Guardian writers’ predicted position: 6th (NB: this is not necessarily Andy Hunter’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 7th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 33-1
The one certainty about Liverpool next season will be the name in Brendan Rodgers’ envelope. Everything else, from the consequences of Luis Suárez’s toxic transfer saga, the direction of the club and the squad’s capacity for Champions League bridge-building, is shrouded in doubt. Both John W Henry’s assurances about Suárez and the manager’s project must have substance to prevent Liverpool being cast further adrift.
A fourth season without Champions League football has had its inevitable impact at Anfield. Leading transfer targets have been missed, young potential has arrived while proven talent such as Henrikh Mkhitaryan moves in different circles and the club’s finest player views a team in the Champions League play-offs, Arsenal, as an upward step. Last summer Andy Carroll, Suárez this; Rodgers merits some sympathy for the havoc a Liverpool striker has wreaked over his two pre-seasons at the helm.
The Liverpool manager infamously claimed that three players, their names hidden in a sealed envelope, would betray their team-mates at the start of his debut campaign. They did not exist but Suárez has made amends on that score. His desire for Champions League football is understandable, his worth on that stage not in question, but all a player banned for another six matches has achieved is further disruption before a campaign of critical importance to Liverpool and their manager.
From transfer strategy to a famous club’s image to dressing-room harmony; much has been jeopardised by a player who declines to ask himself why Europe’s elite are not fighting over his supreme talents.
The top four is not just an aspiration this season, Henry admitted on Thursday, it is essential to Fenway Sports Group’s designs for the club. Based on the impressive second half of last season, plus his categorical stance that Suárez will remain a Liverpool player regardless of who comes in for him or what they offer, the principled principal owner believes Champions League qualification is achievable.
Rodgers, afforded rare patience during his debut season, accepts that pressure is on him this time out. So too the captain, Steven Gerrard, who says “we can prove people wrong and break into the top four”. Pointedly that came with the caveat that “certain things have got to happen to help us do that. If we keep Luis and add to him we will have a much better chance”.
Additions include the striker Iago Aspas from Celta Vigo, who has been prominent in pre-season, the midfielder Luis Alberto from Sevilla, Kolo Touré on a free from Manchester City and the goalkeeper Simon Mignolet from Sunderland. The sales of Carroll to West Ham United and Jonjo Shelvey to Swansea City have covered the bulk of the £23m outlay and the depth of the squad will be even greater if a youngster like Jordon Ibe can replicate Raheem Sterling’s initial impact last year. But even with money available, such as the £21.8m offered to Atlético Madrid for the Brazilian striker Diego Costa, enhancing the team with players of “the right quality” ? as Rodgers put it ? has proved elusive so far.
All of which explains the need to keep even a disillusioned and distracted Suárez. Refusing to sell to Arsenal is self-explanatory when no transfer fee could compensate for the prolonged exile from the Champions League that would guarantee. Equally, a team that has finished 7th, 6th, 8th and 7th over the past four seasons and is struggling to attract world-class talent cannot afford to release the world-class talent it has.
Suárez is currently training away from the senior squad at Melwood, alone with his thoughts of constant persecution. He finally provoked a Liverpool manager into public condemnation of his actions this week, produced an uninterested cameo in Gerrard’s testimonial last Saturday and was a notable absentee from the captain’s charity gala later that night.
Tiresome as he has become, the greater risk would be selling the Uruguay international. He can have the first six matches of next season to sulk over Liverpool’s intransigence, to wonder why only Arsenal registered an interest and the remainder of the campaign to keep his head down, his teeth to himself and earn the move to Real Madrid or Barcelona that Gerrard believes is inevitable.
It is to the manager’s and players’s credit that, as in the 6-0 rout of Newcastle that followed Suárez’s 10-match ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic in April, the striker has not proved a distraction to Liverpool’s performances on the field.
The pre-season record reads played six, won six, scored 17, conceded one and counts for precious little but the fitness levels after a summer Gerrard described as his toughest at the club have been marked. That was always Rodgers’ intention. The manager spoke in May of the need to “start flying” this season and, with eight of the opening nine home games against teams who finished below Liverpool last term, the fixture list provides an opportunity to build momentum.
There is no European workload, though it was jarring to hear Rodgers admit last season that Liverpool of all teams could benefit from a year away, a better understanding of the manager’s ideals, Lucas Leiva now fully fit, Martin Kelly fitter and the rich promise of a first full campaign from Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian was outstanding as Liverpool went from 10th and 25 points at the mid-point of last season to seventh with 61 points by the close, for all that the campaign failed to yield a serious challenge in any competition. That has to be rectified, as do Liverpool’s returns against the leading lights of the Premier League.
Rodgers’ men were flat-track bullies last season, often flourishing with the luxury of an early goal against teams that finished below them but able to claim only one win (Tottenham) and one clean sheet (Everton) against the six clubs above. The manager spoke of the need for more leaders and for Liverpool to “man-up” ? pre-discrimination guide, obviously ? but has since lost two of the strongest characters from the changing room in the retired Jamie Carragher and the loaned out Pepe Reina.
Improvement, or simply a continuation of 2013’s form, should be expected of Liverpool. Whether that bridges the gap on stronger rivals and prevents the club being cut adrift of the top four before Financial Fair Play ? “That is my main worry,” Gerrard said last week ? is doubtful. Or up to Luis Suárez.
© Guardian News & Media Limited 2013