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A Year on the Liverpool Offside: The Upward Spiral

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The mood surrounding Liverpool may have improved with the return of Kenny Dalglish, but with a pair each of losses and draws to go along with four wins as he and the club entered March, that renewed optimism hadn't always led to results. At least, though, there was a widespread feeling that it had become a squad capable of turning the proverbial corner and going on a run if they could only manage to make all the pieces fit together. And after a match against Manchester United in the FA Cup to kick off his return and one against Chelsea quickly following the tumultuous January transfer window, a league game against United to start the new month off offered another litmus test of sorts—another chance to face a rival near the top of the table and, perhaps, start off that run everybody was waiting for.

Certainly it would have been hard to imagine the match itself going any better, as two days after Dalglish's birthday Luis Suarez put in the performance of the season—at least according to Liverpool Offside readers who voted in our season ending poll series—Dirk Kuyt scored a hattrick from three feet out, and once again United fans found themselves streaming out of Anfield before the full ninety minutes was up.

A more reserved Steven Gerrard also put on a good performance, perhaps his best of the season for Liverpool, though it wasn't all good news on that front. After the match, word came out that part of the reason for his more positionally disciplined, defensively conscientious display was that his problematic groin had begun to limit his movement. Any hope that this would be yet another case of Gerrard spending two weeks on the trainer's table quickly went out the window when the club released a statement saying that the player had successfully undergone a surgery nobody outside the club had known he was scheduled for, and that as a result he would be out for a month at the very least.

If Gerrard's injury was a blow coming down from the high of defeating Manchester United on the road again, the next two games would hardly help, as the league took a week off to allow for cup play and Liverpool headed off for back-to-back Europa League fixtures as they faced Braga in the third round. With Gerrard injured, the issue of the squad's lack of quality depth was front and centre as a dull one-nil loss and scoreless draw saw Liverpool dumped out of European competition. The resulting disappointment came not so much from any lost potential for glory in the Europa League itself as because Liverpool at the time seemed unlikely to qualify for Europe unless they managed to win it, and the thought of being out of Europe entirely—and of what that might do to the club's ability to attract top quality talent and even hold onto what talent it already had—was a cause for legitimate concern.

However, with league action returning, Liverpool would soon build on the earlier United result and not the European disappointment to embark on a scintillating 6-1-1 run. The entire quad appeared to click into high gear, but a big part of the success was down to Suarez, continuing a year-long run of form that lasted all the way from the World Cup in 2010 to the Copa America in 2011. And though Suarez may not be scoring for fun of late, anybody in need of a reminder of just what he can do only has to cast their mind back to that heady stretch after he arrived at Liverpool to know that Suarez is most certainly capable of racking up gaudy goal totals in the Premier League.

Things were going so well for the club that it became possible even to laugh about the cases of players like Christian Poulsen and Joe Cole. With the club finally seeing a bit of success on the pitch, their bloated contracts and poor return didn't seem such a painful burden any more. They were still mistakes of a past regime, but at least every poor performance wasn't a reminder of the wasted money and horrible decision making during Christian Purslow's reign any longer, and with the signing of Lucas to a new long-term contract during Liverpool's heady two-month rampage through March and April it seemed as though the club had truly separated itself from the dark days of the previous calendar year.

True, there was still the occasional bump in the road—the most obvious being an unfortunate loss to a West Bromwich Albion side managed by the recently departed Roy Hodgson. But next to crushing victories over the likes of Manchester City, Birmingham, and Fulham it hardly seemed to matter, and with Liverpool flying—and playing by far their best football since the final months of the 2008-09 season—the occasional moment of imperfection was easy to overlook.

Most surprising of all, Europe was once again back in the picture. Suddenly even a top four finish didn't seem entirely out of reach, with promising showings from young fullbacks Jack Robinson and John Flanagan giving further cause to hope for the future while Maxi Rodriguez was seemingly incapable of not scoring in the present as the club climbed all the way up to fifth place. Four months separated from fears that relegation could be a legitimate possibility, life was good again for Liverpool fans.