After Chelsea’s shock loss to Sunderland yesterday gave Liverpool’s title chances a huge fillip, the Merseyside club’s immediate focus may be solely on today’s noon kick-off at Norwich, but Brendan Rodgers is already planning the next five years at Anfield. The Liverpool manager claims his squad is young enough and good enough to form the basis of the team that will play in a redeveloped 60,000-seat arena.
“That was why we bought so many young players,” said Rodgers before an encounter at Carrow Road that his captain, Steven Gerrard, argued was as important to the club as the European Cup final in Istanbul.
“Joe Allen’s 24, Jordan Henderson 23, Raheem Sterling 19, Jon Flanagan 21. [Mamadou] Sakho’s only 24, [Simon] Mignolet 26 and [Daniel] Sturridge 24,” Rodgers continued. “I came to Liverpool because I hoped it would be a destination rather than a stop-off.
“I felt it had everything you would want as a football manager – to be at one of the leading clubs in the world and to be allowed to build and develop a club as you wanted without interference. As a manager, you know your value, and I feel valued at this football club.
“I am looking at the expansion of the stadium – imagine Anfield with another 20,000 supporters in it. I am looking forward to seeing new pitches at the training facility and at Anfield. That will quicken up our game again.”
Norwich have conceded 18 goals to Liverpool in their past four meetings, and should represent the simplest of the visitors’ four remaining hurdles. Nevertheless, Gerrard’s statement about the game struck a chord with his manager. “Stevie, in that huddle [after the win over Manchester City], emphasised what I’ve said all year – that the next game is always the most important for us,” Rodgers said.
Inevitably Luis Suarez will be the centre of attention, given the shadow he casts over Norwich. At Anfield in December he scored a hat-trick against them inside 20 minutes before adding a fourth, making an assist for a fifth and, for good measure, striking a post. It was his third hat-trick against Norwich – a Premier League record for one player against a single club. Against the Canaries, there is no mistaking the identity of the cat.
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday three months later, the Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy analysed why Suarez sometimes appears unplayable. “It’s his speed of thought,” Ruddy said. “He is taking shots people wouldn’t consider in a million years, he is pulling them off and making people look stupid.”
Centre-forwards often develop a taste for scoring against a particular team. One of the many reasons Ian Rush was loved at Anfield was that he averaged a goal a game against Everton. This season, Suarez has feasted on the weaker teams. In his eight games against the clubs that occupied the bottom five places yesterday morning he has scored 16 times. Against the top five he has scored two goals in seven matches, both against Everton.
It would be grossly unfair to say Suarez is a flat-track bully – there have been goals against Tottenham and Manchester United – but he has scored none against Manchester City, Chelsea or Arsenal. “I am still a botija, a kid who relies on the cunning I learnt on the streets,” Suarez said recently. Defences in the bottom rungs of the Premier League are less able to cope with the cunning and more likely to have their pockets picked than ones drilled by a Jose Mourinho or a Manuel Pellegrini.
At Anfield, Chris Hughton, Norwich’s then manager, had given instructions as to how to keep Suarez at bay. Their midfielder Bradley Johnson admitted that not many were followed. “You can’t give him that much respect and time because he will punish you – and Suarez has done that every time,” Johnson said after the débâcle. “We gave him far too much room. We were nowhere near him for any of his first three.”
Johnson, who has the word “Believe” tattooed on his body, remarked that he knew what everyone’s opinion of today’s result would be. “But we are not listening,” he said. “We just have to get in their faces and make it a messy game.”
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