Liverpool’s biggest threat now is the enemy within

Liverpool’s biggest threat now is the enemy within

In his essential book on Hollywood Adventures In The Screen Trade, William Goldman tells of sharing a car one day with the Canadian director Norman Jewison. Jewison, whose daughter’s birthday party is due to take place the following day, says: “I wonder what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow?”

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah shows his disappointment at Anfield last Wednesday night. Liverpool missed the chance to take a seven-point lead in the Premier League. Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.
Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah shows his disappointment at Anfield last Wednesday night. Liverpool missed the chance to take a seven-point lead in the Premier League. Picture: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.

He then flicks on the radio and instantly hears a voice saying: “Tomorrow’s weather is for heavy rains, flooding at times etc”. The two men look at each other and simultaneously exclaim:

“A movie moment”. By which Goldman means, as he goes on to tell the reader, that the moment might have been real but, up on the silver screen, it would not have been believable.

It so happens that I had my own little movie moment watching Match Of The Day on Thursday, having managed to avoid learning the night’s results beforehand. (And how delicious a feeling does that continue to be?). After the final whistle blew on the highlights of Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Leicester, the very first thought that popped into my head was ‘squeaky bum time’. At which precise moment, the scene shifted from Anfield to the studio and Gary Lineker opened the post-match analysis by saying:

“A bit early for squeaky bum time, isn’t it?”

Actually, I doubt we were the only great minds thinking alike at that moment. And, of course, the correct answer to the question is that, with January only just giving way to February and 14 games still to go, it is indeed far too early in the title race for finger-biting and cold sweats, not to mention Fergie’s famous discomfort in the posterior region.

Except this is Anfield, this is Liverpool, and as far as the long-suffering Koppites would be concerned, it’s later than we think – much later, nigh on 30 years, in fact. Manchester City’s wounding setback the previous night against Newcastle should have filled the ground with a sense of well-being on Thursday but those who were there reported a distinct nervousness in the crowd before kick-off, a tension not alleviated one bit as the home side failed to build on the dream start of Mane’s early goal and blitz the opposition as they have done so many times before.

It’s easy enough to understand how the accumulated weight of history since 1990 might play on the minds of Liverpool supporters desperate to see their team end the club’s extraordinary title drought. And even for those too young to have experienced the passing of the days of serial success in the league, there are more recent memories of how suddenly and painfully dreams can be crushed, from Gerrard’s fateful slip in 2014 to the brutal anti-climax of last year’s Champions League final.

And well though Leicester played on Thursday night, it won’t have eased the worries of the faithful that a couple of Liverpool’s most reliable performers contributed to the side’s downfall, Andy Robertson rashly conceding the free-kick from which, indirectly, Leicester equalised when Virgil van Dijk, of all people, momentarily lost his bearings in the box, allowing his counterpart Harry Maguire to sneak in behind him and level the game.

Hang on, did I just say downfall? It seems that even for those of us with no skin in the game, the Merseyside collywobbles are a touch infectious. The fact is that Liverpool are in a better position this weekend than they were at the start of the week: five points clear of Manchester City, instead of four. And yet, for all the historical reasons mentioned above – and also because no-one would want City, for all the recent evidence of their own fallibility, to be the ones breathing down their neck – it’s still hard to shake off the feeling that it’s all to lose, as much as all to win, for Liverpool.

Barring injury to key personnel, there’s not much that Jurgen Klopp needs to do to tweak the tactics of his formidable team.

The battle ahead is more a mental one, and it will be up to the manager, more than anyone else, to liberate his players from self-doubt, banish anxiety from the pitch and get the team playing with that wonderful freedom of expression which has made them such a joy to watch. In short, Liverpool shouldn’t bother about looking over their shoulders: their most dangerous opponent now is the enemy within.

As for the fans, they probably won’t be convinced until the deal is actually done. As William Goldman put it:

Truth is terrific, reality is even better, but believability is best of all.

Meanwhile, whatever happens between now and May in the Premier League, sadly we won’t have Hugh McIlvanney on the case to cast his literary magic dust over the drama. Many suitably wonderful tributes have been paid to the great man since his death and I just want to make room here for mention of one of my most cherished of his greatest hits.

It came in the course of his report of the 1970 FA Cup Final in which, after a replay, Chelsea beat Leeds United. Even allowing for the raw-knuckle nature of football in those days, the two games – but especially the first, at Wembley - were regarded as exceptional for the sustained levels of brutality on show.

And it was the tolerance of the referee for the mortal combat taking place all around him which prompted this thing of beauty from McIlvanney.

“At times,” he wrote, “it appeared Mr Jennings would only give a free-kick upon production of a death certificate.”

A master at work.

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