Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Prospect of Famous European Night is No Last Resort

Liverpool's Europa League second-leg tie against Zenit St Petersburg will be widely identified as Brendan Rodgers' final attempt to cling to the wreckage that is his first season at the club, and his starting selection, which will include Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, will be seen as evidence of this. According to most outside the club, Europe's secondary club competition was supposed to be the opportunity to rest the stars, upon which our thin squad over-rely upon, so that they can lead the race for the be-all and end-all fourth place finish in the league. When Rodgers selects those stars for Thursday's match, it will be seen as one last desperate attempt for him to avoid speculation over his future when Liverpool finish outside that top-four in May.

This is all based on one of the most common misconceptions emanating from Liverpool supporters and reinforced in the wider media, that Kenny Dalglish was sacked by FSG at the end of last season purely for a failure to secure fourth place in the Premier League. The narrative was clear from the outset, that FSG viewed cup success - in Liverpool's case, one trophy and another narrow final defeat - as irrelevant, and that the criteria for any manager is reaching the Champions League, and immediately.

Consider this: FSG may not be experienced football men, but they are heavily experienced in sport, and for all their attention to statistical detail that comes with their 'Moneyball' reputation, they will be more than aware that football, like any sport, is often utter, uncontrollable chaos. They would not have based their decision on who should take this team forward for the next decade on a particular finishing position in one season, on a single point, a disallowed goal, a huge deflection or a missed penalty. Certainly not eighteen months after the club sat just above the relegation zone. Likewise the cups were not disregarded because of a perceived worth - football, like baseball or any other sport, is about the glory - but because the next ten years of progress could not be based on the result of a penalty shootout against a Championship club. Moreover, FSG aren't interested in emulating the likes of Spurs in scraping a fourth place and securing one memorable tie, take the cash and the thrashing and disappear back into the Thursday league. The aim is to be competing consistently for the major titles over the long-term, something no one has achieved at Lfc for 23 years.

The reality is had Liverpool been good enough last season to get closer to fourth, then Kenny may still be in a job, though that is far from certain, while its not a forgone conclusion that a finish outside the top-four meant an automatic sacking, regardless of what happened in the cups. Kenny was drafted in as an emergency, short-term option, with the brief to steady the ship that Hodgson seemed intent on sinking without a trace, and he fulfilled that brief without ever signing a long-term contract. FSG then took the decision, based on an 18-month assessment rather than the knee-jerk reactions most owners are derided for, that Kenny was not the right man to take the club forward. Whether or not we agree, and however much it hurts to lose a club hero, it was still a brave decision that not many owners would dare take. Even Roman Abramovich didn't have the stones to ignore Roberto Di Matteo's claim after Chelsea's remarkable European Cup run, knowing full well he'd sack him at the first opportunity the following season.

Its for similar reasons that Brendan Rodgers is not required to get fourth place this year in order to keep his job, and nor is he necessarily obliged to deliver a compensatory trophy now that the always-unlikely Champions League qualification is all but impossible. What the owners want to see is progress on the field and evidence off it that a foundation is being built for the future, so that the money they invest is not only spent on the right players, but that they arrive into the right environment to ensure everyone benefits to the tune of better results. The chaotic on and off-field events of 2011-2012 were far from convincing in that regard.

This is why, as I've previously alluded to, they didn't throw large amounts of money at Rodgers during his first summer transfer window. If the level of investment was always the key (net spends are the new yardstick for most fans), then what's the point in changing the coach at all? They wanted to see proof in the pudding, that Rodgers could take a largely inherited squad, and show that he could begin rebuilding it, developing and adding value to players who were grossly under-performing for Kenny, while establishing his methods. FSG made a commendable decision to allow a young, talented British manager without a proven track-record to take the reigns at one of the biggest clubs in the world, and rightly requested that they see him deliver a form of progression, evidence that he could walk the walk, before they reinvest the sort of sums that were thrown at Comoli and Dalglish. They responded in January with a significant backing of their manager in the transfer market.

It is also why the visit of Zenit is as big as any match Liverpool have played this season, and this would be the case whether we are five or 25 points behind fourth place. While the squad has understandably been rotated in order to give youngsters experience and fringe players a chance to impress, the likes of Gerrard and Suarez have played in all three cup competitions this season and a near full strength team was selected for the first-leg in Russia last week, three days either side of league matches. That Liverpool had all their eggs in the Champions League basket was a myth, and progress is not being judged purely on the results of league matches.

Rodgers will pick his strongest available side against Zenit again on Thursday as Lfc look to keep their European campaign running, but this won't be a desperate abandoning of a selection policy in order to keep a season alive. The gradual developments of Jose Enrique, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson, for which the manager should take huge credit, the return to fitness of Lucas and the signings of cup-tied Coutinho and Sturridge, have given flexibility to Rodgers' selections. The previously over-played Sterling, Shelvey, Allen and Suso have been able to rest and work on their evolving games, and as the Europa League reaches its more rewarding stages, both financially and in a footballing sense, the manager is able to pick a more ideal eleven for every game, regardless of how they are prioritised by those looking on.

Ultimately, the Zenit match is the most important of the season because it is the biggest test of character yet for a squad which has shown a bewildering inconsistency between the ears this season, as well as Rodgers' first big European night at Anfield, his first chance to truly etch his name into our history books. It has nothing to do with the context of the race for fourth place or the security of Rodgers' job, or whether or not the Europa League is important or not in the eyes of the owners. It is about this team showing they are ready to move forward, with an opportunity placed in front of them that should be regarded with relish rather than fear. As such, the coach will be keen to remind his players that this isn't about rescuing a season in one night, but about showing that the sharp pain of losses in between promising performances will be worth it in the long run.

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