Our Liverpool blogger Dave Tindall looks at Sunday’s clash with Manchester United, the centre-back issue and the magic of Thiago Alcantara.
“Ali’s kick was perfect and from the moment the ball bounced into Mo’s path, everything seemed inevitable.
“Daniel James is one of the quickest players in the league but Mo held him off and was able to slot home. The next thing, Ali is sprinting past me and I thought ‘I better get a shift on here!’ It was a fantastic moment.
“In the seconds after that goal went in, it felt like there was a surge of electricity going around the ground. Then it started. ‘Now you’re gonna believe us. And now you’re gonna believe us. And now you’re gonna believe us – we’re gonna win the league.’ Over and over again, louder and louder, a chant suddenly became a declaration. I still get shivers thinking about that.
“At that point, I went from thinking we could become champions to believing we would become champions.”
Extracts from Andy Robertson’s book, ‘Now You’re Gonna Believe Us…’. And scenes that no Liverpool fan will ever forget. Yes, we were already a long way clear at that point. But Mo Salah’s late strike to seal a 2-0 win over Manchester United in January 2020 felt like a defining moment.
Salah whipping his shirt off to celebrate victory. It’s an iconic image from a golden season.
Fast forward to 2021 and the contrast could not be greater.
The team we beat that day are now three points in front of us rather than 30 behind. And the global COVID-19 pandemic means Anfield will be empty instead of a cauldron of feverish noise.
I turned on the TV the other day and accidentally landed on the channel not piping in fake crowd noise. God, it felt sad. And yet that’s the harsh reality of life right now. True, it’s only a game and there are much bigger things. But in terms of highlighting a contrast of how football used to be and the current situation, it was rather bleak.
Perhaps I’m getting my excuses in early. If Man Utd do come to Anfield and beat us, I can just shrug and say it was bound to happen. Without fans, United weren’t under the same pressure and their excellent away form was allowed to flourish.
Or, I could just snap out of this and say ‘bring it on!’
Despite the lack of supporters we’ve still managed to maintain our ludicrously good home record. Dropped points against West Brom were just a freak. It was four years ago when we last lost a league game at Anfield.
And, come on, are they really any good? Keep Bruno Fernandes quiet and that’s half the job done. Just a shame we couldn’t stick Fabinho on him. But more on central defence later.
The other thing with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team is how well do they respond to pressure? Constantly losing in semi-finals suggests not so good. Can they really handle being leaders of the Premier League? Even if they win and pull six clear, the target on their back will get even bigger.
I still think Liverpool’s biggest worry are the other lot in Manchester.
Man City are on a roll and Pep Guardiola seems to have made some key adjustments. They’re more pragmatic and finally have a defence that allows them to win games 1-0 . They’ve had four of those already in the Premier League this season.
And yet their fixture list looks fairly horrendous with so many cup commitments and the domestic season needing to be played out by May 23.
This weekend is important. But perhaps Liverpool v Man City on February 6 is much, much bigger.
The centre-back issue
Time for a negative and a positive. I’ll start with the former so I can end on a brighter note.
A quick run through our problems in central defence. Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez are pretty much out for the season. Joel Matip is made of crisps. Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips are good lads but we won’t win a title with them. I think Jurgen is realising this. Taking Jordan Henderson out of midfield to fill in hurts our drive from the centre of the park. Pulling Fabinho back there takes away midfield control.
In short, there is only one solution: buy in the January transfer window. The problem? It won’t happen.
Repeat, buying big – a Dayot Upamecano or Sadio’s mate, Kalidou Koulibaly – isn’t going to happen. It just isn’t.
Here’s Klopp from last week: “If the world was in a completely normal place and we have this situation, you could be sure we would try everything to do the right thing now.
“But the world is not in a normal place. So I don’t know why we constantly treat a football club like it as independent from all the other struggles around.
“It is not a time for massive investment if you don’t have the funds for it. Obviously football clubs live off what they earn.
“We have to make the best of it, and that is what we have always done.”
And I kind of agree. There isn’t a magic money tree. The life of a football team isn’t defined by a single season. Perhaps it just isn’t meant to be for us this time. But, without doubt, it would give Klopp a far bigger thrill to do this the hard way.
Perhaps there is some magic name being lined up but I just can’t see it.
And here’s a thing. If you’re a foreign player and have an eye on the news, would you really want to be coming to England at this moment?
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Thiago can ride to the rescue
And now the positive…
While we’ve looked a little jaded and flat up front recently, the return of one man has lifted our hearts.
Thiago Alcantara. What a player. An absolute joy to watch.
But beyond the pleasure of seeing an artist at work, are we looking at the man who could lead us to a successful title defence?
Bizarrely, he hasn’t played a single second of first-team football at Anfield yet.
Thiago wowed us when coming on as a sub and running the show in the 2-0 win at Chelsea. Everton then kicked him off the park for over two months. And in the last few games he’s been building back to fitness in the draw at Newcastle, the loss at Southampton and the win at Aston Villa.
He played 27 minutes at St James’ Park, the full 90 at Southampton and 45 at Villa.
It’s glaringly obvious the different passing dimension he brings to this team. And the good news is that we still have over half a season to play. Yep, 21 games for Thiago to strut his stuff.
While there’s a big part of me that just wants to go back to last season, the arrival of Thiago makes those eyes swivel forwards rather than back.
If things seem a little out of whack for Liverpool right now, a home debut against Man Utd looks perfect timing for the Spaniard to show us just how exciting this season can still be.
It’s simple really: without him, I don’t think we’ll win the title; with him, there’s still every chance.