We’ve seen it time and again, every top club has it: the expectation that an opponent would roll over easily even before a ball is kicked. The Juventuses (at least in Serie A), Bayern Munichs, Barcelonas, Chelseas and Real Madrids all possess it, that fear factor that sends cold shivers down opposition players’ spines before games. And thanks to the return of Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool has finally regained its status as a member of that list.
Saturday’s 2-1 defeat of Crystal Palace had the usual characteristics of the Reds of last season. They concede an early goal, usually due to a defensive error, and go all Medieval on the opponents laying siege just outside their 18-yard area until the inevitable equalizer comes.
That feeling of hopelessness in the face of Liverpool’s attacks had been missing in the opposition for most of the season due, obviously, to the sale of and injury to Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge respectively. One only has to look at the reverse fixture between Liverpool and Palace earlier in the season to fully appreciate this point.
On that occasion, the Eagles buoyed by the Reds’ poor form and shocking lack of confidence put in such a stunning attacking display that the Merseysiders where relieved when the referee blew the final whistle to put an end to their misery.Needless say, the 3-1 defeat was fully deserved.
Fast-forward a couple of months and the same Palace team that put the Anfield side to the sword in their previous encounter were hanging on for dear life after taking a 15th minute lead. What was the difference? A recovered Daniel Sturridge firing on all cylinders. The fact that the Eagles had to resort to bus parking tactics and diving antics– with Dwight Gayle as chief culprit– in an attempt to salvage something from the game is testament to Liverpool’s impressive improvement since both sides’ last meeting.
Some might point, and reasonably so, that the resurgence of Liverpool was already underway even before the return of their injured star striker, thanks to Brendan Rodgers’ new formation. In as much as I agree with this point of view, I would like to argue that until the return of Daniel Sturridge, the fear factor was still absent. For example Sterling, no matter how good of a job he did as a striker, was considerably less dangerous than his England International teammate is in the center forward role.
For one, he is one (right) footed unlike the two footed Sturridge. Even in his preferred foot, the 20-year old does not generate nearly as much power compared to the rockets that come out from both boots of ‘Studger.’ Secondly, he does not have the physical strength necessary for the hold-up play and other duties characteristic of the center forward position.
As such, opponents can successfully prevent him from making an impact with his speed by employing brute physical force. Contrast this with Sturridge who is also very fast, a better finisher, possesses wicked trickery, is two-footed and physically strong, and you have a player that can make opposition defenders genuinely quiver in their boots.
The FA cup first-leg against Bolton best portrays the fear factor that was lacking in the team before the return of their main striker. Although Liverpool outplayed Bolton in that match, the Championship outfit played with the confidence that they could get something from the encounter as was evident in the open-ended, counter-attacking nature of the game.
I find it hard to believe that the Trotters would have been that adventurous had Sturridge played. What’s worse, Liverpool’s failure to convert any of their chances further increased the belief of their opponents who counter-attacked relentlessly in the dying minutes in search of an unlikely winner.
Granted, Daniel Sturridge cannot single-handedly permanently banish the ghosts of the early months of this season’s campaign but his presence in the team alone, is a step in the right direction. Since his return to fitness, the team has grown in confidence and is starting to put in, more consistently, the kind of performances that made them title contenders last year.
Players like Coutinho and Lallana now play with the kind of assurance that is possessed by mid-fielders who know that they have a forward more than capable of burying the chances they create. Finally and more importantly, the whole team knows that no opponent in their right minds would savor the prospect of facing Liverpool. Up next is Besiktas in the Europa League!