By Chris Harris
This was supposed to be the year that Liverpool challenged for the title. So far it hasn't happened.
Not for the first time Rafael Benitez's team have started sluggishly; not for the first time they need a change of form and fortune to peg back Chelsea and Manchester United at the top of the table.
All is well at Anfield where Liverpool have been pretty much imperious. It's a different story on the road though with just one goal and one point on their Premiership travels. As Liverpool prepare for Sunday's trip to Emirates Stadium we asked Dave Prentice, Sports Editor of the Liverpool Echo, about rotation policies, a batch of new faces and Benitez's latest selection dilemma.
THE STORY SO FAR
"The supporters were quietly optimistic about making inroads in the title race but a number of new players have come in and they need time to gel. Maybe the squad is not as strong as people thought. Liverpool's nadir came at Old Trafford where they lost 2-0 and played very poorly. Up until then most of the performances had been OK, although they did lose the Merseyside derby 3-0 - the biggest margin of victory for Everton in a derby since the mid-1960s. The problem for Liverpool has been the contrast between their home and away form. They have been outstanding at Anfield for the past 12 to 18 months but have only got one goal and one point away in the Premiership this season. It seems the balance isn't quite right away from Anfield."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"Rafael Benitez has been criticised for rotating his squad but personally I think that issue has been played up too much. After Liverpool lost to Burnley in the FA Cup in January 2005 Benitez made a concerted effort to keep a settled side and they went on to win the Champions League. Benitez is not the only one who changes his team - Chelsea and Arsenal rotate a lot too - but maybe he's overdone it a touch at times. Benitez has been quite keen to create a more attack-minded line-up and maybe he tried to be a bit too expansive."
"The fans love Dirk Kuyt. He's made a great start and has even been likened to Kevin Keegan, not so much in his style of play but his enthusiasm and attitude. Even when Liverpool were two up against Reading at Anfield he was chasing back towards his own corner flag in the final minutes. Kuyt has scored five goals already and has settled in very quickly. Mark Gonzalez has taken a little bit longer but he'll be a good player. Jermaine Pennant is taking time to settle too. Daniel Agger is not new anymore really - he joined Liverpool in January - but he is an excellent deputy to Sami Hyypia and definitely his long-term successor. Agger is commanding at the back and good going forward. Craig Bellamy is another new signing but he has been a bit up and down. He seems to be suffering a crisis of confidence as we saw with his missed penalty at Birmingham in midweek."
THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO...
"There were loads of players coming through the ranks in the 1980s and 1990s but no one has emerged since Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. That is a big problem at Liverpool at the moment and there have been a few mutterings of discontent. Paul Anderson and Lee Peltier look bright but they are nowhere near the first team. It's ironic that the stream of players coming through has dried up since Liverpool built their state-of-the-art academy at Kirby. It's a wonderful facility but nothing has come from it yet."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"A title challenge is beyong them so the priority will be to qualify for the Champions League and go as far as they can in the three cups. They have already qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League, they are going well in the Carling Cup and they are FA Cup holders. They started last season quite sloppily but found their form around this time of year. The same happened when they won the Champions League so they might go on a run again now."
"The interesting issue is Momo Sissoko's injury. He was stretchered off in midweek and is a big loss for Liverpool. Sissoko is very similar to Patrick Vieira but doesn't get noticed as much as he should. The problem now he's out is how Benitez gets that extra bite in midfield. The obvious thing to do would be to bring Steven Gerrard inside to his preferred position or perhaps bring in Bolo Zenden. Benitez could play Gerrard in a more advanced role with Dirk Kuyt as a lone striker or maybe use Craig Bellamy's pace on the break. Luis Garcia is another option if Benitez wants to play an extra midfielder, although he did that at Manchester United and it was a spectacular failure."
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