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The 2013/14 season ended in a daze of bittersweet disappointment for Liverpool fans, as Brendan Rodgers allowed supporters to be seduced by the illusions of grandeur once more.
If you had imagined reading that statement before a ball had been kicked this season, you would have guessed Liverpool had suffered final day heartache, being pipped to the final Champions League spot by neighbours Everton.
However the strides taken under Rodgers meant that Liverpool went in to the final day this season with title aspirations still (just about) intact. It wasn’t meant to be as Liverpool ended the season with a 2-1 victory over Newcastle after going 1-0 down, whilst City strolled to a comfortable success over West Ham at the Etihad.
It has been a magnificent season under Rodgers as the manager has managed to stamp his style on the club, and adopt a free-flowing attacking style reminiscent of the old days. His ability to incorporate young British talent into the side has been beneficial to the chemistry of the side, and gained many plaudits from across the media. Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, Jon Flanagan and Dan Sturridge have been excellent for the most-part, and have provided hope of a solid base for the future.
Beginning to Believe;
Liverpool’s first game of the season was against Stoke in the 12:45 kick-off of the opening weekend. A Dan Sturridge goal and a late Simon Mignolet penalty save allowed Liverpool fans to indulge in the old ‘We are top of the League’ jokes until the later games got underway. However as two more Dan Sturridge goals, resulting in two more 1-0 victories, over Aston Villa and Manchester United respectively, Liverpool endured their best start to the season in living memory, even without the services of talisman Luis Suarez for the first six games and the future looked bright.
Fans were enjoying heading to games, a stark contrast from the Hodgson and Dalglish days, were some games felt like chores (being there for Blackpool doing the double over us in the ‘10/11 season springs to mind), and there was plenty of faith in Rodgers as a long-term prospect.
Champions League qualification was the aim and fans were in buoyant mood as the season began to progress, with only defeats at Arsenal and a 3-3 draw at Everton leaving bitter tastes in the mouths of Reds before the Christmas period.
The Everton result on paper, wasn’t a bad result, however Joe Allen’s miss from six yards to put the game to bed at 2-1 up is a haunting image, which did linger in the mind for a while after result. Everton battled well and probably should have gone on to win the game but for the magnificence of Simon Mignolet, and a late Dan Sturridge header rescued a point for Liverpool and meant supporters went away with a silver lining.
Two defeats in three days during the Christmas period put paid to Liverpool fans getting ahead of themselves, yet the performances allowed fans to take some solace in defeat. They led in both games against Manchester City and Chelsea, before going on to lose 2-1 in each encounter. A dubious offside for Raheem Sterling against City, and an individual error from Simon Mignolet left the fans feeling frustrated at the Etihad, and a blatant foul on Luis Suarez in the box at Stamford Bridge left many feeling aggrieved, and questioning how they came away from both games without a point.
However the turn of the year would be kind to Liverpool, as they would only go on to lose one game during in 2014, racking up eleven straight wins in the Premier League.
A key game that really kick-started the progress was the 4-0 win over neighbours Everton, who at the time rivals for the final Champions League spot, as it signified the season was going in the right direction and the victory typified what Brendan Rodgers was string to instil in his players. Fast-paced, free-flowing attacking football, as Liverpool got out of the blocks early and managed to get a goal, meaning Everton were forced to attack and were then torn apart on the counter-attack. This is where Liverpool fans began to think Champions League was a definite, and confidence was bounding through the veins of the players.
The unbeaten run gathered pace, as teams were swept aside with consummate ease. Then leaders Arsenal were beaten 5-1, in a game that sent a message to the rest of the league, that Liverpool were to be taken seriously as title contenders. The Reds travelled to Old Trafford on the cusp of starting the game as favourites for the first time during the Premier League era, and United were quickly dispatched thanks to a Steven Gerrard brace from 12-yards, and one from the magician Luis Suarez.
