Hope for Liverpool, but top four challenge rests on Daniel Sturridge's shoulders
September 21, 2013: Liverpool lost 1-0 against Southampton at Anfield, a result greeted with the usual chorus of 'capitulation' jibes.
The result plunged the Reds out of the Champions League spots and left many fans contemplating another disappointing season.
Not so. The match also marked the final instalment of Luis Suarez’s 10-match ban for tucking into Branislav Ivanovic’s shoulder. The Uruguayan sparked new life into the side as Brendan Rodgers’ men tore apart the Premier League’s meanest defences – only denied a deserved title when Steven Gerrard forgot how to stand.
A similar scenario has unfolded this season. Liverpool, tipped to struggle after drastic squad overhauls in the summer, suffered an early blow when Daniel Sturridge was ruled out after just three matches in August. He hasn’t featured since. It’s left the Reds toiling in defence, without having the goals to cancel out the mistakes.
But – just as they did when Suarez was absent – they’ve ridden the difficult spell and are still in contention to achieve something domestically. Yes, they’re not pushing for the title like last season, but they actually have a realistic shot of pinching a top four spot after picking up their fourth league win in six against Aston Villa on Saturday. It was a task that seemed impossible just one month ago.
Their not-so-secret weapon is Sturridge: a player who, when fit, always scores. Twenty-one goals last campaign and two healthy hauls for Chelsea in the seasons before; more can be expected upon his return.
That’s something Rodgers appeared to hint at in his post-match press conference: "If we can get through to the end of January, getting to the top four is still an objective."
It looked as though the Northern Irishman might be on his way of Anfield after an underwhelming start to the season, which included a dour Champions League campaign. Much was made of his decision to omit key personnel from the clash against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu – personnel who helped get them into Europe’s elite competition in the first place – while his tactics and transfer policy have come under fire.
Why take a punt on Mario Balotelli – a flashy player not suited to digging in for a team? Why leave Emre Can and Lazar Markovic on the sidelines for so long? But, perhaps pressured by the supporters, Rodgers has finally discovered a formula that appears to work (although, admittedly, one yet to be tested against the league’s biggest outfits). Dropping Emre Can into a back three has proved profitable. Markovic is starting to impress on the flank. Raheem Sterling looks sharp following his club-sanctioned break. Suddenly the murmurings of discontent surrounding Rodgers have subsided.
Ask any Tottenham fan about Liverpool’s recruitment policy in the summer following the £65m/£75m sale of Luis Suarez (depending on who you believe) and they will compare it to their approach following the sale of Gareth Bale. The only difference is that the Reds still possess a quality forward – Sturridge – and that’s why their top four hopes remain intact.
Of course, he needs to get back up to pace. He’s spent time at the Boston Red Sox recuperating after two thigh injuries and a calf complaint, and the sounds from the Liverpool camp are that he will return in a fortnight. That may mean the clash with West Ham at Anfield comes too soon (January 31), but his rejuvenated team-mates should be able to negotiate that chapter, handing Sturridge a further week to build fitness ahead of the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park.
Perhaps the most remarkable stat of last season was that Sturridge earned more points (20) for Liverpool last season than Suarez (16). That’s not to say the Uruguayan isn’t missed – a quick glance at the table confirms as much – but it does suggest they can challenge for a European spot with the England striker back in their ranks.
The Reds sit five points adrift of fourth-placed Manchester United. That is not an insurmountable gap, particularly with Southampton perched third and no one quite sure whether their fairytale journey will crumble.
That's not to say Liverpool will finish fourth. They’ve merely done enough over the festive season and January to give themselves a chance. It’s now down to Sturridge to rediscover his scoring form and help them complete a remarkable turnaround.