The return of the Liverpool squad to Melwood at the beginning of July 2013 was particularly notable for the absence of Jamie Carragher for the first time in nearly two decades – having made 737 appearances for the Reds, winning two FA Cups and a European Cup amongst a haul of eleven senior honours, his retirement had been announced in February. Having lost his place in the starting eleven under Kenny Dalglish, our vice-Captain enjoyed quite the Indian summer as he helped Brendan Rodgers’ side improve their form and recover to a respectable 7th place finish during 2012-13. Liverpool’s encouraging Spring gave hope that Rodgers’ side could challenge for long-awaited Champions League qualification again ahead of the new season, and supporters were optimistic about the early groundwork established by the former-Swansea City manager. Along with Carragher, Jonjo Shelvey and Stewart Downing departed during the summer – Pepe Reina, Andre Wisdom, Suso, Oussama Assaidi, and Fabio Borini all departed on loan ahead of the new season, whilst Andy Carroll and Jay Spearing both made their loan moves permanent.
Whilst the early additions of Simon Mignolet, Kolo Toure, Luis Alberto, and Iago Aspas all contributed to the upbeat mood at Melwood, it was concerns over a high profile departure that would provide unwanted distraction and concern during the build-up to the new campaign. After a sequence of distance sound-bites, Luis Suarez had, at the end of May, confirmed his desire to leave Liverpool. The saga would rumble on all summer and the suspended forward was notably subject of a farcical £40,000,001 bid by Arsenal – this was rejected, but Liverpool’s defiant stance served only to further steel the Uruguayan’s resolve. Mid-August reports from his home country suggested that Suarez had opted to commit to Liverpool for the forthcoming season and, after a short period of banishment, he returned to training with his teammates.
The hysteria surrounding Suarez had apparently done little to affect Liverpool’s preparations on the pitch – after a 4-0 opening victory away to Preston North End, the Reds secured 2-0, 2-0, and 3-0 victories as they visited Indonesia, Melbourne Victory, and Thailand respectively. A brief stop at home for Steven Gerrard’s Testimonial yielded a 2-0 victory, before the Reds claimed a 4-1 win away to Valarenga and eventually ended their pre-season programme with a 1-0 reverse at Celtic’s Parkhead. Urgent desire to return to the Champions League stirred up a frenzied desire for a ‘marquee signing’ amongst supporters but hopes of securing the services of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Willian, and Diego Costa proved fruitless. Prior to the transfer window’s closure, however, the Reds did acquire Tiago Ilori and Mamadou Sakho, as well as loan signings Aly Cissokho and Victor Moses.
The campaign proper got off to a nervy yet encouraging beginning – with the Reds hoping to capitalise on upheaval at a number of rival clubs, a positive start was essential. In the absence of Suarez, Daniel Sturridge stepped up to give Liverpool 1-0 half-time leads in their trio of openings fixtures – Rodgers’ men, however, would give the supporters a nervy ride on the way to claiming a maximum of 9 points. Home to Stoke City, Daniel Agger inexplicably handled the ball to give Jonathan Walters an opportunity from the spot – debutant Mignolet proved hero in the dying moments. The Belgian would again come to Liverpool’s rescue late-on at Villa Park, pulling off a great near-post save as Christian Benteke threatened. Liverpool made their long-awaited return to the league’s summit after holding on to their first-half lead at home to David Moyes’ Manchester United at the start of September, after yet more Sturridge goals had helped the Reds to a 4-2 home victory against Notts County during the mid-week.
