Liverpool FC can build on these firm foundations

By Tony Barrett on May 30, 09 10:28 AM in Journalists

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HAD Liverpool picked up four more points at home during the 2008/09 season they would have been crowned Premier League champions for a record 19th time.

It is, to use one of Rafa Benitez's favourite word, a fact.

Equally accurate, but far less often quoted is the reality that had Liverpool not scored four winning goals in the 90th minute or stoppage time they would have finished the campaign with eight points fewer and dropped down a place to third in the table.

As the legendary American sports commentator Vince Scully once opined, statistics are used like a drunk uses a lamp post - for support, not illumination.

Liverpool's season can be dressed up however you please but the only statistic which really matters is the one which proves beyond any doubt that they fell short in their bid to finish on top of the pile.

There is no shame in finishing second place in the league regarded by many in football as the world's toughest. Similarly, there can only be a feeling of pride at having produced a title challenge that lasted deep into May for the first time since 1991.

But there is also an inescapable feeling of what might have been had Liverpool managed to turn just two of seven home draws into victories.

Having been the bastion of Liverpool's invincibility in the days when the league championship trophy was paraded with such regularity it seemed to be almost an annual event, Anfield was to a degree their Achilles heel during their most recent bid to reclaim English football's top prize.

Stoke, Fulham, West Ham, Hull, Everton, Man City and Arsenal all managed to depart through the Shankly Gates having in the knowledgethey had deprived Benitez's side of two vital points.

Tellingly, Liverpool managed to inflict defeat on all but Arsenal and Stoke from this group when on their travels.
It is the failure to beat Tony Pulis' belligerent but limited Stoke either at home or away which will irritate most as Benitez reflects on a season of what might have been.

At Anfield, fortune did not favour them as Steven Gerrard had a perfectly legitimate effort from a set piece ruled out before peppering the Stoke goal with more than a score of shots which all went unrewarded.

It was a different story altogether at the Britannia Stadium four months later though, when Liverpool toiled to another goalless draw on a day when both Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane started the game on the bench.

Even on that occasion they still could have taken all three points though, had Gerrard's last gasp strike found the back of the net instead of ricocheting off the post and away to safety.

But when you have enjoyed as many late, late shows as Liverpool did during the last nine months you can't really bemoan the one that got away. Well, not too much anyway.

Portsmouth, Man City, Middlesbrough and most gloriously of all Fulham all discovered that this Liverpool side quite simply does not know when it is beaten and the character displayed on those occasions marked a welcome return of a collective spirit which is second to none.

There may have been games in which Liverpool disappointed but even Benitez's harshest critics would be hard pressed to come up with too many examples when his team let themselves down.

One such occasion came against Middlesbrough in late February when the Reds followed up a momentous victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu with an abject loss at the Riverside against a team which will next season be plying its trade in the Championship.

Even their other defeat of the campaign at Spurs was undeserved with the woodwork rather than Woodgate being the London club's most effective performer that day.

The theme of being so near and yet so far that first reared its head that day was eventually to become the story of Liverpool's season.

If you do the double over both United and Chelsea, lose just twice and score more goals than all of your rivals then you really should expect to be crowned champions come May.

The fact that Liverpool fell just short having achieved so much means that introspection will be the order of the day at Anfield in the coming months as the endless search for the improvements needed to make that next step continues.

In truth, it is a nip and a tuck that they need rather than major surgery because if the 11 league games since that sorry day in Middlesbrough have proven anything, it is that this Liverpool side is more than capable of stringing results together when it matters most.

Ten wins and a draw were earned in these fixtures, a run which in many other years would have been enough to win the league, with the standout result being the 4-1 hammering of Man United at Old Trafford which made the football world sit up and  take notice.

Sandwiched in between similar demolition jobs of Real Madrid and Aston Villa, this fortnight was undoubtedly the high point of Liverpool's season and it provided compelling evidence that the Rafalution is looking increasingly ready to turn promise into success.

Had Gerrard and Torres been able to be paired together more than 14 times then such glory might already have become a reality, rather than a rising hope.

The challenge for this pre-season is to ensure that arguably the most potent attacking duo in world football is given the back up it deserves - Liverpool can ill afford another Robbie Keane.

After being hailed the latest in a long line of apparent last pieces in the Anfield jigsaw, the Irishman quickly came to resemble an ill-fitting piece from a different puzzle altogether and his ultimately doomed struggle to prove himself worthy of the red shirt he cherished was emblematic of how Liverpool's business in the transfer market undermined their attempts to win silverware.

As it transpired, it was the tried and trusted of the old guard rather than the new boys who served Liverpool's cause best throughout the season and had they been supplemented with players of similar levels of talent, then it might just have been enough to knock Man United off their perch.

All in all, it has been a good season for the Reds. One in which progress has clearly been made.
One in which their big four rivals have suffered at their hands. One in which they finally delivered that long awaited title challenge.

Close but no cigar is not an Anfield adage though and the day that Liverpool Football Club accepts that second place is good enough is one that Kopites hope they will never see.

The foundations have been put in place, now Benitez must build on them.

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