LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – Manchester City might not have it all their own way again this season.
Liverpool’s ruthless 4-0 win over West Ham on Sunday proved that the English Premier League’s battle for supremacy is unlikely to be the one-horse contest of 12 months prior. A 5,00th league win for the Reds was their biggest opening day victory in the modern era for over 24 years, as well as their most emphatic on home soil since 1932.
With Jose Mourinho in siege mode at Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea both wrestling transition, and Tottenham failing to invest in their squad for a first time since the transfer window came into effect in 2003, this season is firmly Liverpool’s for the taking. Manager Jurgen Klopp, however, continues to perceive his side as an underdog in the battle to unseat Man City, likening their challenge to Rocky Balboa attempting to topple Ivan Drago.
It is a fair comparison, although slightly high up in the boxing movie franchise’s timeline in truth. A once-great prospect whose last hurrah came in the late 1980s making a comeback against the latter-day heroes is a more accurate reflection of where Liverpool currently sits.
“We know about our expectations and we obviously realize the very positive atmosphere around us in the whole pre-season. That’s all,” Klopp insisted after Sunday’s win.
“It’s good that the people are rather positive but people know as well and the season again will be unbelievably hard. We cannot be anything different than the challenge because we didn’t win anything for a long time.
“We have to invest more, we have to fight more, we have to create more. That’s what we expect from ourselves and then we will see where it leads because West Ham will play, for sure, a good season.
“But they are not [Manchester] United, City and all the [other teams]. They know that, we know that and we have to be ready week in week out for the different challenges.”
When they took the fight to Manchester’s last reigning champions a decade ago, Liverpool ultimately could not last the distance as discourse raged between the dugout, the stands and a boardroom beset by warring factions in erstwhile owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
Anfield’s streets acted as a battleground back then but now contain a different kind of fervour. The rebuilt Main Stand has ended decades of uncertainty over the stadium’s expansion while a sense of collective unity has appeared where suspicion previously reigned supreme.
Under Hicks and Gillett, perceptions of Liverpool as a club from the city but no longer belonging to it had become widespread. A strong disconnect existed between the fan base and a hierarchy who appeared happier to indulge its global following over its local one. The latter now find themselves willingly embraced in a far cry from the days of the previous ownership, when some were listed as potential dissenters on club dossiers.
It has been part of a learning process for Hicks and Gillett’s successors Fenway Sports Group, who have had to withstand their fair share of scrutiny; not least when a mass walk-out in 2016 prompted a U-turn on plans to hike up the costliest match tickets at Anfield to £77 ($129). The only visceral tones now are reserved for opposing players and match officials.
The Americans’ renewed financial commitment on recruitment, following much soul-searching over sabremetrics on the back of Moneyball’s success, has only intensified in recent years; evidenced by a spine which has not only broken the club’s transfer record several times over in the past 12 months but also across multiple playing departments.
In Naby Keita, one of three players signed for over £50 million, Liverpool appear to have found both a fitting incumbent for Steven Gerrard’s no. 8 shirt as well as an overdue successor to the midfield role vacated by Javier Mascherano exactly eight years ago this month. The Guinea international’s role in opening the scoring saw him play a perfectly weighted pass for Andy Robertson to tee up Mohamed Salah for his 45th goal from 53 appearances.
Replicating the 44-goal haul which heralded Salah’s debut season at Anfield has not fazed the Egyptian despite an early Champions League final exit and similarly fruitless travails with his national side as they mutedly exited the World Cup group stages. It also remains business as usual from cohorts Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, whose brace saw him join illustrious company in John Barnes by scoring in a third successive season opener.
Worryingly for the rest of the chasing pack, this Liverpool side is not the finished product. Injury prevented Fabinho from starting in midfield, while Xherdan Shaqiri and goal-scorer Daniel Sturridge became highly dispensable options from the substitutes’ bench when even as recently as the 2013-14 season, there was a feeling that they still lacked catalysts beyond their strongest XI.
The title eluded Merseyside by a mere two points as Manuel Pellegrini’s crowning moment as City manager came at their expense. But his much-changed Hammers side were never going to have enough to nullify European football’s most potent attacking triumvirate. A languid pre-season campaign coupled with four of their 10 new signings in the starting line-up only compounded matters for the Chilean.
“We knew before we played that it was going to difficult,” Pellegrini admitted post-match.
“I think that Liverpool deserved to win. They played better than us. If you lose 4-0, it’s not to have any excuses but I think in football, two or three balls decide the score.
“In the first half, we had at least two or three clear chances to draw 1-1. We conceded the last goal in the last second of the period so you arrive to the dressing room with another task if you lose just 1-0. After that, a clear goal offside decided the game with the third goal. They had a lot of confidence to play with the score of 3-0.
“I’m not complaining just about one offside goal because I repeat that Liverpool played well and deserved to win, but I don’t think that the difference was four goals.”
Pressure cranks higher at Anfield than any other Premier League club, with each year which elapses without an end to their title drought only serving to intensify expectations.
Time will tell whether that theme continues but Liverpool at least appears to be a club pulling in the right direction, off the pitch as much as on it.
Richard Buxton is a UK-based writer and special correspondent for Sportsnet. He filed this report from Liverpool’s Anfield stadium.