Following the early-season international break, the Shelvey show dominated Brendan Rodgers’ second return to Swansea’s Liberty Stadium – the former-Red opened the scoring through sheer persistence within two minutes but, moments later, gifted Sturridge an equaliser. Another wayward Shelvey pass saw Moses net a debut strike to give the Reds the lead, but his run and assist would eventually provide a straightforward equaliser for Michu as Liverpool dropped their first points of the season. The Reds were shocked at Anfield later in the week, as Dejan Lovren battled to beat Agger to a header and secure a 1-0 victory for Southampton – Liverpool losing their first competitive match since their visit to St. Mary’s in mid-March. A second defeat quickly followed as, despite Suarez’s return, Moyes’ United claimed a 1-0 victory at Anfield to eliminate the Reds from the League Cup. With others stuttering, Liverpool secured 3-1 victories against the league’s bottom two to return to the top of the table before the October break – the reunited Sturridge and Suarez were both on target in each of the games away to Sunderland and home to Crystal Palace, who both appeared early favourites for relegation.
Brendan Rodgers had opted to deploy a back-three in order to accommodate both his forwards for those successive victories but, during Philippe Coutinho’s absence, the team were unable to achieve consistency with Moses playing in the ‘number ten’ role. The increasing concern surrounding set-piece defending reared its head again at St James’ Park as Liverpool had to twice fight-back to secure a 2-2 draw with Newcastle United, but a Suarez hat-trick would swat West Bromwich Albion aside with a 4-1 victory at Anfield. The subsequent visit to the Emirates provided a reality-check in the form of a 2-0 loss to Arsenal, in which Arsene Wenger’s dynamic midfield danced around Lucas Leiva and Steven Gerrard. Despite the prospect of Coutinho’s return suiting the new system, Rodgers reverted to a back-four for the visit of Fulham – this offered Jordan Henderson and the Brazilian greater freedom and Liverpool stormed to a 4-0 victory. Respectful of Everton’s new style under Roberto Martinez, Rodgers selected used Joe Allen instead of Sturridge to bolster his midfield for the trip across Stanley Park for the first Derby of the season. After a breathless beginning, Allen missed a glorious chance to give the Reds a 3-1 lead midway through the second-half and, after Romelu Lukaku fired the Blues into the lead, it was down to Sturridge, introduced at 2-2, to score a last-minute equalier to salvage a point for the Reds. December began on a sour note – having learned that injury would rule top-scorer Sturridge out for two months, Liverpool slumped to a 3-1 loss away to mid-table Hull City. A lacklustre performance all round, Raheem Sterling failed to impress during just his second league start of the campaign as Rodgers experimented with a pair of wingers and the Reds returned with exactly what they deserved from the game. Having taken just 8 points from six, much of the early season optimism had disappeared as Liverpool slipped to 4th – 7 points adrift of leaders Arsenal and vulnerable to tumbling to 8th within a single match.
Suddenly, from this moment of uncertainty and still fresh from the disappointment of Sturridge’s injury and the loss at the KC Stadium, came December. Liverpool supporters should be grateful to John W. Henry and Brendan Rodgers for December – not merely for standing defiantly in the way of Suarez’s departure for Madrid or North London but also, presumably, for the stack of John Barnes DVD’s that Sterling was presumably gifted following the Hull disappointment. A forward down, Rodgers reverted to his early season set-up in early-December – Allen was recalled to partner Gerrard, whilst Henderson, Coutinho, and Sterling offered Suarez support. Two crushing Anfield victories, 5-1 and 4-1 against Norwich City and West Ham United respectively, saw the Reds back in their stride before travelling supporters were treated to the Reds’ best performance in some years. Our Captain’s 300th league match had ended early due to injury against West Ham and so Lucas deputised and Suarez pulled on the armband for the trip to White Hart Lane. Pre-match, supporters had feared that misfiring Tottenham Hotspur’s powerhouse midfield of Sandro, Paulinho, and Moussa Dembele may prove too much for Liverpool’s relatively-lightweight engine-room but Lucas, Allen, and Henderson put in a fantastic performance that provided the foundation for a memorable Liverpool away day. Suarez netted his seventh goal of the month to give Liverpool a lead before Henderson doubled the advantage before half-time. Spurs offered more resilience after the break but capitulated following Paulinho’s sending off – recently-recalled Jon Flanagan celebrated his first Liverpool goal in style before Sterling and Suarez sealed a 5-0 victory and fired Liverpool back to within touching distance of faltering leaders Arsenal. An unchanged Liverpool side hosted Cardiff City for their first top-flight meeting since April 1954, securing a comfortable 3-1 victory, thanks to Suarez’s ninth and tenth and Sterling’s third goal(s) of the month. The Reds sat top of the league over the festive period.
