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This wasn’t billed to be the year Liverpool returned to accompany those at the top of the tree in English football and fight it out for qualification for a place amongst Europe’s elite in the Champions League. This was supposed to be Brendan Rodgers’s year of transition as he aims to inject a fresh air of youth into a side that had first declined under Rafael Benitez and Roy Hodgson and proceeded to go stale under Kenny Dalglish.
After Sunday afternoon’s win at West Ham however, a year of solidity will surely cease to be the limit of Liverpool’s ambitions in the inaugural year of the Rodgers era as they are separated from the top four by a margin of just four points, on a run of just one defeat in eleven games and showing eminent signs of adapting to the new manager’s philosophy of fluid possession that many feared would take far longer to heed.
The roller-coaster 2-3 victory at Upton Park, achieved after going 2-1 down to a side that has proven very difficult to beat this season under the pragmatism of Sam Allardyce, will provide Liverpool with the optimism, especially with Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton and temporary challengers like Swansea and West Brom all displaying inconsistency in the race for the much coveted top four bracket, that they can indeed provide a compelling case for Champions League qualification this soon. They are, after all, fifth in the form table, level on points with a fourth placed Southampton if the league was run on the last six games.
Sunday afternoon’s events in east London would have provided the Reds with a watershed moment, a belief that, compounded with Thursday night’s win in Udinese that saw them post on top of their Europa League group, this squad does not warrant much work as they quest to return amongst the upper echelons. Most significantly, the absence of a suspended Luis Suarez, the man Rodgers requires the commodity of time to add striking support to ease his burden as Liverpool’s sole striker, didn’t compromise their ability to win, or even score as they notched three in a match on just the third occasion this season.
It was Jonjo Shelvey who was tasked with the replacement of Suarez for the trip to the capital, a brave decision to move a 20 year old midfielder forward to fill the void left behind by the Uruguayan, who on 13 goals so far, was Liverpool’s top scorer. Yet it was the only decision; Fabio Borini is suffering a long term lay-off, Adam Morgan has been impressing in the reserve league but is too young to be afforded such responsibility and Samed Yesil, the squad’s only other recognised striker, has only just recovered from injury. Shelvey, with his only previous in that position coming in the Europa League, was forced to step up and, in keeping with Rodgers’s promising batch of upcoming talents, didn’t betray the faith shown in him by his manager.
It is Shelvey, a graduate of West Ham and then Charlton’s youth set-ups who perhaps does not come with the quality of Xabi Alonso or Javier Mascherano who recently inhabited the midfield in which the young Englishman now finds himself, who probably best epitomises the surprise element of Liverpool’s recent renaissance. Or even, as he was on Sunday, the forefront of Rodgers’s work that is centering around a very resourceful use of his squad.
Maybe not the most talented of individuals, yet Shelvey has managed to gain international recognition for a campaign of not shirking a job asked of him by his boss. Struggling in an alien position against West Ham, it was he who linked up with Raheem Sterling, another who has been picked up by England’s radar despite his age, to provide Joe Cole’s equaliser before pressurising James Collins to loop past his own keeper for the winner.
Maybe it is why Brendan Rodgers has entertained the idea of Shelvey being as what is referred to as “the false nine” since he showed a goal-scoring touch on Europa League duty away at Young Boys, because he will seldom let his manager down when entrusted with a team role, regardless of where it is.
It is that enthusiastic attitude that has swept through this Liverpool squad, as stretched as it may be, to give Rodgers an unexpectedly strong platform to build on in his first year at Anfield. Sterling has proved outrageously gifted despite being just 17, Jordan Henderson has shown glimpses that he may be of standard after all, while Oussama Assaidi and Andre Wisdom have performed well when called upon.
It was the triumvirate of Shelvey, Henderson and Sterling, as well as the nearly-forgotten Joe Cole, who dragged Liverpool from the brink when behind at West Ham when many would have expected a young side shorn of their star-striker to fold. It will be refreshing for Rodgers’s future plans as he continues to hone the talents of his youngsters, that character and resilience already seems to be there in abundance.
Despite a good run of form that has them just 4 points off fourth, a striker in imperious form who will be back from suspension next week and the return to action of the vital Lucas Leiva to help boost the cause, Brendan Rodgers is unlikely to be targeting the promised land of the top four that surely must remain outside of the realms of expectation for now, yet there has to be a plethora of reasons for the ex-Swansea manager to be optimistic that he can return success to Liverpool on a shorter time-scale than one imagined it would take.
The 20 year old Shelvey, with his willingness to compensate for lack of natural talent with sheer endeavour, surely must be one of those reasons.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow him on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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