Games were coming thick and fast and the media were suggesting ‘they will falter soon’, however with every game that passed, Liverpool managed to ensure they returned to Anfield with three points and confidence to ‘go again’.
A 4-0 win over Spurs and chants of ‘Now you’re going to believe us’ bellowing around the ground, was extremely fitting. Members of the older generation seemed to be genuinely happy their children were in the process of witnessing Liverpool returning to their perch, and in the process of witnessing something special.
West Ham were the next port of call, and after going 1-0 up after yet another Steven Gerrard penalty, things were seemingly going to plan. However Andy Carroll had other ideas and after a ludicrous challenge with Simon Mignolet just before half-time, Guy Demel swept in the equaliser and left players, fans and manager all aghast at what they had just witnessed.
It was a fifteen minute interval that had Liverpool’s chances in the balance. They had to put their sheer frustration and anger behind them and keep going to try and get the vital three points. They did that and the skipper stepped up and swept home another penalty to take Liverpool to the top of the league.
Manchester City travelled to Anfield in a must-win clash for Liverpool, if they were to stretch their advantage at the top, and put down a marker for both Manchester City and Chelsea to attack at the tail-end of the campaign.
It was all going to plan for the Reds as they raced into a 2-0 lead before half-time thanks to Sterling and Skrtel, as-well as the imperious Yaya Toure limping off with a minor injury. However City did what champions do and fought back to level the game up at 2-2 with over 20 minutes remaining. It had the feel of something special was needed to resurrect Liverpool’s flailing title ambitions and his name is Philipe Coutinho. The Brazilian wizard popped up with a magnificent curling effort from 18-yards, capitalising on a rare Vincent Kompany mistake, and sending the Anfield faithful into raptures.
After coming through the difficult encounters home and away, they saw off Norwich in a thrilling 3-2 victory, and all eyes turned to the Chelsea clash.
It was avoid defeat, and Liverpool would have one hand on the title.
It wasn’t meant to be.
A Steven Gerrard slip allowed Demba Ba sweep in and score on the stroke of half-time, to the shock of the Kop, after Liverpool had dominated the early proceedings without creating much. It was a weakened Chelsea side to add insult to injury, and after Iago Aspas had been brought on to try and get a late equaliser, his poor corner allowed Chelsea to break and ex-Red Fernando Torres rolled the ball to Willian to make it 2-0 Chelsea in the dying embers of the game, and hand the initiative back to City.
After City had did all they had to, Liverpool travelled to Palace knowing a win was needed, and any big margin would keep the extremely feint hopes of catching the Citizens superior goal difference. As Sturridge made it 3-0, then was urged to get back to the centre-circle as opposed to celebrate suggested Liverpool still believed. Fast-forward twenty minutes and a calamitous collapse has seen Palace claw back the deficit and Tony Pulis’ men were celebrating a 3-3, which all but ruled Liverpool out of the title race.
Going for a draw at Chelsea and shutting up shop when 3-0 up against Palace might well have seen Liverpool win the league, however it isn’t Rodgers’ style. This will be a massive learning curve for the manager, and the players who just lacked that ability under immense pressure in the closing three games. It was a step into the unknown for Liverpool, which will serve them well into the future and next season.
Analysis of the season;
Fast frenetic starts were the flavour of Liverpool’s success this season, as the Reds scored 57 of their 101 goals in the first-half of the game, smashing the Premier League record. The side managed to net 15 goals in the first 15 minutes of games and it is a trait which has served them well so far under Rodgers.
However it often masked Liverpool’s inferior fitness levels to other sides towards the later part of the season. The squad consisted of around 13/14 players that looked comfortable in the top level games, however Reds fans could never really feel confident with Victor Moses and Iago Aspas as impact players, who were to be relied on to get a late goal. Rodgers factored this in to his game-plans, and ensured that Liverpool flew out of the blocks early, and built up a lead to fall back on later in the game.
