After 24 years, the KOPS at Mersyside will "Never walk alone"

After great drama and a profusion of goals, as the English football season is coming to an end, 18-times champion Liverpool’s 24-year long wait for a Premier League crown looks set to be over soon. By Ayon Sengupta.

In the wide world of competitive sport and its long-recorded history, a writer’s or a commentator’s pronouncement, which sometimes turns into a curse, is very much a grand folklore. And so, this story starts with a solemn pledge — to a set of fanatic Liverpool supporters worldwide — that it will in no way try to inflict such a tragedy upon them.

Liverpool’s resurgence is a story of a modern day miracle, a story of defying all odds, a legendary team’s (now rebuilding) unexpected run for the premium silverware.

After great drama and a profusion of goals, as the English football season is coming to an end, 18-times champion Liverpool’s 24-year long wait for a Premier League crown looks set to be over soon. The team, which finished a lowly seventh last term, is only three games away (at the time of writing) from fulfilling a dramatic turnaround and becoming the first club in England in over two decades to win a League title, despite failing to be a part of the European action.

Liverpool, which last played in the prestigious and commercially attractive UEFA Champions League in the 2009-10 season, after finishing second the year before, missed out on the hefty payments — a perk of being a part of Europe’s (and probably the world’s) most-exclusive football tournament — over the last four summers. Each of the 32 sides involved in the group stage of the competition collects a base fee of Euro 8.6 million and there are many more parachute payments. Liverpool, thus, clearly started the 2013-14 campaign from a position of financial disadvantage.

Brendan Rodgers’ men command an annual pay of GBP 3,403,783, according to the Global Sports Salaries Survey 2014, published by Sporting Intelligence in association with ESPN The Magazine. But the number, though astronomical, is only 20th on the list of the Top 100 Paid Sports teams. Manchester City leads the global chart with a salary outlay of GBP 5,337,944, followed by baseball’s New York Yankees (GBP 5,286,628) and Los Angeles Dodgers (GBP 5,119,701).

Seven other football clubs — Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Juventus — pay more salaries than Liverpool’s owner Fenway Sports Group, which also owns MLS side, Boston Red Sox (15th on the salary index).

Interestingly, Mumbai Indians, the defending IPL champion, occupies the 24th spot with a yearly salary spending of GBP 3,267,552, way ahead of the 39th-placed Kolkata Knight Riders (GBP 2,889,992) and the 40th, Royal Challengers Bangalore (GBP 2,887,853).

Money, clearly — as we all know — plays an integral part in our standard of living and also our social standing. Mirroring the same principles on a sports team surely states the importance of currency in the acquiring of talents and the relative league finishes of teams. The total domination of Real and Barca in Spain, Juventus’ recent back-to-back League runs in Italy, Bayern’s quadruple last term, Manchester United’s eight Premier League titles in the new millennium and Manchester City’s EPL triumph in 2012 give legitimacy to the theory.

But this Liverpool team, with an average age of a little over 25, has defied such notions and punched above its weight, going toe-to-toe with teams with greater financial clout.

Liverpool, against the four better-paid Premier League teams, has won four and lost three of the seven matches played so far. The side is now on an 11-game winning streak, that includes big triumphs over big bursars like Arsenal (5-1) and Manchester United (3-0) and a close fought 3-2 victory over the principal paymaster, Man City.

The marauding Reds’ attacking line, led by the Uruguayan Luis Suarez, has scored 96 goals in 35 Premier League matches (till the time of writing), eight better than the third-placed City (33 matches) and 29 more than Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. Suarez with 30 goals and 12 assists from 30 League matches (he missed the first five matches of the campaign), has left behind the acrimony of a failed summer transfer saga, and has formed a heady strike partnership with English international Daniel Sturridge (20 goals, seven assists from 26 matches). Manager Rodgers, showing flexibility, has often tinkered with his system, depending upon the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses, playing a variety of formations, — 4-4-2, 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-3-3 — to fully utilise the skills of his front two.

The versatility of 19-year-old Raheem Sterling, proclaimed as “the best winger in England at the moment” by Rodgers, has also been one of the key factors behind the Reds’ revival. The Jamaican-born player (nine goals and four assists) has excelled playing as a wide player with Suarez and Sturridge in a 4-3-3 system or even as a conventional No. 10, at the top of a midfield diamond, in a 4-4-2 formation.

Jordon Henderson, bought for GBP 16 million in 2011, who started every game for Liverpool in the League prior to his last minute red card against Man City at Anfield, has been a real workhorse, taking over and performing admirably in Steven Gerrard’s box-to-box role. The new anchoring role in the midfield has suited the Liverpool captain Gerrard, now slowed down by age, well. The stoic leader continues to be the driving force of the team, using his vision and passing ability to dictate play from a deeper position. Enjoying an 86 percent passing accuracy, Gerrard has created 57 chances in the 2630 minutes (at the time of writing) he has played. He has been the emotional fulcrum, egging his team-mates on, refusing to get carried away by the recent success and acknowledging the fact that the task is not complete yet.

Seven points from a possible nine will bring the Cup to Kop, irrespective of results elsewhere, and everyone involved with the Liverpool resurgence — there is a GBP260 million scheme to regenerate the Anfield area, which could lead to creation of 770 jobs and expand the stadium sitting capacity to 58,800 from the present 45,522 — are happy that the on-field results are coming earlier than expected.

“We had our sights set on a top-four finish because we’re building. It’s a challenge with the way the league is structured, so if we were fortunate enough to win this year, I would say we’re ahead of schedule,” John W. Henry, principal owner of Fenway Sports Group, says.

At the start of the current campaign none of the 11 football experts of Britain’s Guardian newspaper considered Liverpool a legitimate title challenger and bookmakers too gave it an outside odds of 25/1. But the team has indeed worked wonders to pooh-pooh the pundits and shed the underdog image. Now, hopefully, the new-found favourite tag will not weigh it down in the last stages of the campaign.