After mounting their most serious title challenge since 1990 last season, Liverpool entered the new season with strong optimism and large backing from both the experts and the bookmakers. Most people were in agreement that this represented the club’s best chance to end the 20-year wait for a league championship. Unfortunately, before August was over they had lost two games and one hugely influential player. Xabi Alonso’s defection to Real Madrid as part of their second Galacticos project may have been a good deal in a business sense, but it was the end of a frustrating summer for Liverpool fans.
Benitez’s first major signing was Portsmouth’s Glen Johnson for a reported £17m. The full-back positions have long been cited as areas for improvement and although the fee was steep, the team now has an adventurous attacking defender who Fabio Capello rates as England’s best. Johnson has been one of the few positives so far this season, with consistent performances and two important goals. If his form continues his place at the World Cup should be assured and he could become a vital player for the club.
The other major signing during the off-season was the injury-prone Italian Alberto Aquilani from AS Roma for a fee in the region of £20m. The deal was agreed weeks before his eventual signature but was only completed once Alonso had departed. A talismanic figure for his old club and good enough to play for world champions Italy, Aquilani has a lot of talent and potential but has been dogged by persistent injuries. Indeed he signed for Liverpool whilst injured and has yet to play.
Other departures included Alvaro Arbeloa, who also signed for Real Madrid, Jermaine Pennant and Anfield legend Sami Hyypia, who left on a free transfer to Bayer Leverkusen. Back-up central defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos was the only other signing of note, joining for a small fee from Greek side AEK Athens.
Many fans were critical of a perceived lack of funding for the manager and believe Liverpool needed another top attacking player to support Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres; a move for Valencia’s David Silva was mooted but never materialised.
Liverpool were handed an away fixture on the opening day for the sixth season running, and a tough one too against Tottenham. A 2-1 defeat was exacerbated by a poor performance and was obviously not the start hoped for. A 4-0 thumping of Stoke at Anfield was supposed to be a fresh start but just five days later Aston Villa visited and earned a shock 3-1 win. It was the side's first home league loss for 18 months and prompted Benitez to criticise his “senior players”. Jamie Carragher in particular has come in for a lot of criticism from fans for his performances so far this season.
The manager’s rallying call seemed to get a reaction from the squad as they put six straight wins together, thereby moving up the table, making a solid start in Europe and progressing to the next round of the Carling Cup. The last few weeks have been the toughest so far though, with consecutive away defeats at Fiorentina in the Champions League, and Chelsea and Sunderland in the Premier League, compounded by a morale-sapping home defeat to Lyon despite leading at half-time. This run of results has caused real damage to ambitious prospects this season.
Another poor performance against Sunderland was masked by the laughable beach-ball "goal" while the disappointing defeat to Lyon was worsened by Gerrard having to go off after 20 minutes. Benitez must solve the problems and start turning things around ahead of big games against Manchester United and Arsenal. However, he will have to do that with the skipper struggling for fitness and Fernando Torres likely to miss several games after suffering an injury whilst on international duty with Spain.
If Liverpool are to achieve their aims this season and sate the fans’ rabid desire for a league title, performances and results must improve very quickly. A bright start and real impact from Aquilani would add freshness to a staid midfield, while the defence simply has to stop leaking goals. With the Premier League a far more competitive division this year, thanks to the efforts of Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa as well as others, a poor start is not the disaster it may have been in previous seasons. But if Steven Gerrard is to lift a trophy in May, Liverpool will have to start winning games sooner rather than later.
By Chris Shaw, Chief Sports Reporter
Davies scores as Villa win at Anfield; Jamie Carragher has been criticised by fans (courtesy of Flickr)