It was often referred to as ‘taking their foot off the gas’ but in most cases, they just couldn’t keep up their high intensity levels for more than 50 minutes at most. This is something that needs to be looked at over the summer, and although the World Cup will be a hindrance, the fact that Liverpool have cemented Champions League football means they are much more of a pulling power than in previous years, and if Rodgers is to be believed, he is attempting to bring in six new faces to help bulk out with the squad and share the weight of pressure and intensity out between the players.
Another aspect that needs to be looked into is the defence.
Sakho was signed as the saviour; however he never looks comfortable on the ball for the style of play Rodgers likes to practice, with Mignolet rolling the ball out to his defence. He has shown signs of tactical awareness and is an intimidating unit in the air; however he needs to work on his ball-work massively if he is to figure. He is only young and will improve, yet he needs to show signs of improvement to feature as a starting centre-half.
Kolo Toure. The less said, the better.
Aly Cissokho. See above.
Skrtel and Agger had previously cemented their place at the heart of the defence with great effect in previous years, and when they were paired up this season, they looked the best partnership the Reds had at their disposal.
The lack of consistency surely paid its part in the poor defensive performances, with so much pressure on the back four. There seemed to be very little confidence in Mignolet, who often failed to command his box and as a result Liverpool conceded a large amount of their goals from set-pieces.
Flanagan has been a revelation at left-back and looked strong for the majority of the season, however he looks set to be a short-term solution in that position as he was the most dribbled past player in the entire league. He has a tendency to show players inside onto his stronger right-foot, and they glide down the touchline and more times than not, manage to get a cross into the box. He possesses the ability to be a top Premier League full-back in the future, but he looks a lot better at right-back, which looks set to be for the best judging by Glen Johnson’s terrible season.
He’s always shaped as a better right-winger than a right-back, and his inability to defend has been costly on plenty of occasions this season. He has never looked overly interested and with his contract nearly up, it would be a surprise if he was to stay on next season.
Steven Gerrard answered plenty of critics (including myself) in the best possible way this season, putting to bed the ‘he’s lost his legs’ claim, excelling in his new deeper role.
He has been dictating play and pulling the strings for many of his side’s attacks this season, often dropping in between the centre-halves to allow freedom to the full-backs and the ever impressive Jordan Henderson.
He has offered the stability in the centre that Liverpool had been lacking since Lucas suffered his injury two seasons ago. Gerrard’s technical ability is second-to-none and his clinical finishing from set-pieces has been ultra-impressive. He still has another season or two left in him, and he has made that holding midfielder role his own this season.
This has allowed Jordan Henderson to shine, and show off his outstanding engine. His box-to-box role has been one he has been crying out for since joining the Reds, and he has slowly became one of the first on the team-sheet. He is technically gifted and has the ability to progress into a very special player if he begins to believe in his own ability. He is prone to panic in the final third, however he is definitely improving in this area, and is sure to be keep his place in the side next year. If he hadn’t had been sent-off against Manchester City, would Liverpool have won the league?
Coutinho starred yet again, showing glimpses of his skills-set when given the chance in an attacking role; however he has been overshadowed this season by Raheem Sterling. The 19-year-old has matured into a valuable first-team player, either out wide in a front-three or as the spearhead of a midfield diamond where he has thrived, scoring plenty of valuable goals. He looks set for a bright future, and the World Cup will be a fantastic learning curve for him to take into next year, as the squad begins to strengthen once more.
The attacking duo of Suarez and Sturridge took the league by storm, and were the most impressive strike partnership the Premier League has seen in many a year. Luis Suarez missed the first six games of the season following a suspension, and there were question marks of whether or not he will be putting in his upmost efforts after taking to the media to air his desire to leave Anfield. However those rumours were quickly dispelled as Suarez took to cutting down Premier League defences instantly, bagging two at Sunderland on his return to the side. He ended the year with 31 goals, taking the PFA Player of the Year, Golden Boot and Football Writer’s accolades, and Liverpool must be prepared to receive plenty of offers for their Uruguayan superstar.
