Dilemma for Rodgers as he looks to the final seven games

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Andrew Powell/Getty ImagesThe pressure will be on Brendan Rodgers to improve upon Liverpool's point total in the final seven matches of the season.

In football, perception and reality are two different beasts. Though the club and all its employees will say differently in public, Liverpool have already started to cast cursory glances towards this summer. European qualification may cajole every nerve in their supporters, but just one eye truly remains on this season.

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It's a balance that has to be struck properly, at a club that's struggled with equilibrium in recent times. Last season, Kenny Dalglish's reign disintegrated after silverware was given priority over league position. Liverpool would win just four league matches after their Carling Cup win in February, securing just 13 points in the final 12 games. Not even an FA Cup final tipped the balance towards Dalglish: the King had his contract terminated, long live the King.

No such issue this season. Liverpool have long departed the cup competitions and Brendan Rodgers is in no danger of a whistle-stop tour to Boston to receive best wishes in his future endeavours.

But the dilemma still exists. Rodgers may be under no pressure from Fenway Sports Group, but the term progress has been repeated consistently, a mantra to all those looking to form a steadfast opinion on the Northern Irishman. Progress, it is said, will be the only way to justify the decision taken last summer; progress, that all-inclusive term, is the strand of rope that will either bind him closer to the club or hang him by the ankles.

That is the view of short-termism in a society, and sport, which now bothers with little else. There is little regard for the peripheral or context, just the final, unarguable result. For those people, it is simple: Rodgers must do better than Dalglish in this season's league campaign. That, and nothing else, is progress.

It appears he will appease those in who throw themselves to the wolves of now, now, now. Liverpool are just four points off last year's total of 52 and have already scored more than the whole of last season, albeit with a defence more porous. Bar seven 90-minute performances of pure harakiri, Liverpool will enjoy a league season better than last.

It ceases to become a question of if and transforms into one of by how much. Another hurdle to navigate. With no trip to Wembley compared to last season’s three, he will have to compensate with points. With less than half of the remaining games coming against teams currently in the top half, it is a chance he will be expected to grasp.

So far, so good. But realisation follows that this season is not just about the next game. Scouts have been sent around Europe, scouring leagues and teams famous and obscure. When he is not at Anfield or Melwood, Rodgers is having his passport checked as he jets around the continent watching potential summer signings.

Preparation should not just come off the pitch. It is here where Rodgers comes nose-to-nose with his dilemma and must refuse to blink first. With Jamie Carragher's decorated career in its final days and both Martin Skrtel and Sebastian Coates stationed in the Anfield ejector seat, Andre Wisdom could gain valuable time in the first team at his favoured position. The final month of the season could give Jonjo Shelvey his last opportunity to impress or to solidify the partnership between Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. Raheem Sterling and Suso, the duo who captured the imagination at the start of the season, could recapture it and prime themselves for next season.

But Wisdom is untested at the centre of defence at the highest level. Shelvey has shown little improvement in months; the Luis Suarez-Sturridge pair has not been as effective in recent weeks; Sterling and Suso dropped back into the under-21 squad for a reason. The football pitch is not a scientist's laboratory; such experimentation could help in the long-term but compromise short-term results. There is also rationality to establishing a starting 11, his best 11, and ruminating over how it could improve this summer.

To those who regard the final seven games as pointless, time for a rethink. April and May will not be a mere prolonging of distant, folly hope of European football next season, though that it could ultimately prove. Instead, it will peer into the psyche of Rodgers. In a season so regularly written off as one of transition, it is an opportunity to see how he defines it.

Winning football matches and experimenting with personnel are not mutually exclusive. Rodgers has shown no inclination of consigning the season to meagre surrender just yet, but he will be mindful that next season represents a genuine chance to fight for Champions League football. The squad is ever-evolving.

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The visit of West Ham will serve a harsh reminder of that. When he took the job at Liverpool in June, the last place he wanted Andy Carroll to be in April was dressed in the suit of another club, still collecting some of his wages from Liverpool. Yet after months of looking at the striker in training and friendly matches, his decision to be rid of him came too late. A loan deal with little obligation to buy was struck with little benefit to Liverpool.

The ineligible Carroll cannot hurt his parent club on Sunday. Some would say the damage has already been done. But with Rodgers facing questions on whether he can return to Liverpool and integrate into the team comes the realism of what Rodgers must do in the next few months. The summer is no time to deliberate over his options, flicking through the deck of cards and deciding which to toss aside. The next seven games gives ample opportunity, whether that's by giving them the chance to show their ability or banishing them completely.

He must do this and still try to win matches; he must assess his squad while confirming that he has brought progression to a Liverpool side that has been in a perpetual decline over recent years. It's a tough task, but no one should have thought it would be any different.

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