- POSTED: 14 Aug 2014 09:03
"There is only an excitement and a belief inside the club that we can challenge again for the title," says Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
LONDON: When Brendan Rodgers jetted off on holiday to New York in June, his biggest worry was whether he had packed enough sunscreen and poolside reading material. But by the time the Liverpool manager arrived home later that month his sunlit strolls around Central Park must have seemed a world away as he confronted the nightmare scenario of another Luis Suarez meltdown.
Suarez had already caused Rodgers numerous sleepless nights after his infamous bite on Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic in 2013 and subsequent failed attempt to engineer a move to Arsenal. And now just 12 months later, Suarez had once again provoked outrage across the globe by reprising his vampire act with another bite, this time on Italy's Giorgio Chiellini while playing for Uruguay in the World Cup.
Rodgers had remained broadly supportive of the 27-year-old during his previous misdemeanours. But now he could sense the tide of public opinion, even among the Suarez's adoring fans on the Kop, was beginning to turn against the repeat offender.
When Suarez was hit with a four-month ban as a result of the Chiellini incident, Rodgers decided enough was enough and he gratefully accepted Barcelona's £75 million (S$156 million) bid for the troubled striker. News of Suarez's sale was greeted with equanimity on Merseyside, where long-serving supporters recall how Liverpool thrived in the past despite the departures of seemingly irreplaceable forwards Kevin Keegan and Ian Rush.
Others outside the Anfield bubble reacted rather differently, figuring that the loss of a player who was the team's driving force last season, not just with his 31 goals but also his ferocious desire for success, would be too much to overcome.
With Liverpool's heartbreaking failure to win the title from a strong position also fresh in the memory, Rodgers' side have been widely tipped to drop out of the Premier League's top four this season, with their bitter rivals Manchester United expected to take their place. But Rodgers refused to panic and during that Stateside vacation he was already formulating a plan to balance the demands of challenging for the title while also maintaining their place in the Champions League.
Even when Liverpool surged through an 11-match winning run that carried them within touching of the title, Rodgers was painfully aware that his squad lacked strength in depth and needed a world-class centre-back to set the tone in a defence that leaked 51 league goals. So, bolstered by the Suarez fee, Rodgers embarked on the biggest pre-season spending spree in Anfield history, with around £90 million splashed out to secure the services of Rickie Lambert, Emre Can, Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic, Dejan Lovren, Divock Origi and Javier Manquillo.
None are expected to prove a direct replacement for Suarez, with towering England striker Lambert offering a more physical alternative as a partner for Daniel Sturridge. Rodgers believes Serbia winger Markovic and England playmaker Lallana, when he returns from injury, will increase the supply lines for Sturridge, while £20 million Croatia centre-back Lovren is billed as the man to solve the defensive wobbles.
For life without Suarez to prove profitable, Liverpool also need one last push from ageing captain Steven Gerrard and further improvements from teenage winger Raheem Sterling.
Never short of confidence in himself or his team, Rodgers expects exactly that. "I wasn't lying on a sun lounger over the summer crying and fretting over the fact that we lost the league," Rodgers said.
"We proved last season that we can handle the pressure of a title run-in. We just didn't get the breaks when we needed them most. What that experience has done with this team is it has made us even more unified and stronger to be more successful in the future. Last season was a great step forward and now we must believe that we can go one better. There is only an excitement and a belief inside the club that we can challenge again for the title."