Dan Sturridge also played his part in the success of the side, as his prolific nature in-front of goal helped the Reds rack up plenty of points, especially during the opening stages of the season when Suarez was missing. He enjoys dropping deep, and drifting wide to make diagonal runs behind the back four of the opposition, which works well with Suarez’ direct nature. He went off the boil towards the end of the season, following an injury he picked up against Manchester City, however he is still set for a starring role for England at the World Cup, and with the acquisition of one more striker over summer, he will be able to have a breather at stages next season, to ease his workload.
The season has been a massive success regardless of the fact there was no silverware won for the Reds. Brendan Rodgers has given faith and belief back to the fans and the players, who mixed it at the top level for the first time in many a year. They battled it out with the richest side in the league at the death, with a far less talented squad. So, with money at his disposal in the summer, and the Champions League pull should help attract top quality players to strengthen the squad, and Rodgers’ tactical nous should help ensure Liverpool can balance the pressures of Europe with a solid league campaign once more.
He is already ahead of the projected target, with the promise of Champions League football being delivered a year ahead of schedule and a title challenge showing just how far the club has come under his guidance. There players that need to leave the side, such as Glen Johnson, Aly Cissokho, Kolo Toure, Victor Moses, Iago Aspas and the dead wood. Then new additions will be important to the side, with plenty of rumours flying around about Michel Vorm, Ashley Cole, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Marcos Rojo, potentially joining the ranks.
The summer transfer window is going to be extremely exciting for Liverpool, as for the first time in a long time; they look a really attractive proposition for many footballers. A young side, playing attacking football with young British talent. The future looks bright for Liverpool.
Liverpool Odds for 2014/15:
Premier League: 11/2
Top 4 Finish: 4/9
The second race of the day at Punchestown is where we start off our final day at the venue, and the selection is Vesper Bell from the Willie Mullins yard. He has always been held in very high esteem by connections but failed to sparkle earlier in the season. However a valiant effort in the Grand National, finishing a fading thirteenth, is enough to show he is heading back onto the right track, and the shorter trip should suit on Saturday.
He seems to have turned a corner with his jumping, and should he manage to reproduce his effort from last year’s race, where he finished runner-up to the classy Goonyella, he should go very close. The 7/1 on offer is very fair each-way value, and it would be no surprise to see Ruby Walsh battling it out at the finish on-board the eight-year-old.
Next up is the Four Year Old Champion Hurdle is a very interesting race, with Triumph Hurdle winner Tiger Roll and Aintree Grade One winner Guitar Pete re-appearing in this fascinating affair.
Both are high-class animals and look set to have a real chance, but it as outsider in the shape of Fox Norton who really catches the eye at a tempting 18/1. He missed Cheltenham to stay fresh for Aintree, where he traveled wide the entire way round. He was eased into the race approaching four out, and look set to be in with a major chance as the race began to heat up approaching the straight. However the extra ground he had taken it’s toll and he faded approaching the final two flights, finishing a disappointing sixth.
He finished an encouraging second behind the re-appearing Royal Irish Hussar at Market Rasen, before managing to reverse the form in a very impressive manner at Doncaster, when he landed a Grade Two Novices’ Hurdle, getting the better of Broughton, with Royal Irish Hussar 16 lengths further back in third.
He will come on for the Aintree run and the better the ground, the better his chance on Saturday. Nick Williams wouldn’t send him over without a real chance, and although this looks an extremely hot race, he has to have a major chance at a cracking each-way price.
Then, there is a very competitive affair in the Setenta Sports Handicap, in which Upsie looks to have a major chance for Willie Mullins, who has landed four of the last five renewals.
Ruby Walsh has opted for the mare (after JP McManus’ retained rider AP chose to ride favourite Regal Encore), and if she can follow on from her high level of form so far this season, she will go very close at 11/1.
