Second-half panic shows Liverpool are bang in contention

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Liverpool, top of the league. Not since 2008 has the Kop's proud proclamation been so loud, so vociferous, so real. Though Arsenal could still usurp them on Monday, they have a realistic chance of spending Christmas Day top of the tree.

Their position is not down to fortune. The 3-1 victory against Cardiff was their 11th win in 17 games; they have scored 42 goals, just five away from their entire 2011-12 tally, a clear indication of the phenomenal improvement the club has undergone in just 18 months. The football produced by genuinely exciting players -- from the world-class Luis Suarez to the effervescent, ever-running Raheem Sterling, and so much more -- is the best that Anfield has witnessed in a generation.

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Yet Anfield was nervous for a large portion of the second half. Not until the confirmation of the full-time whistle did they boast about their ascension to the league's summit, despite the three points being won by half-time. Even after Jordon Mutch's header it remained a result that was never in doubt, but the tension on the heaving red bank behind the goal was tangible. Every ball into the box was greeted with a collective wince; every misplaced pass prompted an anguished howl. The end of the game was met with relief, not the frenzy it deserved.

After five years out of the Champions League and -- dare it be said -- 23 years without a league championship, no wonder. Despite all the evidence that Brendan Rodgers has presented since August, there is still an automatic, almost instinctive disbelief about what has occurred this season, from observers both near and far. This is Anfield, where everything that could go wrong has done in recent times.

Even after the 5-0 evisceration of Tottenham, there was potential for the visit of Cardiff to be trickier than it should be. The uncertainty of Malky Mackay's employment status, combined with the possibility of Cardiff owner Vincent Tan either appointing himself manager or playing in goal, meant the script was written for a famous away win, Mackay's final shot over a pretty rickety barricade.

Some of the previous incarnations of this Liverpool squad would have fashioned a way to undo the good work of White Hart Lane, to find themselves the unfortunate casualty of Cardiff's feel-good triumph over adversity. But this Liverpool squad appears to be mentally stronger; even after a stuttering opening 10 minutes, they composed themselves and seized control, slamming shut any potential storybook ending for Mackay and his team.

Liverpool were phenomenal in the first half once more, both individually and collectively. Joe Allen, a former Swansea player and by default the target of the away fans' ire, offered a lot in midfield both defensively and offensively; the miss that shall not be named is looking more like a turning point for Allen's Anfield career with each passing -- literally passing, everywhere and to everyone -- minute.

He and Jordan Henderson are forming a fine partnership, one that is improving with both showing they are capable of adding to their considerable talent. Both now run with the ball at pace; both now take players on and look to make an impact in the penalty box. For Henderson, the back-heel is now his party trick, one that set up Suarez's second goal.

Those two provided a base of all that was good with Liverpool. Ahead of them moved Suarez, Sterling and Philippe Coutinho, the fluidity of movement being something Cardiff could hardly live with. By the end of the first half, resistance was futile -- every attempt by Cardiff to fill a gap created by one player's movement was unsuccessful, such was the artistry of Coutinho's through-balls and Sterling's incisive, intelligent running. The problem of Suarez, the best player in the world on current form, is an obvious one, but that made it no easier to deal with.

Despite that, Anfield was worried after Mutch's goal, as were the players. Indeed, the players' worry -- and their sudden inability to play as they had in the first half -- may have come from the unease from the gallery above. It may have even been part of the plan (conceding the goal aside, of course) to reserve energy for two massive away games after Christmas against Manchester City and Chelsea. But somebody needed to communicate that to those who watched, legs tapping, glancing at the scoreboard clock every 20 seconds.

Liverpool are finding themselves in a situation they have not been in for years: Going into the new year with the Champions League -- nay, the title -- in their sights. Because this is unfamiliar, certainly to a lot of the squad and even the manager, the mentality to stay where they are right now is going to be as fearsome an opponent as Yaya Toure or Eden Hazard. Liverpool have not played league games of such importance in years; as such, every defensive mishap is met with apoplexy and every missed opportunity comes laden with the fear of it being one to cost them the world.

They have little to fear in this form. Only the defence tempered Saturday's win, Mamadou Sakho aside. Sakho plays with a technique rarely seen, his dedication of getting skin on ball no matter what typified by a diving header back to Simon Mignolet in the second half, a 6-foot-2 mass of humanity flying through the air. But Martin Skrtel's insistence on swapping shirts mid-game and Glen Johnson's continued decline is a cause for concern, while Jon Flanagan will hope his hamstring scan reveals little damage, otherwise Martin Kelly or Aly Cissokho await.

But with a fully functioning midfield, and a magnificent attack that possesses one of Anfield's finest ever, there is little need to panic yet. But the feeling that the crippling stomach-punch of reality is not far away will be hard to shake until the end of the season. It is very much a catch-22 situation: The only way for players to learn about being competitive at the top of the table is to actually allow it to happen, but it may not truly happen if the expectation cripples.

Still, Liverpool are top of the league and could still be there at Christmas. Given how the label of Christmas champions may make some tetchy, maybe an Arsenal win on Monday is what Liverpool should hope for. Nobody is really thinking of Liverpool as title contenders -- that, surely, will suit this young but talented side. But if they keep producing football as they did in the first half against Cardiff -- and, indeed, as they have for a large part of the season -- their work won't go undetected much longer.


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