The period between Christmas and New Year was always set to prove a major test for Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool. The Reds had enjoyed a fantastic 2013 – winning twenty and losing just six of their thirty-five league matches prior to Christmas, but Manchester City and Chelsea had always been hotly tipped to battle for the 2013-14 title and were both within touching distance of leaders Liverpool. Flanagan had picked up an injury against Cardiff and was absent for both matches, with Cissokho filling in away at the Etihad and Agger away at Stamford Bridge. An intricate Liverpool move saw Coutinho slot home the opener from a tight angle midway through the first-half against Manchester City but Vincent Kompany shrugged-off Martin Skrtel to nod in an equaliser from a David Silva corner just moments later. An incisive City break, a neat Alvaro Negredo finish, and a weak hand from Mignolet saw City take the lead during first-half stoppage time and so it remained until the final-whistle – Liverpool showed great intent in the first half and were left feeling aggrieved when a clearly-onside Sterling was ruled offside after being set clear by Suarez. Injury-hit Liverpool named youngsters Jordan Rossiter and Brad Smith on the bench for the game away to Chelsea but another valiant effort saw the Reds come close to returning north with points. Samuel Eto’o was lucky to remain on the pitch after his early hatchet-job on Henderson, just moments before Skrtel claimed a loose ball to give the Reds the lead from the resultant free-kick. A Chelsea onslaught followed and, within fifteen minutes, Eden Hazard capped an unmarked run with a fine curling equaliser from twenty yards. A highly-charged encounter toed and froed for fifteen minutes before Eto’o poked home Oscar’s cross to give Jose Mourinho’s side a 2-1 half-time lead. Sakho’s header struck the woodwork in the second half but, despite Smith’s introduction to first team action, the Reds were unable to find a breakthrough – a late off-the-ball challenge by Eto’o on Suarez should probably have seen the Reds awarded a penalty but Rodgers’ side ended 2013 with a pair of defeats. Nevertheless, the league table provided relative satisfaction – Liverpool sat 5th, 6 points off the top with 36 points and a goal difference of +21, whilst, a year earlier, they were 9th, 21 points off the top with 28 points and a goal difference of +5. Clear progress was being made under Brendan Rodgers.
Liverpool began 2014 outside of the top-four for the first time in the current campaign – sitting 5th, 6 points behind leaders Arsenal, the Reds remained vulnerable to dropping to 7th in a tight group of teams separated by just 8 points at the halfway point. Goals either side of half-time from Agger and Suarez gave the Reds a 2-0 home win against Hull on New Year’s Day and moved them back into the top-four ahead of a third FA Cup meeting in three seasons with Oldham Athletic – Aspas scored his first competitive Liverpool goal as Rodgers’ men progressed by 2-0. The Captain returned to the starting line-up for the trip to Stoke’s Britannia Stadium and Sturridge’s return to the bench was equally welcomed – Rodgers’ deployed Gerrard in a deep-lying role behind Lucas and Henderson. Liverpool led twice during the first-half but former-Reds Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam ensured that matters were level at the break – Gerrard and Suarez would provide a two-goal lead in the second-half but Wirral-born Everton-supporter Jonathan Walters ensured a nervy-ending with a late goal. Sturridge, introduced midway through the second-half, would make a telling contribution – netting creatively to seal a 5-3 victory and continue the bright start to the year. Goals from Benteke and Andreas Weimann shocked the Kopites in mid-January, before Sturridge halved the first-half deficit against Aston Villa – Gerrard’s deep-lying trial didn’t appear to be paying off and Lucas made an immediate impact after his half-time introduction. Unfortunately, the Brazilian was withdrawn due to injury within just twenty minutes – Gerrard’s penalty had already provided an equaliser but Liverpool were unable to force a third to claim a victory. The Reds travelled to Bournemouth for their fourth-round FA Cup tie – a goal in each half, from Moses and Sturridge, securing progression by 2-0 against the in-form Championship side.
