Liverpool need home improvement to complete a job on City
Three home draws in a row have led to groans and Liverpool need to improve to get Anfield rocking again.
A visit from Manchester City, rampant Premier League leaders smarting from a seemingly crucial defeat at Napoli in midweek, is the sort of occasion that cannot fail to ignite Anfield's trademark fervour. With the scent of a big beast's blood in their nostrils, Kopites will roar Liverpool into battle on Sunday afternoon, but there will be a sense of anxiety among the masses, too, born of an awareness that their famous arena is hardly the fortress of old right now.
Six matches have been played at Anfield this season yet only two have resulted in victory for the hosts, with the past three ending in stalemate. Manchester United kicked off that run six weeks ago by snatching a 1-1 draw and since then newly promoted Norwich City and Swansea City have also come away from Merseyside with a point. Should Manchester City avoid defeat on Sunday, Liverpool will have failed to win any of four successive home league fixtures for the first time since December 2002.
"The home form could be better," Kenny Dalglish concedes. "But the performances, apart from in the second half against Sunderland [Liverpool's opening game of the season, which also ended 1-1], have been excellent. It is just a question of putting something on the end of the movement they have had. Some day we will do that."
Wastefulness is undoubtedly an issue. Against Sunderland, United and Norwich, Liverpool created enough clear chances to have won and even in the insipid goalless draw with Swansea, Andy Carroll should have given the hosts an early lead with a close-range drive that instead shuddered the bar.
It is telling that, based on home form, Liverpool have the third-highest shots per game average in the Premier League this season (14.8) but the third-lowest conversion rate (9%). Also, no club has a more pronounced shots off target per game average (9.3) and the concern for Liverpool fans will be that their team's failure to seize opportunities on home turf has created a mental block for the players.
Such a scenario could perhaps be excused given that many of them, including Carroll, remain relative newcomers to the high demands that come with performing at a venue such as Anfield but, ahead of City's arrival, Dalglish refuses to use that as an excuse for failure. "I can only talk for myself but I found it [playing at Anfield] easy," the manager says. "The fans are on our side and that should be an inspiration. For us, it should be a pleasure to play at Anfield."
There is undeniably a desire within the squad for home improvement, seen clearly by how, following last Sunday's impressive 2-1 win at Chelsea, Liverpool's players declined to bask in the glory of a result that propelled them firmly back into contention for a top-four place and instead chose to speak of it as the spark to get things right in front of their own supporters.
"When we play away, the first thing we do is defend well and on the counterattack we are dangerous," the midfielder Lucas Leiva says. "Now we have to find out the best way to play at home. If we can do that then we can have a very good season."
It is a sentiment shared by Glen Johnson, whose eye-catching 87th-minute strike sealed Liverpool's triumph at Stamford Bridge. "As long as we can start picking up a few more points at home and doing what we're doing away then we won't be far away," the right-back says. "We haven't been playing badly at home. We've created some fantastic chances and if we'd taken one of them in a few games then it would be a whole new ball game."
That is true, but for Liverpool supporters, seeing their side struggle at home, particularly against inferior opposition, has become a depressingly familiar tale in recent seasons. 2008-09 campaign is recalled and how the team, then managed by Rafael Benítez, lost out on the Premier League title to United by four points having drawn at Anfield with Stoke, Fulham, West Ham and Hull. Now the feeling is that similar failings could cost the club its ambition of returning to the Champions League.
"We don't boo at Anfield but neither are we a bunch of happy-clappers," says Sean Cummins, a Centenary Stand season-ticket holder. "The frustration is tangible, especially after over 20 years without a title and being on the brink in 2009. The funereal atmosphere for routine league games is also a frustration among supporters but it's not just us who are affected. Old Trafford can be mind-blowingly quiet but it seldom affects United's results like it does ours."
There will be no lack of noise on Sunday and for Jimmy Case, the former Liverpool midfielder who regularly attends Anfield as a radio commentator, the hosts should feed off that from the outset. "The players need to get stuck in early against City," he says. "That is what Liverpool have always been about at home – the crowd doing the shouting and the team giving the opposition no time or space to play by pressing them high up the pitch. Maybe that hasn't been the case recently, but it shouldn't be a problem in such a big game like Sunday's."
Whatever happens on Sunday, it should be noted that Liverpool remain in decent shape. Their away form is impressive and defensively the side are among the strongest in the division. For all the problems at Anfield, the hosts have lost only one of their past 16 league games there.
But Liverpool's history demands the best, especially at Anfield. For proof of that one has only to recollect how Bill Shankly responded to Denis Law when the former United striker said he enjoyed visiting the stadium because "you always get a lovely cup of tea". "Aye, Denis," Shankly said, "but that's all you get when you come here."
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