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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
There's a distinct Joey Barton vibe about Liverpool this week. We look at them with a grudging respect, we acknowledge the good start, but we all share a growing sense of uneasiness, as if it's only a matter of time before they fall flat on their face, or in Barton's case, re-arrange someone's face. A trip to White Hart Lane, that looked simple enough a week ago, is yet another banana-skin under Rafa Benitez's feet, though he appears to be coping with the pressure rather well so far.

"Last week, you said we couldn't beat the big teams," he smiled in response to suggestions that Liverpool, conquerors of Chelsea and Manchester United, now had to prove themselves against the detritus of the Premier League. "Now, it is the small teams."

But, in fairness to the gentlemen of the press, that's really been the whole problem with Liverpool. Not successful enough against their rivals, not consistent enough against everyone else. And then there is the question of bottle.

Exactly six years ago, Liverpool were in an even stronger position than they are now, riding high at the top of the table with an astonishing nine wins and three draws from their first twelve games. Then, away at Middlesbrough with just eight minutes to go, Jerzy Dudek dropped a cross at Gareth Southgate's feet and it all went horribly wrong. Liverpool didn't win another game for almost three months and were down to seventh by the time they finally picked up three points at Southampton in mid-January.

Certainly, this Liverpool side has a more complete look about it than previous incarnations. Albert Reira is looking like a very astute acquisition indeed, not because he's a world class player, which he isn't, but because he offers something Liverpool haven't enjoyed in years; width. And with width, comes chances. At the back, they seem safe, despite the rotation of partners at Jamie Carragher's side and the world's most unambitious fullbacks, and then there's Fernando Torres. Any side with a striker of the young Spaniard's quality is more than capable of challenging for the title, and yet Liverpool's best results have come when he has missed out through injury. All in all, this is a team that is starting to be taken seriously.

But Liverpool don't do title challenges, they haven't for almost 20 years and because of this long catalogue of expensive and humiliating failure, backing them for the big prize is like being in a horror movie and going down to check out that noise in the cellar. Naturally, we're compelled to grab the torch and step down into the darkness, but there's a nagging suspicion that it's all going to end in tears.

The Premier League is one of the hardest domestic championships in the world. Benitez's Valencia won La Liga in 2004 after losing seven games, finishing with 77 points. That would have got 4th place in England last season. Until Liverpool can prove themselves again and again and again at places like Ewood Park, The Riverside and, yes, White Hart Lane as well, people will continue to doubt their authenticity. For the moment at least, Benitez is going to have to continue to tread carefully.