SMACK bang in the middle of the Europa League showdown with Zenit St Petersburg, Brendan Rodgers has bemoaned the timing of Sunday’s visit of Swansea City.
But the Liverpool manager would be forgiven having other reasons for cursing an imminent reunion with his former club.
Rodgers no doubt didn’t expect to be looking up at the South Walians in the Premier League table with less than a third of the season remaining.
That the Swans will be warming up for a Wembley final the following week, having won at Anfield en route to the Capital One Cup showdown against giantkillers Bradford City, only adds to the sense Sunday – the match rearranged having initially clashed with Swansea’s big day – will be something of an inconvenience for all concerned.
While Rodgers still grows accustomed to life in the demanding Anfield hotseat, his Liberty Stadium successor, Michael Laudrup, has taken Swansea to even greater heights, the team currently standing in seventh place, two positions above Liverpool.
“The Sunday game hasn’t helped us, if I’m being perfectly honest,” says Rodgers, whose side follow their trip to Russia with the return tie against Zenit next Thursday in the Europa League round of 32 clash.
“We weren’t due to play Swansea until the following week and I would have thought that after that was the best time to play that game.
“On the back of the players playing international games and two tough games away to Arsenal and Manchester City, it’s something we’ll need to look at.”
Of course, had Liverpool not slumped to a humiliating FA Cup defeat at Oldham Athletic last month, they would instead be welcoming Everton for a blockbusting fifth-round tie this weekend.
Rodgers’ side responded to that setback with successive 2-2 draws at Arsenal and Manchester City, but Monday’s poor 2-0 home defeat to West Bromwich Albion means the 5-0 thrashing of Norwich City is the only game they have won in their last six.
The manager, though, expects a response on Sunday.
“These players always react very well,” says Rodgers. “They were very disappointed, like we all were, on Monday because we wanted to make our home form better in the league.
“That’s something we’d done, especially of late. We entered into the game against West Brom with the best defensive home record in the league, so that shows the mark of improvement we were making as a group.
“The players gave everything in the game. It wasn’t our best performance overall, but in terms of the effort and commitment they couldn’t have given any more and we looked like the team that was eventually going to break through.
“It’s something that left the players disappointed, but they will react in the right manner. They’re good guys here, they want to work well and they’re very good at moving on. That’s something we’ll have to do if we want to progress.”
While Liverpool earned plaudits for their recent displays at the Emirates and Eastlands, the lead was surrendered on both occasions.
Indeed, victory over Swansea on Sunday would be the Anfield outfit’s first triumph over a team in the top half of the table this season, and Rodgers admits: “We know we need to not only play well and entertain, but also win. That will come as part of our growth and progression as a team and a squad.”
Midfielder Lucas Leiva adds: “Playing at home, we have to really go out to win and pick up some of the points that maybe we left behind at Arsenal and City.
“A lot of people have been talking about top four and qualifying for the Champions League recently, but we know the gap is big and if we think too much about it, maybe we will forget to do our homework.
“We need to make sure we focus on each game and see if we get some luck at the end of the season.”
With only three of Liverpool’s final 12 Premier League games coming against top-six sides – each of which are at home – there remains scope for a sprint to the finishing line.
But Steven Gerrard, whose spot-kick failure on Monday means the Anfield side have missed eight of their last 13 penalties in normal play, says: “It’s often easy to look at schedules and say we should beat this team or get a win against another team.
“It’s pointless. All that we can concern ourselves with is the next game.”
While Liverpool took a strong squad to Russia this week, January signings Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho are ineligible for the competition having appeared in Europe already this season with Chelsea and Inter Milan respectively.
Both are almost certain to feature on Sunday, meaning 20-year-old Brazilian midfielder Coutinho could be handed a first full start after a debut cameo on Monday night. Sturridge, absent with a thigh injury, was sorely missed against the Baggies having netted four goals in his opening six games.
And skipper Steven Gerrard says: “Like everyone else, I have been impressed with Daniel Sturridge since he arrived in January.
“His goals have caught the eye, particularly the strike against City. But it’s more than that. His all-round play has been excellent and he holds the ball up very well, which is something you really need especially when playing away from home.”
Monday was a landmark evening for Lucas, the Brazilian making his 200th appearance for Liverpool. Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Pepe Reina and Martin Skrtel have all notched a double-century of outings with Daniel Agger likely to follow suit in the coming weeks.
And Lucas believes such an experienced group are vital in helping mature Liverpool’s latest batch of youngsters.
“When you look at the teams that win titles, they always have a core of players who know the club and have played together for a long time so it’s important, especially with young players coming into the side,” says the midfielder.
“The experienced players can help them feel comfortable and make things easier for them.”