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Aug 10, 2011

The return of the King

It is a fact that almost seems to have been forgotten in recent months, but most neutral observers had believed Kenny Dalglish's reappointment in January to be a sentimental decision doomed to failure. The fact that the club's new owners took so long to make his contract permanent might suggest an element of doubt on their part, too.

Of course, the Liverpool fans, who had long clamoured for the return of 'The King', were swiftly vindicated: the team had been 13th when Dalglish took over in January, but by the end of the season they were sixth and not far from European qualification. It is clear that the new manager was the catalyst that saw a great club dragged out of the doldrums, refocusing the side on the pass-and-move foundations, but it would be deeply unfair not to also recognise the influence of coach Steve Clarke and January signing Luis Suarez.

Clarke - a key figure at Chelsea for Jose Mourinho and Avram Grant - arrived as first-team coach in January and was promoted to assistant manager in July. He was credited with a tightening up of the defence, with making the training sessions practical and enjoyable, and Dalglish was quick to ensure Clarke received due credit after Liverpool's turnaround in fortunes. The players have also been fulsome in their praise.

On the field, the arrival of Suarez from Ajax has been key and, in light of other transfers both at Anfield and around the continent, he looks exceptional value at €26.5 million. His skill and awareness provide guile in attack that few other players can match, and he appears to bring the best out of his team-mates for both club and country. It is telling that the loss of Fernando Torres, for so long the club's prized possession, now barely registers.

The trio's impact has brought enhanced expectations and, although competition for the Premier League's top four has greatly increased with the rise of Manchester City, principal owner John W Henry recently confirmed the key target for 2011-12 is Champions League qualification. That quest has been aided by further investment in the team, but there is now a surfeit of options in midfield and it remains a mystery how they will line up in the new season.

The arrivals of Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing bolster the midfield, but how Dalglish intends to accommodate them is a matter of some debate. Downing, a wide player, should have few problems securing a role on the left with only Maxi as a real rival, while Henderson's ability to play on the right may see him competing with Dirk Kuyt, yet there is a plethora of central midfielders. Adam, Lucas Leiva, Raul Meireles, Alberto Aquilani, Jay Spearing, Joe Cole, Jonjo Shelvey, Christian Poulsen and, when fit again, Steven Gerrard are all on the books, and even Maxi was used in a central role towards the end of last season. Clearly there is an intention to offload some of those players, whether on permanent or temporary deals, but progress on that front has been slow and it may force a change in shape to accommodate the excess.

The particular focus on midfield recruitment has been curious but, coming off the back of an era in which the Reds were increasingly labelled a two-man team, it has been important for Liverpool to provide quality alternatives across the field. As Dalglish told a press conference last week: "I think quality is more important than depth, but if you have a bit of depth as well it is always helpful."

It should not be forgotten, either, that without any new additions, Liverpool claimed ten wins and two draws from their final 16 league games last season. Assuming an improved squad can replicate that return, Champions League qualification appears a very realistic target.

However, the idea that the team is capable of staging a title challenge - advanced by Sir Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney, among others - appears premature, with strength in depth still required in attack and defence. Andy Carroll is a highly effective target man, but he has had injury problems and, though Kuyt could be employed in his stead, the addition of another quality, specialist striker would certainly help sustain their goal threat. Henry may have suggested in a tweet that David Ngog could be the answer but he has had time to prove his worth and cannot be expected to fire the team to the top four if injuries demand his inclusion.

Of greater concern is the defence: Jamie Carragher now appears well past his inspirational best, Daniel Agger continues to struggle for fitness and Martin Skrtel has yet to fully convince after three seasons. Liverpool conceded three goals in each of their first five pre-season friendlies and Agger said: "If you are a footballer, you have to be a perfectionist and so far we have to admit it's not been good enough." A 2-0 victory over Valencia in their final pre-season game was more promising, but the addition of a new left-back and centre-back would certainly help - Newcastle's Jose Enrique and Birmingham's Scott Dann have been linked.

Whether the shortcomings will be addressed by the close of the transfer window remains to be seen, but there nonetheless remains a definite sense of optimism. Liverpool have so far not offloaded as much of the deadwood as they would have liked but, unlike top-four rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, the failure to make sales has not significantly hampered market activity, and they will feel they have moved a couple of places up the pecking order as a result.

Such pre-season confidence at Anfield has been misplaced on many occasions in the Premier League era but, with new owners and an old manager, the foundations of a revival are in place.

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