Monday 12th December 2005
HANSEN: BENITEZ HAS FOUND THE BALANCE
Liverpool's rise to second place in the Premiership is confirmation that manager Rafael Benitez has at last found that magical formula between attack and defence. I felt once Benitez could strike that healthy balance between attack and defence Liverpool would be on their way
And while we would be getting carried away to talk about the title coming back to Liverpool, no-one should be in any doubt that they are moving in the right direction, and quickly.
Now they are in Japan for the World Club Championship, and time will tell whether it benefits them or whether it has provided a crucial interruption to their growing momentum.
So what has changed at Liverpool?
Ten clean sheets say it all - Liverpool attack as a team and defend as a team, and that's the secret.
I was in the last Liverpool side to achieve that feat, and while so many rightly lauded it as a great attacking side containing talents like John Barnes and Peter Beardsley, we were acutely aware of our defensive duties.
And it was an awareness the whole team possessed, not just the defenders.
Liverpool may have drawn too many games at the start of the season, but I felt the signs of improvement were there in the goalless draws at Middlesbrough and Spurs.
Last season Liverpool looked vulnerable in those games, but even though they didn't win them this term, I never actually felt they were going to lose them either.
It was a big difference, and I felt once Benitez could strike that healthy balance between attack and defence, Liverpool would be on their way.
They had a blip at Crystal Palace and at Fulham, which left questions being asked about Benitez's side.
Ten clean sheets and a run of victories has been the response, so that's as emphatic an answer as you can deliver.
And there are good reasons for it.
As well as a defence playing at the top of its game, Liverpool's strength and balance in midfield looks good. If you are weak there, you can forget success.
Mohamed Sissoko is up for the fight and even someone like Luis Garcia, who I know many fans have doubts about in the Premiership, is showing signs of coming to terms with the league.
Xabi Alonso has a year's more experience, so things are going well.
As a Liverpool fan I'm really excited. I feel this is a better side than the one that won the Champions League last season.
I know better than anyone the dangers of getting carried away. It was drummed into me at Liverpool that this was the time football could kick you in the teeth if you were not on your guard.
But Liverpool fans have every right to think things are on the up.
In the last few seasons, I went to Anfield hoping they would win. Now I expect them to win. The expectation is back and it's a great feeling for those Liverpool fans who had forgotten what that felt like.
If Liverpool can add maybe a defender and perhaps a wide man with pace in the January transfer windown, then I think they can really go places.
There is a lack of pace in the team, Steven Gerrard apart. Djibril Cisse's quick, but his days are clearly numbered so he won't figure in that equation.
Peter Crouch has done well for Liverpool, despite the criticism he has received. He holds the ball up well, ensuring Liverpool retain possession.
If you retain that possession, you build up pressure on defenders and that's when they make mistakes.
Chelsea will win the league, unless something truly remarkable happens that none of us can foresee, but Liverpool will be among the closest challengers.
However, they have some testing games coming up, such as against Newcastle and the increasingly dangerous Everton.
The results in those games will go a long way to determining whether the trip to Japan was a good or bad idea.
But for now, Liverpool and their fans can bask in a surge of renewed optimism - and rightly so.