Liverpool’s manager must have expected the fall-out from Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final defeat to Aston Villa, but it cannot have been an enjoyable week. Rodgers’ admission that his players are suffering from a lack of big-game mentality is all very well, but it only raises the same questions about a manager who had won 12 top-flight matches in his managerial career before arriving at Anfield. This season was the first time Rodgers has managed beyond the third knock-out round in a cup competition.
The reason for supporters’ concern is obvious. Many believe that Rodgers was the beneficiary of a perfect storm last season, a striker in the form of his career and a supporting artist in Daniel Sturridge who managed to stay fit for an entire season. The benefits of that wonderful campaign have been spilled onto the floor like an old soak with a full pint in his hand doing My Way on karaoke. Where once was ambition and positivity, mediocrity threatens to reign again.
In order to address such a half-empty assessment, Rodgers must find a way to finish in the top four. Fail to do so and Liverpool will not have taken one but two or three steps backwards, and he must then rely on the good will of those in charge at Anfield. They must believe that Rodgers is the right man to lead them into the Champions League again. Having demonstrated that he was not the ideal candidate to manage them there, it’s a tough sell.
Rodgers, for his part, believes that the top four is still attainable. “We have shown we can put results together consistently,” he said after the victory over Newcastle. “There are teams above us but, as we saw last year, there can be changes and points dropped and I think there will be changes.”
He had better hope so. Having fallen out of the Champions League and the Europa League at the first hurdle this season, another campaign in Europe’s secondary competition doesn’t whet the appetite of many on Merseyside.
Rodgers has two away games in four days at West Brom and Hull; only six points would begin to dissuade the doubters.
After a season of tedium, Steve Bruce admitted before the match with Southampton a fortnight ago that his side needed to get a little bit crazy. “We have witnessed that all sorts of crazy results can happen, and we need to get one or two of those, that’s for sure,” Bruce said. Relying on unexpected results is a ballsy approach to football management.
As it happens, Hull didn’t do anything beyond their sorry average, losing 2-0 at St Mary’s. Away supporters would at least have prepared themselves for the worst. Hull’s away record in all competitions since the opening day of the season reads: P19, W1, D6, L12, Goals For 13, Goals Against 32.
Bruce has now gone from demanding craziness to hoping that the other sides around Hull can be just a little bit worse. “We have won six games so far and drawn ten,” he said. “I have always said you probably need to win ten and that might be out of our reach, so we’re hoping that eight or nine might be enough.” That’s almost amusingly dreary. A reminder that Hull spent over £40m on new players this season.
“It is another big weekend but we have been saying that for the best part of four months,” was Bruce’s message before the Southampton defeat. Indeed Steve, and it’s almost as if it’s your job to put it right. Still, show us your new contract.
The First Proper Six-Pointer
In my book relegation six-pointers don’t officially start until the last month of the season, and Saturday marks exactly a month until the final day.
The final countdown begins with a match between Burnley in 20th and Leicester in 18th. Having played a game more and now sitting two points from safety, a home defeat would surely hammer a further nail in Burnley’s coffin.
Leicester haven’t recorded a fourth straight league win since a 2-1 victory at Anfield on August 13, 1997, with goals from Matt Elliott and Graham Fenton. It’d be a good time to repeat the feat.
The 4-1 away win at West Brom gave Chris Ramsey’s side hope, but the late draw at Villa Park and defeat to Chelsea kicked their survival bid square in the balls once more.
We’re now entering must-win territory. Ramsey’s side may only be two points from safety, but their goal difference compared to Hull effectively adds an extra point. With away trips to Manchester City and Liverpool to come following Saturday’s home game against West Ham, victory is the only option.
Fail to win, and this really could be the start of dark days at Loftus Road. As well as the looming FFP fine from the Football League, data this week indicated QPR’s wage bill to be 195% of their turnover. Add a little bit of plain flour and a touch of butter and that’s the perfect recipe for financial clusterf**k, just like Mamas Leeds and Portsmouth used to make.
It feels a long time since Sunderland last played in the league, but not quite long enough to rid them of the horrific memories of the 4-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace. If Gus Poyet wasn’t the answer (and he certainly wasn’t), is there any real indication that Advocaat is? I’m just playing devil’s Advoca… oh I’m sorry.
Let’s just look at the Dutchman’s quotes following that defeat: “Worried. Very worried. I believe we can survive but, if we carry on performing like this, then we have no chance.” Oh cheers Dick, you’ve really lifted the mood.
Unfortunately, that Palace game was one of Sunderland’s gentler fixtures. Lose at Stoke on Saturday, which seems likely, and it’s Southampton (h), Everton (a) and Leicester (h) before Chelsea and Arsenal on the road to finish off the campaign. Leicester have won as many league games in the last three weeks as Sunderland since November 3.
When Arsene Wenger asked a reporter for the Chelsea score against Manchester United after Arsenal had crept past Reading in the FA Cup, the reply was forthcoming. “1-0,” Wenger smiled. “The usual then.”
Of course his reply was tongue in cheek, but it’s worth remembering that Arsenal finally won a match against one of their top four rivals with exactly the same strategy that Chelsea have perfected. During the 2-0 victory against Manchester City in January, Arsenal had 35% possession and three shots on target.
Then, Wenger was hailed for finding a different approach. It was not the ‘usual’, but supporters might wish it so if it made Arsenal genuine title contenders.
It’s also not Chelsea’s ‘usual’ against Wenger’s side. In fact it’s 21 matches since they last recorded a 1-0 scoreline against Arsenal. There has been a 6-0, 4-1, a 3-0 and five 2-0s though, if that helps.
Sunday does not provide Arsenal with a chance to re-open the title race, for that pipe dream is now over, but it does give them the chance to make a statement for next season. I said exactly the same thing this time last week about Louis van Gaal and Manchester United. At home, Wenger must improve on United’s result.
Louis van Gaal
Last week’s defeat at Chelsea was nothing more than a hiccup for Van Gaal and United, and the Dutchman was only too keen to stress the positive angle of defeat.
This weekend things are different. Back at the former home of his predecessor, Van Gaal will demand nothing more than a return to victory and performance, rather than one of those two ideals. It’s a big if, but should they lose at Goodison, Liverpool could be just two points behind by next Wednesday morning.
The murmurs coming from the Chelsea camp are that Diego Costa may well be able to return from his hamstring injury in time to face Arsenal. The Spaniard faces a six-game audition to prove that his hamstrings can be relied upon next season.
Aiming to fight on four fronts again, Jose Mourinho will not want to be dependent on the unreliable muscles of his front-line striker. You can ask Brendan Rodgers about that.
It was a deliciously pointed dig at Arsenal from Fabregas, deliberate or otherwise. “We just want to win the title. The sooner the better,” he said. “We want to give satisfaction to the supporters. It’s been five years for them without winning the league. For me it’s been 27 years so I’d love to win it as soon as possible.”
I’d expect an interesting reception at the Emirates, Cesc. We guess that the taste of champagne in May and three points on Sunday would ease the pain.