For better or worse, much of the early going in the 2011-2012 campaign found itself played under constant comparison to the season gone by. So much was different that it made such comparisons easy---new ownership, new management, nearly new squad, and success that, at least when directly contrasted with the way Liverpool played for the first five months of the 2010-2011 season, couldn't really be compared. It wasn't a flawless opening to the season, but December brought with it cautious optimism about Liverpool's prospects.
The basis for that optimism included the aforementioned changes, but was also boosted by three results in the last two weeks of November. Two wins at Stamford Bridge and a home draw with league leaders Manchester City, which, like many of Liverpool's home draws this season, saw the hosts put in a dominant display, and all of a sudden the month of December was one in which Liverpool could make a push for the top four. Six matches against a mix of opposition, but all seemed winnable, and if Liverpool started to put it all together, we were in store for a fantastic month.
There were two main factors tempering that optimism, though, and on the first day of the month, we got the news we were all dreading---Lucas' knee injury against Chelsea in the League Cup was worst-case scenario stuff, with a torn ACL and confirmation that the midfielder, Liverpool's best player on the season by a mile and one of the best in the game at what he does, would miss the remainder of the season. It was a crushing blow to the hopes that the last two weeks of November created given that the Brazilian was the cog that drove Liverpool along in those three matches, marking David Silva into oblivion and covering nearly every inch of the Stamford Bridge turf in the 150-odd minutes he featured.
The other hot-button issue was the pending investigation of Luis Suarez for racial abuse of Patrice Evra, which started after the teams met in mid-October and had dragged out in neverending fashion. That cloud loomed over both Suarez and the club in the media, with seemingly no discussion of player or club complete without mention of the charges. The firestorm around Suarez only got worse when, after a disappointing loss at Craven Cottage to start the month, Suarez flipped off a braying home crowd that had pelted him with chants of "cheater" and "racist" every time he touched the ball. It was a foolish move by a frustrated player, and one that, almost impossibly, made him an even easier target for a press collective that had narrowed their focus to lambast a foreign player for racism with work that reeked of hypocrisy and xenophobia.
Despite trouble on a few different fronts, Liverpool rebounded from the Fulham loss to slog through a 1-0 victory over QPR at Anfield and a 2-0 win at Villa Park. In the former Luis Suarez put in another brilliant display, shrugging off the controversy and netting his first league goal since the derby on the first day of October. And two goals in the first twenty minutes continued Liverpool's terrific form on the road, again drawing comparison to a season in which away wins, particularly in the early part of the campaign, were few and far between.
Two days after the Villa win, though, the FA finally delivered their verdict, and like the news on Lucas' injury, it was brought with it strong emotions---eight-match ban, £40,000, and confirmation both in the court of public opinion and a three-man disciplinary panel that Luis Suarez was no good for British football. Without any definitive justification as to what they based their decision on, the FA only complicated an already complex issue, and it very quickly turned into Liverpool and its supporters against the world.
There weren't any immediate repercussions for Suarez, and judgment on the offsensive gesture had been delayed until after the three-ring circus had ended. He was available and selected to start against Wigan and Blackburn, and the squad showed their backing for the player in the form of pre-match t-shirts at the DW that were, depending on who you asked, either one more reason to love the club or a cringe-worthy gesture that missed the mark. And whatever the feeling, that sense of unity and togetherness didn't translate into results, with a dismal draw in which Wigan had an answer for everything Liverpool put together and another two points dropped at Anfield five days later.
Among the few positives to be gleaned from such a rocky stretch was the return of Steven Gerrard, who replaced Charlie Adam against Blackburn and immediately lifted the club's spirits. His quality was evident from the moment he stepped on the pitch, giving Liverpool the lift they had so badly been missing. The Suarez debacle brought the club together against any number of enemies real or imagined, but at no point was any of the situation uplifting. The captain's return was, at least on the early evidence, exactly what the club had been missing.
And as he is wont to do, the man was at it again yesterday, coming on to help orchestrate a comprehensive and encouraging 3-1 win over Newcastle, lifting Liverpool into fifth place for a brief period and helping the club get more than two goals for only the second time this season. It was in many ways the perfect tonic for a stormy month---Liverpool learned about life without Luis Suarez, the home crowd was finally buzzing, and there was a sense of togetherness around a positive effort rather than spending their time on the defensive, both on the pitch and off.
There's no telling if the final result of a tumultuous year will spur the club on to bigger and better things. There's no telling what happens with Luis Suarez and his stormy relationship with the FA and British football. And after the last two transfer windows, there's certainly no telling what happens in January.
What we can say is that it's been a dynamic year following Liverpool Football Club, and it's been absolutely terrific to be a part of the community here on the Liverpool Offside. We've been through a little bit of everything around here over the past twelve months, and we've managed to enjoy nearly every part of it in one way or another. And like Liverpool, there's not really any telling where things go from here.
We can offer our thanks for all the support, insight, and humor in 2011, and more of the same in 2012.
Note: During writing, the FA released their report on the Suarez ruling, and it can be read here. As has always been the case, we're fully behind any consequences for acts of racism and prejudice. Despite the fact that we're all prejudiced, bias, or even racist in some way, there's no place for acts of overt racism or bigotry in sport or society. And had the FA published anything that provided clarification, we'd be backing them without question. For now, though, there's not a lot of sense to be made from what's been released.
The rest of the year in the review:
A Year on the Liverpool Offside: Roy Hodgson’s January
A Year on the Liverpool Offside: The January Window Closes
A Year on the Liverpool Offside: Bigger Than Any One Player
A Year on the Liverpool Offside: The Upward Spiral
A Year on the Liverpool Offside: Falling Back to Earth
A Year on the Liverpool Offside: The British Experiment
A Year on the Liverpool Offside: Starting Over, Settling In
A Year on the Liverpool Offside: Failing to Finish