No room for sympathy with first place at stake

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Of all the clubs in English football to comment on the current plight of Cardiff, Liverpool must rank among the most qualified after their three-year horror with former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Though the Americans did not change the colour of the kit from red to blue, they could have done it. Though Hicks and Gillett did not look to change the club's name to the Liverpool Aardvarks to increase their popularity in zoos, they could have done it. Though neither wore their trousers as a dress with a belt serving as a leather scarf, they most certainly could have done that (and Hicks did wear cowboy boots with the Liver Bird embossed upon the snakeskin).

There are similarities between their reign and Cardiff owner Vincent Tan's in the Welsh capital, of course. Both ownerships sought to undermine a manager who brought success to the club; Malky Mackay and Rafael Benitez are not natural bedfellows, but talk of missed midfielders and strikers that slipped away could keep them up all night.

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Brendan Rodgers was right to speak of his admiration of Mackay ahead of Cardiff's visit to Anfield -- and this before the news that Tan has offered the Scot a unique version of trick or treat, in which he either resigns or is sacked. Rodgers was right to offer his support to somebody he worked with at Watford, a fine defender and consummate professional, even if there is an argument that his performance in the transfer window was not good enough.

But the respect must end come Saturday. Even if Mackay makes the trip and ends up in the away dugout, Liverpool have an incentive greater than any other since Rodgers took charge: the chance to be top of the league at Christmas.

If Liverpool were to beat Cardiff, and Arsenal fail to win at home against Chelsea on Monday, LFC would be at league's summit as Santa Claus takes flight. It would be an achievement as impressive as it is incredulous, even with Luis Suarez producing form few can possibly claim to matching in Premier League history.

Liverpool missed Suarez for five games, lest we forget; they have also lost Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard to injury, while also losing the concept of a defence and midfield at various stages. Most crucially, Mamadou Sakho aside, none of the summer outfield signings have made an impression upon the starting 11. To call it a Christmas miracle ignores the fact that Mary and Joseph never had problems with their hamstrings.

But if Liverpool are more qualified to understand Cardiff's problems, they will also be qualified to recognise how it can galvanise a club. Memories of fans marching in the street, armed with banners as wide as the Mersey in support of Benitez, are still prevalent in Liverpool.

Against Tottenham in January 2010, with Benitez's position becoming more untenable by the day, fans lined the Anfield streets which the Liverpool's team bus drove through, waving flags and singing songs. Be it a tunnel of love or death, it worked: Liverpool produced one of their finest performances that season, one of the manager's final shots over the barricade, in a 2-0 win of high intensity and high emotion under the floodlights.

Rodgers must be guarded against such heroism from a side who already have incentive to spoil the expected table-topping party at Anfield. The 2012 League Cup final between the sides still raises two questions: How fortunate were Liverpool to survive against then-Championship side Cardiff, and just when is Charlie Adam's penalty returning back into this stratosphere?

It is the former that will truly drive Cardiff on, even though their squad now possesses few of that side, such is the transformation the club have undergone. Revenge and history care little for the minor details. Cardiff were inches from victory; the decision from Cardiff's Kenny Miller to go with power over placement in the last minute of second-half stoppage time is still barely believable on 100th viewing.

Both clubs have progressed since then, even if there is a danger Tan's eccentricity could halt Cardiff's ascension up football's hierarchy. For Liverpool, Adam no longer breathlessly stumbles around the midfield; the thought of him occupying a place in Rodgers' midfield against Tottenham last weekend offers comparisons of a hefty hedgehog stuck on a Formula 1 track. Even beyond that, they appear a side far stronger in mentality, a side that will not be daunted over a potential upset.

Liverpool -- and Rodgers -- must be brutal against Cardiff. Friendships and feelings of injustice must subside, if only for 90 minutes. While there is a chance Cardiff will be galvanised ahead of their trip to Anfield, there is also a firm chance of Suarez running amok, smile wide and shoulders narrow, as he has done from the start of this season.

Alongside him, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling -- one younger whose reputation grows, another whose is being repaired -- can exploit Cardiff's full-backs, particularly Kevin Theophile-Catherine, who gallops down the right with little defensive responsibility.

This is not to make a trite mention of making statements and sending messages. Liverpool have already done that, sitting second in the league. But ruthlessness will be welcome at Anfield, and this is not the time for festive cheer. Against a team of such internal plight, it demonstrates that although Liverpool understand their problems, they do not sympathise with them on the pitch -- for they are no longer a team who must worry about such things.

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