Spurs will be jealously attempting to protect their unbeaten home record in the Premiership when third placed Liverpool drop in for a visit on Sunday. While the Merseysiders are nicely tucked in behind the leaders and would appear to be slight favourites, like Spurs, they don’t travel too well. Or, at least, have drawn a number of games when three points should have been stashed away in the season’s savings.
Lacklustre performances on the road have prevented Liverpool from setting the Premier pace, and it has been late defensive lapses in several cases. They led at West Ham, were 3-0 to the good at Southampton and led 2-0 at Leeds. Sum total of that particular three-match effort — two points.
Manager Gerard Houllier, who recently celebrated two years in sole charge, did much to plug the gaps and install height and strength in Liverpool’s defence at the beginning of last season. In came Sami Hyypia, Stephane Henchoz and goalkeeper Sander Westerveld, along with midfield holding man Dietmar Hamman. All contributed to Liverpool having the best defensive record in the Premiership last term — conceding a mere 30 goals.
Titi Camara, Vladamir Smicer, Erik Meijer and towards the end of the season Emile Heskey were the attacking additions, and the Anfield side had their most encouraging season for nearly a decade, missing out on a Champions League place by two points.
Houllier sought an improvement — even defensively. In came German duo Markus Babbel and Christian Ziege, Gary McAllister, Nicky Barmby, Pegguy Arphexad and Bernard Diomede. They are soon to be joined by Croatian Igor Biscan, another defensively minded midfielder.
Perhaps integrating another sizeable batch of players influenced early uncertainties, and Liverpool looked to be putting a run together before squandering the points at Leeds. But the club also has increased commitments this term; progress has been made in both the UEFA and Worthington Cups, meaning two games almost every week compared to last season when they once went three weeks without a game.
The introduction of McAllister has done much to point this season’s team in the right direction. Many expressed doubts over the wisdom of Houllier recruiting a 36-year-old without noting that the oldest player in Liverpool’s team last season was often the 26-year-old Hamman.
The Scot has knitted the midfield together along with either Steven Gerrard or Hamman and has added his own brand of cool-under-pressure inventiveness to the team, scoring his first goal for the club in last week’s 4-1 trouncing of Coventry at Anfield.
If McAllister has been a calming influence, Emile Heskey is on fire — scoring nine goals in eight games. The Spurs back-line will not need reminding that England’s flavour of the month is suspended on Sunday following a sending-off against Chelsea.
Having spent a reported £63m on players, with roughly £23m coming in from sales, Houllier knows that either silverware or a Champions League place must be bought to the table come May. The Frenchman has acknowledged the expectation and aims to deliver, but reasons he is only half way there in terms of completing his masterplan, which is to sustain a challenge to Manchester United at the Premiership peak.
Injuries have blighted Houllier’s grand design so far this campaign, with Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Patrik Berger, Jamie Redknapp, Smicer, Diomede, Gerrard and McAllister all being among the absent at some stage of the season.
But there can be no doubt that Liverpool are heading in the right direction, and have the depth of squad to cover for most eventualities. Better defending on the road and a belief and their own abilities would go a long way towards ridding Liverpool of the demons that have plagued various sides since the title last found its way to Anfield in 1990.