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Mutual Appreciation Society

Brendan Rodgers' group is a particularly loved-up bunch. With manager and players all jostling for the opportunity to laud each other whenever possible, there is certainly no shortage of positive reinforcement in the air around Melwood.

Poor Javi was inconsolable. He'd forgotten to wear hair product. Fabio sprung to his aid and applied a little of his own -- a real teammate.
Poor Javi was inconsolable. He'd forgotten to wear hair product. Fabio sprung to his aid and applied a little of his own -- a real teammate.
Clive Brunskill

Sometimes, when one charily ponders the behind-the-scenes tumult at Liverpool Football Club during the lugubrious last days of Rafa Benitez, the tragi-comedy of The Hodgsonian Incident and the cash-strewn disappointment of the King's second reign, the club's current buoyancy and lofty status can seem almost preternatural, a Lazarus story that stretches the credibility somewhat. The catalyst for this return to the loftier perches of the football tree was the inspired appointment of Brendan Rodgers by FSG.

Now, Rodgers may never win a single title at Anfield, although that seems unlikely given his rate of progress, but he has made the club modern. His root-and-branch intervention has revitalised a somnolent behemoth of the game and the fruits of these changes have already manifested themselves dramatically. A dark-horse title tilt and the vital attainment of Champions League football within his first two seasons has put the 41 year old ahead of the curve and now, as he embarks on his maiden campaign in the world's premier club competition, Rodgers leads a group in which he has fostered a tremendous sense of unity.

Of course, for many of the dour miserabilists who form a notable cohort of the Liverpool support base, this touchy-feely stuff is mere fluff and nonsense. 'What need is there for such indulgent bonhomie?' these utilitarian chaps wonder. 'Why can't they just shake hands after they score and let that be and end to all the fuss? And as for this constant praising of each other, well, it's for the birds. In my day a man didn't need his hand held. You bottled up your feeelings. Now, where's that whiskey?'

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, where psychology and motivational skills have evolved beyond the thrown tea cup and it is actually acceptable, even in stiff-upper-lip England, to express admiration of one's fellow man, Rodgers' squad is awash with mutual appreciation and the manager, as well as being the object of his players' admiration, is also quick to lavish praise on those same footballers. It is, to the outsider at least, a happy camp, where egos are not rampant and credit for that must go to Rodgers.

Although many suspect the Antrim man has ample self-regard, he is unfailingly polite and humble in his public utterances. Yes, he sometimes tends to be a little grandiloquent, but there is none of the unfettered egotism of Jose Mourinho or the haughty disdain that Louis Van Gaal has trademarked. It is necessary, one imagines to have a healthy amount of self-possession when taking on a job of the proportions of Liverpool Manager and it was notable that such giants of the club as Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard were unequivocal in their support of the young manager from the first moment.

Now, having overhauled the squad almost entirely, Rodgers is working with a collection of players almost entirely assembled by himself. The newest and most high-profile addition to the Melwood love-in is Mario Balotelli, a man whose largely media-constructed reputation precedes him. The received wisdom is that Rodgers will need his wits about him and will have recourse to draw on all his experience in dealing with enfant terrible, Luis Suarez, if he is to maintain any control over the wayward Italian. This is all clearly tabloid crapola of the highest order. A model professional, the only troubles Suarez ever posed were his absences for snacking on defenders and using objectionable language.

Rodgers, in fact, happily played up to the notion of Balotelli as "trouble" and used the constant histrionic questions to assert his own authority, with the anecdote about marking at corners a fine example of the manager not-so-subtly indicating his absolute authority. The Liverpool boss has chosen instead to show total faith in the young striker and his belief has already begun to be repaid, as Balotelli got off the mark in the most vital and dramatic of circumstances against Ludogorets on Tuesday night. After a promising display against Spurs, the Italian was less impressive in the dispiriting defeat by Aston Villa. Rodgers is preaching patience.

"He'll get fitter with games and the idea is just to persist with him," he offered. "He's a good reference for us and he's improving each time he trains and plays. It was a brilliant finish by him, great technique and that was exactly what we needed at that time - that bit of genuine Champions League class. I think in general as a coach you will always have players who are high maintenance and players who are low maintenance. I'll spend a lot of time with a lot of the players but he's a good boy and I think you can see that he's prepared to work. The crowd demand that because the players who've been here in the past in that position have been non-stop and he's coming attuned to that.

"He's aware of the demands and it's going to take time but if he continues to score goals and work hard like he has done against this side he will be fine because he's obviously got the quality," the gaffer continued. "He understands the great strikers of the past. We've spoken about Suarez and his time here but Mario's still young and still learning the game and he still has this hunger to do well."

Another of the new boys to have made a very striking impression is Alberto Moreno. The 22 year old left back has been a muscular and dynamic presence in this season's Liverpool team and could be forgiven for singing his own praises in the wake of a mightily encouraging beginning to what he hopes will be a long Liverpool career. However, in keeping with the almost hippyish atmosphere of free love, Moreno preferred to focus on the contribution of Balotelli and the powerful presence of the man who could be mistaken for his father, Steven Gerrard, paying particular tribute to the captain's sang froid from the penalty spot.

"He got a bit nervous didn't he?!" Moreno wondered aloud, his tongue firmly in his cheek. "I don't have words for Stevie. He's a great footballer and he's a special person, not just here but at a world level. Steven Gerrard is a great player. That is what we've always been told and I am proud to be playing with him. I hope that remains the case for years to come.

"Mario is physically fearsome," continued the colourfully tattooed defender. "He can hold the ball up and help us when we are under pressure at the back, and can release the ball. That gives us something extra and then in the penalty box you saw the one chance he had, he took it. For opposition defences it is hard when you're up against Mario Balotelli. I am delighted for him and his goal. Now we have to keep it going."

If there's one man in the Liverpool squad adept at keeping it going, it's the permanently motile Jordan Henderson. One of the few first team men that pre-date Rodgers' arrival, the likable Sunderland native's travails and proximity to departure from Anfield have been well documented. The most admirable of characters, Henderson has more than merited his promotion to vice-captain, with a season of phenomenally effective performances logged and a new one begun in a similar vein. Again, the tonsorially magnificent midfielder is more interested in spreading the love than hogging the plaudits.

"I didn't really have to think about it [the vice-captaincy], it was an amazing feeling," Henderson said. "The manager spoke about (my journey) and, to be fair, he did say at the time when I wasn't playing I should take time out to focus on videos and learn tactically about the game better. And he promised he would improve me as a player.

"I have a lot to thank him for because he has done that and continues to improve me as a player. My tactical awareness in games needed to be better and that has improved. I try to improve every day. In big games tactics come into it a lot, and you see in many games we play many different formations, ways of playing and pressing and keeping the ball. I think I have learned a lot and I will continue to learn, but I have the coaching staff and manager to thank for that."

So there you have it. It's all journeys and mutual respect around Melwood and environs these days. Liverpool fans will hope this cameraderie is apparent on the field of play as Brendan Rodgers and his emotionally secure troop approach a four-fronted campaign which will, Hodgson style, test the resolve of that laudable togetherness.

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