The final game of January provided saw the Reds rival their White Hart Lane performance, this time at home to neighbours Everton. Liverpool-born Flanagan reclaimed his place in the side on a night when fellow local, Gerrard, capitalised on the Blues’ calamitous defending to head home a Coutinho corner after twenty minutes. The Reds were well on their way to a famous victory fifteen minutes later, with Sturridge netting twice in as many minutes, contributing to an emphatic 3-0 half-time lead. Only an early second-half goal could realistically force Everton back into the game but, when the Anfield net rippled, it was Suarez celebrating, having run clear of Phil Jagielka and Antolin Alcaraz. A lacklustre trip to the Hawthorns saw Liverpool drop two-points to recovering West Brom at the beginning of February, with Toure gifting Victor Anichebe a second-half goal to cancel out Sturridge’s first-half opener. Arsenal arrived at Anfield with an 8 point advantage the following weekend but, within just twenty minutes, were faced with a four goal deficit as a Skrtel-double and goals from Sterling and Henderson saw Liverpool destroy Wenger’s side during a scintillating opening. As in the Derby, an early second half goal killed off any slim chance of a comeback, with Sterling adding Liverpool’s fifth to shoot down the visiting Gunners. A reckless tackle by Gerrard on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain enabled Mikel Arteta to score from the spot but, even with over twenty minutes remaining, it was no more than a consolatory strike.
Having regained their swagger during recent home victories, again unchanged Liverpool took to the turf at Craven Cottage hoping to underline their performances with an authoritative dosplay against struggling Fulham – Toure’s opening own-goal was not part of the script for the midweek fixture. Liverpool put their travelling support through it on the night and, despite Sturridge’s equaliser prior to the break, found themselves a goal down again midway through the second-half after calamitous defending offered Kieran Richardson a tap-in beyond a scampering Mignolet. The tension and drama that followed was reminiscent of the Reds’ 2008-09 trip to Fulham – often derided for his shooting, Coutinho struck with twenty minutes remaining and, in injury time, Gerrard netted from the spot to secure a 3-2 victory and those crucial additional points. A second trip to the Emirates of the season, this time in the FA Cup Fifth Round, saw Agger, Allen, and Brad Jones brought into the side – Arsenal were undaunted by their recent destruction at Anfield and, shortly after half-time, Lukas Podolski added to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first-half opener to give the Gunners a two-goal lead. Suarez was clumsily brought down by the German midway through the half and Gerrard’s spot-kick heralded a half-hour of intense pressure but the Reds, ultimately unable to find an equaliser, were eliminated from the Cup by the eventual-winners. The following week, Anfield provided its usual deluge of goals – this time more evenly distributed, however, as Swansea City gave Liverpool a scare. Through Sturridge and Henderson, the Reds raced into an early lead and promised another demolition job but a fine strike from Shelvey and a Skrtel own-goal levelled matters midway through the half. Sturridge would restore a goal-advantage prior to the break but Swansea again returned, this time from the spot, via Wilfried Bony. The match poised at three-each, Liverpool frustrations ceased with fifteen-minutes to spare as Henderson scored his second of the match to give the Reds a 4-3 victory.
