Pitchside

They go again: Why Liverpool can win the league this season

Pitchside

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Scott Murray, published author and highly-respected writer for the The Guardian and The Blizzard, has joined Eurosport-Yahoo and will be covering Liverpool's Premier League campaign and anything and everything else during the 2014-15 season. This is his debut column.

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On a blustery Saturday afternoon in April 1899, Liverpool Football Club travelled to Villa Park knowing victory would bring them their first-ever league title. It was not to be. The wind whipping through the stadium provided an easy, breezy metaphor: the Reds were blown away, 5-0 down before half time, hosts Aston Villa making off with the championship instead. As astonishing capitulations go, Crystanbul has nothing on this.

A sickening defeat, but one which in retrospect did Liverpool a favour. The players scuttled off, licked their wounds, and came back stronger. Two seasons later, a more experienced and battle-hardened unit claimed their prize. Liverpool Football Club were champions of England, a mere nine years after coming into existence. A steely never-give-in spirit had been forged, one which would serve them well down the ages as the Reds repeatedly responded to on-field setbacks in the most positive manner.

Eurosport-Yahoo has live text commentary on EVERY single Premier League game this season, starting with Manchester United's match against Swansea on Saturday. We will also be covering all of Barcelona and Real Madrid's matches and the biggest games from Germany, Italy and France. There's nowhere else you need to be.

In 1972, a team powered by the relentless dynamism of the now absurdly under-rated Kevin Keegan - younger readers should ask mum and dad, or imagine a more marketable version of Luis Suarez - went on a run of 13 wins and a draw which took them to within touching distance of the title. They lost 1-0 at Derby County in their penultimate game, which meant they required a win at Arsenal on the final day to deny Brian Clough's Rams. Emlyn Hughes hit the bar, John Toshack missed a sitter, then had a goal ruled out for offside with two minutes to go. Another wounder. But again Liverpool bounced back, winning the league the following season, ending Bill Shankly's seven-year run without silverware.

Then there was the response to *that* Michael Thomas goal: a league title 12 months afterwards, no mean feat after being the fall guys at an epochal event, not least because the endearingly hapless Glenn Hysen was in the heart of the defence. And finally there's the most modern manifestation of Liverpool's inherent spirit, character and steadfast refusal to accept second place when the going gets tough: as three-goal comebacks go, Crystanbul has nothing on Istanbul.

Given Liverpool have historically made a habit of picking themselves up from grave disappointment, dusting themselves down, and giving it another shot, often rather successfully, it's somewhat surprising that the current side has been pretty much across the board written off before a ball has been kicked in the 2014/15 title race.

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Liverpool were the second best team in the league last season. For the majority of the second half of the campaign, they recorded the best results, while playing the most effective, and certainly the prettiest, football. They beat the eventual champions Manchester City. They eviscerated Everton. Arsenal. Tottenham Hotspur. Manchester United.

They also lost their heads spectacularly during the run-in. But in the context of this new season, that addled meltdown must now be viewed as a positive. After Chelsea did a number on them at Anfield, Jose Mourinho schooling his old pupil Brendan Rodgers in the art of grinding out a result any which way, and the astonishing scenes at Selhurst, there is little left to hurt Liverpool's young squad now.

After the final matches of the season confirmed Liverpool had come up short, a grim-faced Steven Gerrard reflected that, at 34 years of age, he had only just experienced for the first time a title bid that went all the way. However, young players like Daniel Sturridge, Jordan Henderson and the ridiculously precocious Raheem Sterling, he pointed out, now had that experience to draw on, and plenty of time to put it to good use. This is the beginning, not the end.

[SCUDAMORE: I WAS GLAD TO SEE SUAREZ GO]

Nevertheless, it's easy to pinpoint, and understand, the reason for the collective loss of confidence in Liverpool. The departure of Luis Suarez, who scored 31 goals in the league last season while setting up 19 others, leaves an enormous gap to fill. It's an impossible task - Suarez is a singular talent, arguably the best in the world last season - so Rodgers simply hasn't bothered. His priorities this summer have been elsewhere.