She is two from two at Punchestown, including a win at last year’s festival, but arguably her best run was last time out, when finishing third behind Thousand Stars and Get Me Out of Here in a Grade Two at Fairyhouse. He was give a very patient ride by David Casey, who sat his mount fifth until getting serious after the proverbial bird had flown, but when he asked questions he got an instant response from the six-year-old and she flew home to finish third, nearly snatching the runners-up spot.
She is set to be ridden a lot more prominently under Walsh tomorrow, and although it is an extremely open race, she looks set to have a major chance at a brilliant price, where four places are paid with bookmakers.
3:05 Punch: Vesper Bell @ 7/1 (Various)
4:20 Punch: Fox Norton @ 18/1 (Coral)
5:30 Punch: Upsie @ 11/1 (Ladbrokes)
All three selections were placed yesterday, which shows we are managing to get on the right track, despite a whole host of shock results.
Outsiders have been the flavour of the week, and hopefully tomorrow will follow suit to some extent, as our first selection is The Romford Pele in the 4:20, at an extremely tempting 16/1.
Rebecca Curtis’ charge has been campaigned at the highest level, and has a whole host of respectable runs behind top class horses, such as finishing runner-up to Balder Success, Court Minstrel and a brave third behind Taquin De Seuil. He boasts fantastic form, and should he manage to perform consistently, living up to the high hopes that the Curtis team have for the seven-year-old, he should go extremely close.
He was last seen finishing a staying-on fourth in a handicap at Cheltenham earlier this month, and that should put him spot on for Friday’s challenge, where the extra distance on better ground should suit. Paul Townend takes the ride, and he knows the Punchestown track extremely well, which is an added bonus in itself.
It is a very open race, with Some Tikket looking the biggest danger, as he aims to follow up his impressive victory at Fairyhouse. However he has been hiked up eleven pounds for that effort, and he will have to improve to ensure he visits the winners enclosure once more. So for this reason, the 16/1 for Romford Pele looks a more than fair each-way bet.
The next race is a very open affair, with a trio of Nicky Henderson horses heading the market. Une Artiste and Nadiya De La Vega look like very interesting contenders, however Barry Geraghty has sided with Utopie Des Bordes, who has already landed a Grade One Chase over in France. She arrived with a big reputation, but has so far failed to fire over hurdles, although her fifth at Aintree behind Doctor Harper (Thursday’s Hurdle winner Jetson, finished in fourth), showed she is heading back in the right direction.
The six-year-old is having her first start over the bigger obstacles since transferring the Nicky Henderson stable from across the Channel, and she could be potentially well treated off a rather lenient mark of 136. The 4/1 looks fair and it may not last very long, thanks to the punters latching on to the Barry Geraghty factor, after the jockey has been in great form so far this Punchestown.
She should go very well, and at the very least, make the frame.
The final piece is advice may be rather boring, but looks a very solid treble. Champion Hurdle hero Jezki lines up again on Friday against Hurricane Fly and Steps to Freedom, and he is currently trading at 11/10.
It looks a straight shootout between Jezki and the magnificent Hurricane Fly, however ‘the Fly’ has never enjoyed fast ground which it looks set to be over in Ireland, and Jezki should be able to confirm his Champion Hurdle placings. Jessica Harrington’s gelding is 1/1 at Punchestown having won at the festival last year, and he should be able to keep that record in tact, thanks to his magnificent mixture of fluent jumping, speed and stamina.
He should be added with Vautour, who looked the real deal when landing the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in the most impressive fashion. He is up against an arguably weaker field than he faced at Cheltenham, and he looks like a horse firmly on the upgrade so it would take something special to upset Willie Mullins’ five-year-old. He has the potential to go on to bigger and better things, and will be hoping to stake a claim for next year’s Champion Hurdle with a big performance on Friday. The 2/5 is extremely skinny, but he looks as close to a banker as you will find all week.
