If soccer was played on paper, Liverpool would be challenging for a place in next season’s Champions League whilst Newcastle would be scrapping, trying to avoid relegation to the nPower Championship. That was the opinion of many pundits before this season kicked off. The Reds were expected to finish top four or at least come pretty close, especially given the supposed calibre of their players, their rich heritage and King Kenny enjoying his first full season in charge. The Magpies, on the other hand, was a team in disarray back in August 2011. Andy Carroll had flown the coop with little or no money invested in a replacement, whilst the two most experienced characters in the dressing room (Barton and Nolan) had been allowed to leave for next to nothing.
Seeing as the beautiful game is played on God’s green earth and not via Big Sam’s Pro Zone simulator, these predictions have been resoundingly silenced, encapsulated in the result at the Sports Direct Arena (cough cough) on Sunday. Ex-pros and knowledgeable experts (never the twain shall meet) have gone on at length about how Liverpool is underperforming and how their star names are producing way below what they’re capable of. Is this so? Should the five-time European Cup winners be fighting for fourth spot? Does their playing squad demand such a status?
The best sixteen or seventeen players at Liverpool read like a squad list from Championship Manger. They are footballers bought purely on the basis that they have performed well for a period of time at another club without any apparent basis on how they will fit together. Downing, Henderson, Adam, Carroll and Enrique have never been part of a squad team that has won anything or ever threatened the top half of the EPL. Each stood out in lesser teams and would make for reliable LFC squad players in time past, but not top-draw game-changers that offer that little bit extra when it matters most. All top clubs have players like this that can help a club rotate in order to compete on three or four fronts. However, to rely on Stewart Downing, a consistent nearly man for club and country, to provide the crucial goal or assist at key moments is hopeful at best. Adam as well, is a man out of his depth. At Blackpool, he surrounded himself with industrious, hard-working players to do his running for him, allowing the Scot to spray passes left and right. Now, at Anfield, he is asked to do too much. Now that the defensive balance offered by Lucas (sorry Jay Spearing fans) has gone, he inhabits an unknown, unspecified position alongside the equally confused Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard.
Yes, we come to Stevie G. Captain Marvel. The Martyr of Merseyside, who sacrificed his career ambitions in return for legendary status and eternal hero worship. For so long, Gerrard has dug Liverpool out of hole after hole, his lung-busting runs and last minute winners were the stuff of Scouse dreams. An excellent player, truly one of the greatest the EPL has known, but his time is coming to an end. He no longer has the tools around him; Xabi Alonso, Mascherano and Torres (yes, even him) or indeed the physical fitness to make the required impact. The head and heart are willing, but sadly, the feet are not.
Up front Andy Carroll continues to do his best impression of Emile Heskey after a night on the town, whilst the forwards with real ability; Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy, are not receiving the required service (or in Beller’s case, game time) and are thus forced to conjure chances for themselves. The defence is solid but shaky, especially when Jamie Carragher, another fantastic player in his day, is called upon to man the barricades. The more one analyses it, the cracks in Liverpool’s ‘paper eleven’ become ever more alarming. The quality of the Benitez era is long gone, with ageing greats plying their trade alongside also-rans and hand-me-downs. Suarez and Reina are the only two that can even apply for ‘world class’ status and at times this season even their claim to such titles has been tenuous at best.
Comparing them with Alan Pardew’s Geordie Boys would historically have been an exercise futility. Newcastle are considered to be playing above themselves, with each week expected to be the last good result before the inevitable slide down the table. However, another look at their team sheet suggests that more Newcastle players would sidle into an all-star team made up from both clubs than you would first think. Colocinni is an international recognised defender, easily a match for the deceptively dodgy Martin Skrtel, and Danny Simpson is a more reliable customer than Martin Kelly. Even between the sticks, Tim Krul is in the form of his life and could arguably be awarded the golden glove this season.
It is in the midfield that the Magpies show their class, trickery and no shortage of grit. Gutierrez starred at the last World Cup and his work-rate and delivery put even Dirk Kuyt in the shade, exemplified by his gutsy performance at left back on Sunday. Cabaye and Tiote (aka ‘Brains and Brawn’) work in tandem so well whist Hatem Ben Arfa could be one of the best signings by an EPL club in recent years. The former Lyon starlet was a prodigy in his native land but the French gave up on him, unsure how to best use his obvious talent. If given the chance to express himself by Pardew, he could be as big as Ginola on Tyneside. Finally, Ba and Cisse, the two poachers from Senegal, each have a history of scoring goals in Germany and have transferred this form to England. Their knack of finding space and finishing clinically could teach ‘Big Andy’ a thing or two.
These are not simply players who are having their first strong season. Many of the Newcastle team have international pedigree, something noticeably lacking at Anfield. Sure, there are some duds in Black & White (Gabriel Obertan? Peter Lovenkrands? Are you listening?), but these only fill in the gaps and not relied upon to be the deciding factor in games. Newcastle are a top side, both in terms of personnel on paper and when performing as a unit on the pitch. They are where they should be. On the flip-side, the crumbling giant that is Liverpool Football Club are closer now to an away trips to Peterborough and Watford next season than a sixth European title.