Rodgers must buck a worrying slide

PREMIER LEAGUE:

Less than nine months after Liverpool thrashed Tottenham 5-0 to begin their title charge and end Andre Villas-Boas’s ill-fated reign at White Hart Lane, the Reds visit North London again.

But how things have changed at both clubs in that short space of time. AVB has gone, and so has his successor Tim Sherwood, who took over two days after that humiliation, which followed Tottenham’s 6-0 defeat at Manchester City. In their place is Mauricio Pochettino, who is living up to his reputation as the Premier League’s latest bright young manager. The Argentinian has overseen four victories in four games so far, taking Spurs to the top of the Premier League.

Brendan Rodgers has not got off to such a good start, with last Monday’s limp defeat at Manchester City highlighting the fears of many Liverpool fans that they will struggle to repeat last season’s heroics.

When Steven Gerrard slipped to let in Chelsea at Anfield, not only did Liverpool’s chances slip away, but so did the aura of inevitability that the title would return to Anfield after a 24-year absence — and 30 years after Hillsborough.

Liverpool never recovered, and Gerrard, who had pushed his fellow Red Luis Suarez close for the Footballer of the Year title, looked shattered at the World Cup.

And there’s the rub. Just as Tottenham struggled to deal with the loss of their main man Gareth Bale last summer, the jury is out on how Liverpool will come to terms with the sale of Suarez to Barcelona and the inevitable influx of new faces to a squad that will be stretched by Champions League football this season.

Has Rodgers learned from Tottenham, who spectacularly splurged the Bale windfall on what looked like a raft of underachievers? Daniel Levy went on a €140m spending spree last summer to bring in seven players and former Spurs and Norway goalkeeper Erik Thorstvedt told the White Hart Lane crowd: “We’ve sold Elvis and signed the Beatles!”

But it didn’t turn out that way, with barely a thrilling three let alone a fab four from the seven signings Levy made. Erik Lamela was the biggest flop of the lot, doing little to justify the club’s record €35m fee to Roma, while €30m Roberto Soldado failed to live up to his high-scoring reputation, Paulinho showed signs of the half-heartedness that was to haunt Brazil at the World Cup and Belgian winger Chadli had even Tottenham fans wondering “Nacer who?”

Etienne Capoue quickly got the nickname ‘Cat Poo’ for performances that stunk the place out, Vlad ‘The Impaler’ Chiriches terrified only his team-mates with his defensive howlers. Only Christian Eriksen emerged from a traumatic season of transition with any credit. The Dane showed his good judgment by missing the Liverpool defeat, which turned out to be a bad day at the office for Capoue, Chadli, Soldado and Paulinho, who was sent off for catching Suarez in the ribs.

Lamela did not get off the subs’ bench, but then he did not play a Premier League game at home all season, struggling with either injury or insecurity, depending on who you believe. Yet the Argentinian attacker is a different man this season, thrust by his fellow countryman Pochettino into a lead role and earning rave reviews so far.

Not only that, Pochettino has managed to bring the best out of Capoue, got Chadli scoring goals and generally cast off the air of gloom that had been hanging over White Hart Lane for most of the past two seasons.

He has also got a happy camp after two years of disenchantment. Hugo Lloris was outspoken after the Liverpool defeat, suggesting some players had given up the ghost, and was one of the big names expected to leave after becoming unhappy with failures of management at the club. But he has changed his mind since Pochettino’s arrival and explained the new spirit and belief the Argentinian has brought.

“It was not just a lack of character last season,” said the France captain. “This is the best league in the world and you need all your players together, working at a high level for the team.

“We have changed a lot of things, with a new manager, we believe in his philosophy and are working hard to achieve it. We still more games and a few months to get there 100%. Some of us were late coming back to pre-season after the World Cup, but we are enjoying it. It is all about the team now, and that takes hard work.

“Liverpool will be a good test for us, but there are a lot more big games to come. Losing against the top teams time after time suggested something was wrong at the club and that is what we are working to correct.

“The most important thing is that the manager has a proper philosophy, and that everyone in the changing room believes in that concept. That is the spirit we have now, and we must keep it going.”

So what of Liverpool? The confidence that gathered pace last season ran out of steam after Chelsea beat them and was replaced by despair, especially once Suarez was sold. Like Bale had been for Spurs, he was Liverpool’s game-changer, a player who could turn a match with a moment of magic. The proceeds have gone on a disparate collection of players — Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren from Pochettino’s old club, prompting the gag that Liverpool should have asked Barcelona to pay for Suarez with Southampton vouchers.

From Europe have come Emre Can, Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno, who had a shocker against City last week. And then to cap it all came Mario Balotelli, who brings Suarez’s unpredictability without the consistent brilliance. Are they making the same mistake Tottenham made last summer, trying to integrate so many newcomers at once?

Pochettino is happy to do it his way. “Liverpool invested a lot of money this summer, while we went another way, believing in our squad and just adding some players for balance. They are two different ways. It’s a new season, we have a different style, a different philosophy.”

Rodgers maintains that apart from Balotelli, they are all players Liverpool would have signed even if Suarez had stayed: “The signings we have made have no relation to Luis going, absolutely,” he said.

“These were players that were always earmarked to come in. We felt last year we just never had the depth and we are in the Champions League this year so we have to ensure we have as strong a squad as possible. Obviously Luis going gives us the clout to go and spend more and we’re getting the right type of player in.”

Whether it is going to work, we will have to wait until tomorrow afternoon.

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