The final selection to the ‘boring but hopefully solid’ treble, is Arctic Fire. He has run extremely well all year, in the highest novice company and looks set to gain compensation for a series of solid efforts, by finally landing a big one.
He finished close behind the highly rated The Tullow Tank twice, before producing his best run last time out, when only just failing to get the better of Lac Fontana in the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Lac Fontana has since been out and franked the form by landing a Grade One Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree, and this all points towards Arctic Fire proving extremely hard to beat for the duo of Mullins and Walsh.
At 4/5 he completes the 4.29/1 treble, which will hopefully we ensure we enter Saturday with a healthy profit.
4:20 Punch: The Romford Pele @ 16/1 (Ladbrokes)
4:55 Punch: Utopie Des Bordes @ 4/1 (Various)
Jezki, Vautour & Arctic Fire @ 4.29/1 (Coral)
The week seems to be moving at a rate of knots, as we pass on to Thursday and day three of the festival across the Irish Sea.
Ned Buntline can kick-start our Thursday with a win in the second race of the day, following a string of valiant efforts at the top level. He finished runner-up to Champion Hurdle hero Jezki in his debut bumper back in 2012, and has been a talking horse in the past for the Noel Meade yard.
There has always been extremely strong vibes around for the gelding, and his second in the Grand Annual at the Cheltenham Festival show he is continuing on his journey to the top, after looking the likeliest winner the whole way around under the ever patient Paul Carberry.
He has only been raised two pounds for that effort, which looks extremely fair, and the Champion Jockey Tony McCoy takes over the reigns, in the colours of his boss JP McManus. It is an extremely open race, but back on the quicker ground, with a lenient handicap mark, Ned Buntline can take advantage and land a valuable prize on his way to better things next year, at an extremely tempting 11/2.
It could prove to be a quickfire double for JP McManus and AP McCoy, as World Hurdle third, and Aintree Hurdle runner-up At Fishers Cross lines up to battle with the mighty mare Quevega.
Quevega is the extremely warm favourite at 10/11, and is likely to go off a lot shorter with the majority of the Irish contingent seeing her as ‘the good thing’ of the week, thanks to her tremendous record which sees her unbeaten in her last nine runs, as-well as winning six out of eight attempts at Punchestown. However, At Fishers Cross has been running consistently well at the top level, and there has always been the belief he is yet to show us the best of his ability, even though he has produced some fantastic runs already in his career.
He traveled magnificently at both Cheltenham and Aintree, but failed to see out his races after forcing the pace at the wrong times. McCoy will have learned a lot from these races, and will be out to atone for making the error of opting for the wrong horse in the World Hurlde last time out. Quevega is a magnificent mare, but faces an extremely tough challenge tomorrow, so if McCoy can nick a few lengths from the front on the second circuit, it will be interesting to see how Ruby Walsh chooses to play his hand on-board the favourite, after usually swooping with a late run.
She will be very tough to beat, but the ultra-consistent At Fishers Cross is sure to be there battling it out at the finish, and the 9/2 on offer is too big to ignore.
The final selection comes in the shape of Balder Success, who landed the Maghull Novices’ Chase in tremendous fashion at the Aintree meeting. His mix of solid jumping and ability to see out his races means he will be extremely hard to beat, and the six-year-old heads the official ratings, which speaks volumes about his chances over in Ireland.
Alan King ensured his gelding missed Cheltenham in an attempt to arrive at Aintree as fresh as possible, before going on to prove his superiority in the two mile chasing division at Punchestown. Wayne Hutchinson takes the ride and the 11/4 looks extremely fair considering there are plenty of holes in the form of the favourite Champagne Fever, with the Arkle runners failing to fire next time out. He is worth chancing at the prices, and he should prove value against the Irish raiders.
4:15 Punch: Ned Buntline @ 11/2 (Racebets)
5:30 Punch: At Fishers Cross @ 9/2 (Various)
6:40 Punch: Balder Success @ 11/4 (Boylesports)