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Saturday, 15 January 2011

Dalglish faces unenviable task

Dalglish in the wake of Liverpool's defeat at Blackpool (GETTY IMAGES)
The return of Kenny Dalglish to the managerial hotseat at Liverpool constitutes a sequel to one of the greatest love affairs in the history of English football.

But sequels are usually disappointing - weighed down and ultimately undone by the expectation that they must match or even surpass the achievements of the original. With this in mind, a mere glance at Dalglish's Liverpool record makes it immediately clear that the 59-year-old Scot faces a monumental task. 

Having won 10 league titles and three European Cups in fourteen years at Anfield as player and manager, 'King Kenny' is rightly revered like no other by the Kop.

That he is willing to risk tainting this flawless legacy by stepping once again into the firing line is not simply proof of the man's personal courage or even of his love for the club - it is a sad indictment of the extent of Liverpool's recent decline.

The last time the league trophy resided at Anfield was actually under Dalglish in 1990. In the barren 20 years since, Liverpool's status as England's most successful club has come under serious threat from arch-rivals Manchester United.

The two are tied on 19 league titles apiece but, given their respective positions in this season's table, Kopites can do nothing but watch on as Sir Alex Ferguson's side attempts to finally fulfil the wily old Scot's long-stated desire to 'knock Liverpool off their perch'.

The Reds currently sit 13th in the Premier League table, twice as close in terms of points to the relegation zone than to a European spot, having presided over their worst start to a league season in living memory.

Roy Hodgson, undermined by boardroom turmoil, an unbalanced squad and indifferent fans, as well as his own mistakes, was unable to check the slide. Given only six months, he never really had a chance.

And so, having failed to secure the progressive young manager they were looking for to replace Hodgson, New England Sports Ventures have bowed to overwhelming fan pressure and given Dalglish the task of guiding the team for the rest of the season.

While the popular motivation behind Dalglish's appointment lies more within the heart than the head, the decision also makes sense from NESV's point of view.

For whether or not 'King Kenny' succeeds in turning around the club's fortunes, the decision to give him a chance has immediately endeared the new Americans to the fans. If he fails, John W. Henry and co. will have a stronger mandate to do things their own way from here on out.

But for Dalglish, the risk is significant.

His enormous contribution to the Merseyside club as a player and manager will never be forgotten, but no reputation is impervious to damage. Failure to positively impact the club's fortunes this time around would see a negative footnote applied to his impressive list of achievements.

And if the Scot was under any illusions as to the size of the rebuilding job facing him, they would surely have been obliterated by another ignominious defeat to Blackpool on Wednesday evening.

Prior to that game there was hope - enhanced by the spirited performance rather than the result at Old Trafford last weekend - that Dalglish, with his outstanding footballing pedigree and deep-rooted connection to Liverpool Football Club, would be able to inspire a revival just with his mere presence.

Instead, the match offered emphatic proof that there can be no overnight cure for the problems which have plagued the Reds for the best part of two years.

Despite having taken an early lead, the visitors' confidence vanished with Gary Taylor-Fletcher's fairly swift equaliser. From then on Blackpool dominated, their enterprising and expansive play ensuring they enjoyed the lion-share of possession and crafted the clearer chances, and it was to the surprise of no one when DJ Campbell had almost the freedom of the 18-yard box to head home the winner.

Of course, all due credit must go to Ian Holloway, who has done a fantastic job of confounding almost every critic - including this one - and leading his team to mid-table in the Premier League, whilst producing some genuinely entertaining attacking football.

But with all due respect to Blackpool and to Holloway, the result says more about Liverpool's current malaise than anything else. Prior to the start of the season, anyone who claimed that the Tangerines would do the league double over the five-time European Cup winners would have been assumed to be a Reina short of a clean sheet.

The Reds midfield once again proved lacking in both fight and ideas in the absence of captain Steven Gerrard, who paid the price for over-enthusiasm during the game at Old Trafford. The central trio of Lucas, Meireles and Poulsen were unable to dominate their less illustrious opposition, and failed to create the chances which would have tested an unconvincing Richard Kingson.

No reassurance was to be found in a defence lacking Jamie Carragher either. Daniel Agger was at fault for Blackpool's equaliser, and both he and Martin Skrtel appeared to have gone home when DJ Campbell settled matters. With Carragher not expected to return for another month, this could prove a particularly problematic area for Dalglish.

For those desperately looking for any signs of a Dalglish-inspired recovery, there were positives. Martin Kelly provided a noticably less shambolic performance at right-back than Glen Johnson has consistently delivered this season, and then there was the clinical manner in which Fernando Torres opened the scoring.

Can Dalglish get the best out of Torres? (GETTY IMAGES)
The 26-year-old Spaniard has been perhaps the most enigmatic figure of this most incomprehensible of seasons. The composed and confident nature of his finish at Broomfield Road is but the latest flash of brilliance in a campaign which has promised much but delivered little.

Lacklustre performances, impotence in front of goal and disinterested body language fuelled speculation that Torres wanted away from Anfield. Then he turned on the style to destroy Chelsea in November with two brilliantly taken goals, and most assumed he was back. Since then, however, his contribution has been an erratic combination of important goals and anonymous displays.

It is no coincidence that Torres' problems coincide with those of Liverpool. Having witnessed his invaluable contribution to the infrequent achievements of the Benitez era, there can be no overstatement in saying that Dalglish's long-term success will depend upon getting the Spanish hitman back to his very best.

The Merseyside giants will also have to get active in the transfer market if they aim to once again compete for the biggest domestic and European prizes. The fact that Damian Comolli has been appointed to head the recruitment program means Dalglish's status as a caretaker manager should not impede the immediate acquisition of targets.

The level of investment which NESV are willing to sanction remains unclear. What could not be any clearer, however, is the level of investment which is required. Liverpool are, and have been for some years, a side which is too heavily reliant on Gerrard and Torres to win matches. A top-class striker and wingers are certainly called for.

On the defensive side of things, the Reds have suffered as a result of failing to replace midfield enforcer Javier Mascherano, who is now warming the home bench at the Nou Camp. There are also questions hanging over Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel as capable partners for Jamie Carragher in the back four, and Paul Konchesky is not a worthy Liverpool left-back.

But these problems will not be dominating Dalglish's thoughts in the short-term. He will seek to galvanise the players already at his disposal, to convince them that they can once again be the side who challenged Manchester United for the league title only two years ago.

A big step forward can be taken in the Merseyside derby tomorrow. The humbling at Goodison Park in October was one of the results for which Roy Hodgson was never forgiven by the Kop, and although Dalglish would likely receive more lenient treatment, the Scot will be in no mood to force them to endure another humiliation.

Victory over their arch-rivals would be a huge boost for Dalglish's Liverpool, and whilst it would not be an end in itself, it would be the kind of result which could provide a genuine platform for an Anfield revival.

Moreover, if they win, the sequel to one of English football's biggest love affairs may actually prove to have been worth waiting for.

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