By Andrew Ronan
International breaks can be a blessing or a curse, but given Liverpool’s current run of form, this international break is certainly a blessing. It takes the media attention off Brendan Rodgers and his players until the middle of next week, at least. Should Liverpool’s players report back to Melwood when the break is over injury-free, then it’s an added bonus to that of the news that Daniel Sturridge is back training for the Reds.
Although it’s been doom and gloom these last few weeks, with only four points picked up from four league and two Champions League games since the last international break a month ago, Liverpool fans can have grounds for some optimism when they look ahead to the next four league games. They read: Crystal Palace (A), Stoke (H), Leicester (A), and Sunderland (H) – four very winnable games. Of course, given how poor Liverpool have played this season, many will argue that no game for Liverpool at the moment is very winnable.
However, the return from injury of Daniel Sturridge cannot be underestimated. Liverpool’s defending at times this season has been jumpers-for-goalposts stuff, but when there is a lack of goals going in at the other end it puts added pressure on the defence as clean sheets become crucial in tight games. Mario Balotelli hasn’t done what was expected of him, no doubt, but interestingly, perhaps his best game this season came at White Hart Lane against Tottenham – where he had Sturridge up front with him. Aside from his finishing prowess, Sturridge’s constant movement, clever runs, and natural ability to play across the forward line will take some of the pressure of Balotelli and allow him more freedom across the top end of the pitch. Liverpool’s midfielders, like Coutinho, Lallana and Sterling, have clearly missed Sturridge’s movement, runs, and link-up play. Should Sturridge stay fit, his presence will lift a squad of players shot of morale.
Hopefully he can hit the ground running and contribute to a win against Palace, a win which will make the following three league games (and indeed the two crucial Champions League games) seem a lot easier. Liverpool badly need a run of wins to kick start their push to finish in the top four this season. The idea of finishing in the top four may seem a pipe dream to some at the moment, but 12 points from the next four league games will mean Liverpool will have 26 points from 15 league games. Some may argue that’s still a good 45 points or so off a guaranteed top four finish, but looking at the final Premier League table from years gone by makes a Champions League place look a little less daunting.
Since the end of the 2001/02 season (the first season that rewarded a Champions League spot to the team that finished fourth), the highest points tallies from the team who finished in fourth spot was 79 (Arsenal last season) and 76 (Liverpool in 2007/08). The lowest was 60 points from Liverpool at the end of the 2003/04 season – with Everton only going one point better at the end of the following season. From the other nine seasons, the final points tally from the side that finished fourth was anything between 67 and 73 points.
Nobody can argue that if Chelsea continue to play the way they’ve been playing and pick up wins that they won’t win the league. Indeed, they could win the league comfortably. This leaves the other three Champions League spots at the mercy of four, maybe five, teams – including Liverpool. If Chelsea do stroll to the league on, say, 86-92 points, you’d have to imagine that the team that finishes in fourth may only need between 67 and 73 points.
That points tally is not beyond Liverpool. A fit again Daniel Sturridge scoring goals is so important to their season. The next four league games, with a fit Sturridge, can be the catapult for him, and thus Liverpool, to kick start their season.