Well this is the big one. This is the reason we're doing all of this. I've been way off the past two years, when I thought Liverpool could get back into the top four. I'll break this up into two parts. The first will be a study of Liverpool themselves, and what they look like without thinking about the competition. Then we'll look at who Liverpool will be competing with, and see if we can't figure out where they'll stick. It's also going to be more stream of consciousness than I usually am, because I can't sort it out in my head. Maybe seeing it all written out will help me suss it out, and hopefully you as well.
First, Liverpool themselves. If the league season were just a competition of the first 11, I would feel way better about things. Because Liverpool's first-choice team actually stacks up very well with the others chasing Champions League spots. The back four, even with Jose Enrique's dip from last season looking like it hasn't exactly totally left, is quite solid. Skrtel-Agger (if he stays) is a central pairing that would be the envy of every team not playing at Eastlands, you would think. Glen Johnson's defending isn't nearly as bad (most of the time) as people want to believe it is, and his attacking his vital. Pepe Reina will thrive as an actual player in Rodgers's system, and I'm willing to bet his goalkeeping will benefit from greater activity with the ball. But when the matches pile up and the injuries hit, it gets icky. While Carragher looked comfortable in preseason, is any one comfortable with the idea of him getting an extended run with a team trying to play a high line? We simply have no idea what Sebastien Coates is, and his lack of pace doesn't fill you with confidence when he's a long way from having the brain to make up for it. The fullback support is lacking too. Jack Robinson on the left? Is that it? Martin Kelly can deputize satisfactorily for Johnson, but what if he has to flip to the left?
In midfield, the first choice is something you're probably happy with, and it actually has cover. Lucas-Allen-Gerrard has everything you want, with Allen being able to cover for Lucas at times and Henderson (who with even limited appearances I think is going to have a big season) and now Shelvey being able to fill in higher up the pitch. I have no problems with any of that, though a couple injuries that force Charlie Adam into regular appearances and we'll talk again. Lucas holding and Gerrard advanced are still two of the best at those specific positions.
Even with the black hole up front alongside Borini and Suarez, even just those two I think we'll produce a lot. If it's Downing, any small improvement will actually mean much more. If Carroll works his way in between the two, so much the better. But after that? Any loss of form or injury to Suarez? Even the purchase of Clint Dempsey still makes you think they're short of numbers. Combine all of that, and the overall squad just doesn't look like a team that can finish 4th, but won't finish as low as the depressing 8th of last year.
Now, to what's around. There are obviously three teams that are a class above Liverpool, and that's the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. I know Chelsea didn't seem like a league juggernaut last year and now have lost Drogba and there's always the chance of old-guy mutiny. But a revitalized midfield attacking troika of Hazard-Marin-Mata looks pretty tasty indeed. Even Torres should walk into a few goals.
Arsenal? Seemed a one-man team a lot of times last year, and now that one man has fucked off. One of the things I'm most excited about is watching Lukas Poldolski reveal himself as the giant fraud that he is. But Giroud could be quite effective and so could a maturing Oxlade-Chamberlain. Cazorla was an absolute steal, and if Wilshere returns healthy to combine with Ramsey, that's a midfield to be frightened of. Only injuries in the back, which of course will happen, can derail this team terribly.
Spurs once again have the Luka Modric drama to navigate through, as well as not playing for Harry "I always look like I just rolled out of the pub because I probably did" Redknapp. It's not a headache that a new manager with a lot to prove in Villas-Boas would want. But Sigurdsson could balance that out a bit, though not replace it totally. This team still has no strikers you can trust, and will be heavily dependent on the fragile ligaments of Van der Vaart and the overrated talents of Gareth Bale. Vertonghen should help mitigate the soon approaching Michael Dawson injury, but you don't feel without Modric that Spurs are completely out of touch of Liverpool.
It felt like everything went right for Newcastle last year. I don't know that it'll happen again. Cabaye and Tiote are still there, but can they be as good? Cisse certainly isn't going to be good for a goal per game again, and Ba might want out. Krul is a wonderful keeper but can you really trust Steven Taylor off an injury and Coloccini? I don't know.
Everton? I just think about how far Liverpool had to sink to be passed by them, and that being pretty much the pinnacle of what the Toffees can achieve, and I can't see that happening again.
There can always be some team that comes from nowhere (If Sunderland had a striker I might look at them), but then Liverpool could be that team. After seeing it all laid out, I just can't see beating out Arsenal for fifth unless they have an injury crisis that they're always seemingly intent on having. Too much in midfield I guess. Liverpool can run with Spurs, and I see Newcastle coming back to the pack. But the finish won't leave anyone satisfied, will it?