When Liverpool fans look back in either anger or pride at the 2008-09 Premier League table, they will rue two things above all: the number of home draws (seven) not turned into victories and the only defeats, at Middlesbrough, of all places, and Tottenham. In the November encounter at White Hart Lane, even the Spurs manager Harry Redknapp admitted with a smile on Friday: "They battered us, absolutely slaughtered us."
Battered or not, and losing for well over an hour, the home side somehow forced in two goals in the last 20 minutes to claim one of the most unlikely victories of the season. It knocked Liverpool off the top of the table and lifted Tottenham from the bottom, where Redknapp had found them when he replaced the hapless Juande Ramos. By the end of the season they were a highly respectable ninth and ought to be aiming at a European place as Liverpool return to the Lane today.
Entering his 27th season of management, Redknapp should have learnt a few tricks by now, and not just in the transfer market, where he has traditionally excelled. Peter Crouch and the defenders Sebastien Bassong and Kyle Naughton have arrived, Darren Bent and Didier Zokora moved; the old wheeler-dealer has sometimes done more business than that in a week. A sign perhaps that for once he is almost satisfied with the existing squad? "We've got some good players here. When you go out and watch them train every day you get a feeling for what you're working with and I like what's here now."
There may be a minor crisis in defence, with Michael Dawson and Jonathan Woodgate injured and Ledley King unable to play more than once a week. Hence the arrival of Bassong from Newcastle, of whom Redknapp says: "I couldn't tell you how highly Alan Shearer and Iain Dowie spoke of him after we played Newcastle at the end of last season."
In other areas the hard part will be choosing who to leave out: Aaron Lennon or David Bentley, Jermaine Jenas or Tom Huddlestone, and above all in the striking positions, where Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko fight for one berth, Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane for another. Last week Bentley did himself no favours by incurring a drink-driving charge, prompting Redknapp to advise: "He needs to lose his image, concentrate on his football. The lads call him 'Becks', which doesn't help him to be honest. He's David Bentley, not David Beckham." In contrast, Defoe is full of beans, and goals, after scoring two of them for England. "I was winding him up, told him he looked good coming off the bench," Redknapp laughed.
As a betting man, Redknapp is tipping Chelsea for the title while insisting that "Liverpool will be there as long as [Steven] Gerrard and [Fernando] Torres stay fit. They could easily have won the League last time. But Xabi [Alonso] will be a big miss, a superb footballer".
Rafa Benitez, meanwhile, has been talking up his replacement, Alberto Aquilani, as "more mobile" and "a better passer in the final third" but the injury-prone Italian may not be fit for two long months.
Liverpool cannot afford to drop behind in the chase during that time, as last season's statistics emphasised. Never before have a team not won the League despite reaching 86 points, or losing only twice. Sir Alex Ferguson, in one of several summer jibes at Liverpool, has cast doubt on whether they can achieve as much again; Benitez takes the view that they may not need to. In any case, 86 looks a long way away when starting out in the third weekend of August. "Maybe 86 will be enough," he said. "Clearly it will be difficult but rather than talking about a big number it's better to talk about three points against Tottenham and see what happens then."
Understandably, Benitez refuses to accept that the well-rehearsed outburst against Ferguson last January had a detrimental effect on the players. Now he insists: "If I have to defend my club I will do it. We are a top side and we have our history and we are very respectful of other teams. But if we have to fight, we have to fight. It depends on the position of the teams. So if we are really high, I'm sure we will hear something."
Benitez was able to have the last word after winning 4-1 at Old Trafford in March to complete a double over United; Liverpool did particularly well last season against the other members of the top four, winning three and drawing three of the six games. So that longed-for title, they could claim, was lost in half an hour at Middlesbrough and a mad 20 minutes at Tottenham. The margins have become that thin.
MANCHESTER UNITED v BIRMINGHAM CITY (Sky Sports 1, 1.30pm)
If, as their own manager Alex McLeish suggests, Birmingham are "not ready" for their return to the big league, Old Trafford is hardly the place to start. Or it could be argued that they are best getting this one out of the way, preferably with minimum damage to morale and goal difference.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR v LIVERPOOL (Sky Sports 1, 4pm)
Peter Crouch and Robbie Keane will hope first to secure a place in the starting XI and then convince Liverpool of what they are missing. No disrespect to them, but Fernando Torres supported by Steven Gerrard does look the better bet, which is why they were allowed to leave.
Steve TongueReuse content