March, enlisting Liverpool for three successive away trips to Southampton, Old Trafford, and Cardiff, before a visit by Gus Poyet’s battling Sunderland, had long had a tricky look about it but was the month in which wild dreams of a title challenge became punctuated by moments of genuine belief. The trip to St Mary’s yielded a commanding 3-0 victory for the Reds – goals from Suarez and Sterling putting the visitors firmly in charge before another injury-time penalty from the Captain helped Liverpool back into the top-two. Manchester United, and their beleaguered boss, got no change from Liverpool’s visit – Gerrard struck two penalties beyond David de Gea before missing his chance at a spot-kick hat-trick after Nemanja Vidic was given his customary marching orders. Suarez put the game beyond doubt late-on, much to the jubilation of Reds back home. Rodgers’ side offered an insipid first-half display in Cardiff, twice falling behind due to attacks from Cardiff’s right, but were level thanks to goals from Suarez and Skrtel by half-time. Much-improved during the second-half, Skrtel, Suarez, and Sturridge put the game beyond doubt – the goals flowed right until the finale, however, with Jordan Mutch and Suarez’s hat-trick goal putting the final-score at 6-3. Sunderland, much improved over December and January, had slumped during February and March and the trip to Anfield proved too much for them – Liverpool secured a seventh successive league victory thanks to goals either side of half-time from Gerrard and Sturridge, as the Black Cats were unable to find an equaliser following Ki’s second-half goal. Tricky March had seen the Reds pick up 12 points out of 12, leaving them high on confidence ahead of Tottenham’s visit.
Sherwood’s inconsistent Spurs gave in early-on to the insatiable Reds – Younes Kaboul turned Glen Johnson’s cross into his own net with just seconds on the clock and Suarez doubled the advantage after comical defending in the twenty-fifth minute. Coutinho and Henderson made it 4-0 during the second half, as the home crowd were treated to another fantastic performance at Anfield – with leaders Chelsea falling to defeat at Crystal Palace and Manchester City drawing, Rodgers’ Liverpool returned to the summit and regained control of their title ambitions. Sakho made a long-awaited return to the starting line-up against West Ham and it was yet another Gerrard penalty that gave Liverpool a lead at the Boleyn Ground before, moments later, Guy Demel equalised from a corner – with no little help from Andy Carroll’s attack on Mignolet. Gerrard’s tenth spot-kick goal of the season gave Liverpool a 2-1 victory, their ninth in succession, prior to a pivotal Anfield visit. The home support sensed that their twenty-four year wait for a league title was almost over midway through the first-half when Skrtel added to Sterling’s opener to head the Reds into a 2-0 lead against Manchester City. The visitors responded well, however, with an excellent second-half performance being inspired largely by David Silva who brought Manuel Pellegrini’s side back to within one before forcing an own-goal equaliser in off Johnson. City applied further pressure but, with just over ten minutes remaining, a rare error from Vincent Kompany left the ball loose in the box – Coutinho reached it quickest and scored the winner with a first-time strike. Henderson’s over-exuberance saw him dismissed during injury-time, but the Reds hung on and the 3-2 victory prompted emotional scenes at Anfield as Gerrard, on the very brink of tears, implored his team mates with the mantra of “we go again”. And indeed they did, a week later, with Rodgers’ Liverpool securing 3 points at Carrow Road – Joe Allen returned to deputise for Henderson, and Sterling and Suarez gave the Reds an early 2-0 lead which they held until close to the hour mark. Gary Hooper pulled a goal back which Sterling cancelled out with his ‘chip-meg’ shortly afterwards – Robert Snodgrass set up a nervy last fifteen minutes for the travelling Kopites but their side hung on for their eleventh victory in succession.
