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Liverpool's Litmus Test

Slipperduke

The Camden Cad
Joined
Aug 24, 2004
Messages
4,333
Location
North London
Liverpool's Litmus Test

Little by little, Liverpool are beginning to come together. A 3-0 win over West Bromwich Albion on Saturday night banished any lingering fears that last weekend's White Hart Lane debacle had caused permanent damage to the morale of the squad and gave yet another tantalising hint that this might be the start of something special. A first league title since 1990. More important than the score was the ease in which it was achieved. This was the kind of result that Rafa Benitez's team would have struggled for last season, but times have changed at Anfield.

Of the big four, Liverpool have beaten Chelsea and Manchester United already. Their local rivals Everton were brushed aside in September and the annoying banana-skins like Wigan and Manchester City were dealt with eventually as well, even if it did take until the last minute. Now, with Fernando Torres back in the squad, with Robbie Keane remembering what that big net is for and with Albert Reira providing some class on the left wing, Liverpool approach a golden run of fixtures. A litmus test for the authenticity of this apparent title challenge.

Over the next month, the Reds face Bolton, Fulham, West Ham, Blackburn and Hull, five teams that you would expect to finish in the bottom half. Five teams who have either struggled to get going this season or, in Hull's case, have faded away in recent weeks. These are the periods that separate the contenders from the also-rans. If Manchester United or Chelsea had a run of fixtures like this, I think we'd all consider running to the nearest Singapore Pools and backing them to pick up 15 points. Those two powerhouses have players who know what it takes to win a title, who can lift themselves to battle for what others might mistakenly think of as foregone conclusions. We can't say the same about Liverpool just yet. We know that they have big-game players, how else can you explain their tremendous European record? Let's see what they're like in the routine encounters.

There are still enough question marks hanging over Liverpool to keep neutrals sceptical. Benitez has a mixed record in the transfer market and there is nothing so far to suggest that Andreas Dossena is any better than Fabio Aurelio or that Philipp Degen has anything to offer the club at all. An injury to Benitez's best purchase of last season, Martin Skrtel, leaves them weak for cover at the back and if anything happens to Reira, they lose all of that potency on the flank.

But if Liverpool can come through these five fixtures unscathed, if they can add 12 -15 points to their total before Christmas week, those counter-points will begin to look rather hollow. There has to be a point when Liverpool's excellent start grows into a genuine title challenge and this run of winnable games seems as good a marker as any. I can't be the only person to have been caught out by Liverpool before, jumping on their bandwagon just in time for the axle to break, but if they do well over the next four weeks even I will have to admit that those 19 years of hurt might, just might be coming to an end.

BENITEZ SIDEBAR

No-one ever said that Rafa Benitez was silly. With Liverpool in their strongest position for six years and looking safe in Europe, the Spanish manager has opened talks on a new contract at the club, anxious to achieve the stability that could preserve the team’s good form.

The only problem is that the men he must negotiate with know barely anything about football and have so far displayed the kind of wisdom and judgement that turns big clubs into small ones. Last season George Gillett and Tom Hicks were sounding out Jurgen Klinsmann for the Liverpool job and that new stadium of theirs doesn’t look like it’s going to get built any time soon. All the more tragic then that they will have the final word on the future of Benitez.

The omens aren’t good. Reports in the UK suggest that the Americans are more concerned about inserting ‘gagging clauses’ into the new contract than making sure that it protects the future of the club. Others say that it will be a two year deal instead of the five year agreement that Benitez craves, a period of time that will be considered an insult by the man who has delivered a European Cup, and FA Cup and constant Champions League latter stage qualification.

If Gillett and Hicks have any sense, and there is no reason to suspect that they do, they’ll get Benitez signed up quickly, before anyone else notices and nabs him first. Then they can concentrate on something else, finding a way of safely restructuring the potentially disastrous loans that they have taken out on one of England’s proudest football clubs.
 
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