Liverpool are heading in the right direction and have made one of the signings of the season in Sadio Mane but, with a need to strengthen defensively, Jurgen Klopp’s side are still a work in progress and not yet ready to challenge for a League title.
That’s the consensus view of two of the club’s old boys, former Ireland internationals Jason McAteer and Phil Babb, as the Reds travel to Stamford Bridge this evening for what both also agree will be their “toughest game” of the season so far against a “rejuvenated” Chelsea under new manager Antonio Conte.
“You look at Liverpool and ask how good are they but I say look how good the other teams are and how well they’ve recruited this summer,” says Babb. “Liverpool are dear to our hearts and we want them to finish as high as possible but one of the two Manchester clubs are going to be champions in my eyes.
“Then you’ve got a rejuvenated Chelsea, Arsenal who will always be looking to finish in the top four and you’ve got Spurs, a different animal under (Mauricio) Pochettino. Then a dark horse – you’ve got Everton.
“And they’re just going to get better and better. Realistically, Liverpool might be challenging for sixth or seventh this season. I’d love Liverpool to get in the top four but it’s going to be extremely difficult this time. But if Klopp can keep the squad and add for next year then they become title contenders.”
McAteer agrees that a kind of nightmare scenario for Liverpool fans — their Goodison rivals finishing above them in the league — is not out of the question.
“Look what Ronald Koeman did with Southampton and he’s got a better squad at Everton now,” he says. “Talking about a club that’s moving in the right direction, Everton certainly are, with the investment that’s going to be pumped in. They’re in talks about moving to a new ground and if they do get European football, either Europa League or even by creeping into that top four, that’s going to attract a different kind of player.
“The manager’s in place, he’s kept (Romelu) Lukaku, there’s a nice blend between experience and youth – like I say, that’s a club that’s moving in the right direction.”
McAteer concedes “going forward, Liverpool can be spectacular at times”, especially with Mane’s pace able to make the most of Philippe Coutinho’s passing range, but feels their 2-0 defeat to Burnley showed they still struggle to break down defensive-minded teams. Away to arch rivals Chelsea tonight, he thinks Klopp would be happy to take a point. “I don’t think he’d be too fussed,” McAteer opines, “just don’t lose the game.”
What both ex-Reds are certain of, is Klopp is the right man at the right time for Liverpool. Babb reveals that, amid last-minute preparations for the opening of Anfield’s new stand last Friday, the manager would not allow his players to take to the pitch for a training session the previous day until the famous ‘This Is Anfield’ sign had been put back up.
“It’s amazing the effect he’s had on the club,” says Babb. “We work a lot for the in-house TV channel and he’s lifted everyone. You just mention his name and people break out in a smile. Alright, we’ve not really achieved anything as a club yet but you can feel that he’s the captain of our ship. He’s so infectious. When you meet him, he’s hypnotic. He’s a student of the history of the club and he wants to bring glory back to Anfield.
“That’s really his remit. And it’s so important to him. He urges the fans to give 100% and if the fans and city give 100%, he can make sure the players give that. I know it’s an old cliché – ‘we all must stick together’ – but that is his main philosophy.”
Phil Babb and Jason McAteer were in Dublin to open ‘Buskers On The Ball’, a new interactive sports bar venue in Temple Bar.
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