Poyet’s Sunderland, aided by loanee Borini, had taken points of both Chelsea and Manchester City during mid-April, ultimately ending Chelsea’s challenge and leaving City at the mercy of Liverpool’s control – 7 points from the final three matches would guarantee the Reds a nineteenth title and the first since 1990. Mourinho’s Chelsea set out to guard resolutely against Liverpool’s attack, seeking to run-down the clock from an early stage – ironic then, in some ways, that the game’s two goals would come in the injury-time of each respective half. Gerrard’s unfortunate slip allowed Demba Ba to run through on goal in the first-half and Willian sealed the 2-0 victory after Fernando Torres’ break in the final moments of the game. City beating Palace later in the day meant that the Reds lost control of their challenge and required City to drop points at least once during their final three matches. Neighbours Everton were unable to help during the following weekend and so Liverpool and City both sat on 80 points with two games remaining, the Manchester side enjoying a goal difference advantage of nine goals. The Reds laboured their first-half on the Monday night against Crystal Palace but Allen’s header had given them a vital lead – Damien Delaney deflected in a Sturridge strike and Suarez added a third early in the second-half, prompting some optimists to start to believe in Liverpool’s ability to close-in on City’s goal difference. Nobody could have predicted the drama that would follow late-on, however – Mignolet was left helpless as Johnson’s deflection sent Delaney’s strike into the net and, within two minutes, Dwight Gayle had reduced the lead to one with ten minutes remaining. The Reds sat increasingly deep as Palace’s vociferous supporters sense an equaliser and, with just two minutes remaining, the inevitable occurred as Glenn Murray’s knock-down sent Gayle through to claim the equalising goal. Brendan Rodgers’ side and their supporters were devastated at the final whistle – Suarez in particular unable to hide his emotion. Man City’s 4-0 victory at home to Aston Villa during the midweek gave them a 2 point (and insurmountable thirteen goal) advantage going into the final day – only victory at home to Newcastle United, and an unlikely win for West Ham in Manchester, would do for Liverpool. The home side looked bereft of confidence on the Anfield turf during the first-half – Skrtel’s own goal midway through gave the struggling Magpies the lead and news of Samir Nasri’s opener in Manchester looked to have ended Liverpool’s challenge prior to the break. Kompany added a second against West Ham, all but sealing the title, as play resumed. Liverpool returned strongly to put in a much-improved second-half showing for their supporters – goals in quick succession from Agger and Sturridge turned the tie midway through and, with Newcastle’s Shola Ameobi and Paul Dummett both being dismissed, the game ended 2-1. City, some thirty-five miles away did indeed claim the title with a 2-0 victory, leaving Liverpool supporters with mixed emotions as 2013-14 league runners-up.
The dramatic final fortnight of the season dealt cruel blows to Liverpool supporters. Critics consider that, from a position of control prior to the Chelsea game, Brendan Rodgers’ side threw the title away. The Reds, however, did little wrong against the Blues – they were simply unable to achieve an opening against Mourinho’s staunch approach and were hit twice on the break. Though not to discredit Palace and their support, the collapse at Selhurst Park was largely a manifestation of problems identified earlier within the season – even during the run of eleven successive victories, fifteen goals were conceded and, after defending resolutely early in the season, patchy Autumn form saw the Reds concede nine in six matches. Nevertheless, Liverpool far exceeded supporters’ most bullish expectations this season and a long-awaited (and automatic) return to the European Cup and a serious title challenge represent considerable achievements for a side who finished 7th just a season ago and who many expected would be in a tight battle for 4th this time around. The resurgence of Steven Gerrard, reborn in his deeper role, owes a lot to LMA Manager of the Year Brendan Rodgers, whilst the form of Daniel Sturridge and award-sweeping Luis Suarez, alongside the real emergence of Jon Flanagan, Jordan Henderson, and Raheem Sterling, have provided major highlights and causes for optimism for Liverpool supporters during the last year.
The Reds’ early-season form provided a fantastic platform for an encouraging season of progress whilst, following a six-game blip, an emphatic Suarez-inspired December planted seeds of belief in the minds of many supporters. This belief, and the character that Rodgers so-often references, was exemplified during the New Year as Liverpool recovered from potentially damaging back-to-back defeats to the title favourites to embark upon an unbeaten run of sixteen league matches. Belief was affirmed as genuine as Spring broke, with home victories against Spurs and City representing long-time highlights. The manner in which the season ended was truly devastating for all involved with the Club but, whilst many snipe that Liverpool have blown their best chance at a title both in and for many seasons, Liverpool supporters have every reason to be happy with their season and the optimism and belief that the Reds can go again under Brendan Rodgers is strong. A pivotal summer and a World Cup await, but August, and the opportunity to continue on the upward trajectory, can’t come soon enough for Liverpool Football Club.
Originally published at: http://www.theredmentv.com/blog/p/15306
© Jack Harte, The Redmen TV, 2014