The midfield has been bolstered by the arrival of Emre Can, a member of Germany's latest wave of talent. Can will take on some of Jordan Henderson's heavy workload during a long season, the pair doing the running for Steven Gerrard, who may be a diminished power at 34, but still remains an influential figure at Liverpool, as a totem as much as anything else. Lazar Markovic adds searing pace and skill. Adam Lallana is a damn sight slower, but no less direct.

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Liverpool's much-maligned defence has been totally overhauled. Dejan Lovren already looks to the manner born, striding around Anfield during the friendly win over Borussia Dortmund as though he owned the gaff, loudly organising from the back, comfortable on the ball and no-nonsense off it. Early signs suggest he's both the loudmouth the team have been missing since the retirement of Jamie Carragher, and the cool-headed marshal absent since Sami Hyypia left in 2009.

[COUTINHO WONDER SHOW AS LIVERPOOL DEMOLISH DORTMUND]

Javier Manquillo, a right-back of rich promise, looked assured on the overlap against Dortmund, an instant hit, and much is expected of the more experienced Alberto Moreno on the left. The Spanish pair are a significant upgrade on last season's full back positions, a slightly unfair reflection perhaps of the admirable Jon Flanagan's efforts and abilities, less so of the often unacceptably ponderous Glen Johnson.

Comparisons, inevitably, are made to Tottenham Hotspur, who also recently lost their marquee player to La Liga and splurged big on new talent. But comparisons are odious. For a start, if they're being made to illustrate the struggles Liverpool are likely to face this season, they don't do a very good job of it: Spurs finished last season only three points shy of the total they managed the previous year with Gareth Bale in their team. Some collapse. Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, Spurs were dumping their plethora of new signings into a team without any discernible system or philosophy.

[HOW WILL LIVERPOOL LINE UP THIS SEASON?]

Rodgers might have his faults - he could do with reining in the pseudo philosophical patter, dishing out unsolicited advice to the likes of Louis van Gaal, needlessly making himself a hostage to fortune - but he's established a coherent framework at Anfield, where players are comfortable on the ball, able to keep possession, break quickly at will, and interchange without totally losing shape. Statistically, some of Liverpool's new signings are destined to fail, but at least they'll have a fighting chance of success, working as they are to a tightly defined brief.

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There's also an increased depth to the squad necessary for their first Champions League campaign in five years. Those extra matches, contrary to received wisdom, should not hinder their league campaign; a decent run, in fact, may inspire them domestically.

Not that Rodgers would say no to another big-name striker. Daniel Sturridge has a tendency to pick up knocks and niggles, and while Rickie Lambert will surprise many with his adroit link-up play, the aging local hero is unlikely to contribute a John Aldridgesque quantity of goals to make up the Suarez deficit. The collapse of the Loic Remy deal may come back to haunt them.

[RODGERS WARNS VAN GAAL: YOU'RE IN FOR A SHOCK]

But do they need to make up all those goals anyway? Liverpool scored 101 times last season. If Lambert can chip in a mere 10, if Lovren saves a similar number at the back, they'd be only 11 goals worse off overall, and still scoring more than everyone but Manchester City last time round. And this is all without factoring in a full season of brilliance from Sterling, who only really started to contribute last season at the turn of the year, and the ever-increasing influence of Philippe Coutinho, determined to prove Brazil wrong after leaving him out of their World Cup squad.

There's also the fact that Liverpool, for all Suarez's brilliance, were actually statistically better whenever their star man was missing during his three-year stay at Anfield. And in any case, star men don't always stuff all hope in their suitcases when they clear off. Spurs haven't crumbled post-Bale, and Manchester United didn't do too badly after Cristiano Ronaldo upped sticks: two titles in four years, and the other two missed by one point and a couple of goals. And that was without the sort of heavy reinvestment Liverpool have made this summer.

A bounce-back title win, a homage to the teams of 1901, 1973 and 1990, might be just out of Liverpool's reach this season. Then again, it's not the ludicrous pipe dream everyone seems to think it is. Last season needn't be a one-off. Liverpool slipped. They go again.

- Scott Murray

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