I'll explain.
Liverpool had achieved their highest points total in the Premiership in 2006: they had amassed 82 points. Benitez won two Spanish league titles with Valencia: his team (just as cautious and often short of creativity as Liverpool) collected 77 and 75 points in these two seasons. That's not enough in England. Even the 82 is not enough. So they must surpass themselves and achieve drastic improvement to have any chance at all.
I say third place again.