Three football clubs of varying size and stature, three clubs who have faced Liverpool in the past, three clubs who they’ll play in the present, and three clubs who look likely to define Brendan Rodgers’ immediate future.
Under-fire from fans, ex-players and spurious newspaper reports linking other people with his job, the Reds manager goes into a critical eight-day period during which he won’t see his team play away from Anfield, but he will see them play three clubs who make up footnotes in the club’s often-discussed history.
The Cumbrian side’s supporters will arrive at Anfield for tonight’s League Cup third round clash to the sight of a man who used to both play for and manage them.
The Bill Shankly statue and gates still reside outside the Kop as a permanent reminder of just what is expected of a Liverpool manager – to be a fighter, someone who the fans can believe in and who works tirelessly for those who pay their hard-earned money to watch the team.
As a figurehead of the club’s past there is no-one greater, and as just the ninth man to sit in the home dugout as the Liverpool manager since Shankly’s retirement in 1974, Rodgers will be well aware of just what he needs to do to get people at Anfield – and, these days more importantly, the world watching and waiting at the end of a blank Twitter screen – back onside.
Immediate satisfaction won’t arrive with a win over a club currently 10th in League Two – the first ports of call in both Shankly’s playing and managerial careers – but it will set Rodgers up for a meeting with an outfit who have come to represent a bogey team for him and Liverpool at the weekend.
Because the last Liverpool team to beat Aston Villa in the Premier League at Anfield was managed by a one-month-from-the-sack Roy Hodgson and featured Paul Konchesky, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and goalscorer David Ngog. Villa are unbeaten in four games there since, winning two of the three in which they faced Rodgers’ teams.
Throw in the incredibly damaging FA Cup semi-final defeat for the Reds at Wembley in April – a result which saw a large swathe of support for Rodgers disappear – and you might just have the last opponents that the manager would want to face right now. His ghosts of career present will not come bearing gifts.
Lose there and he might not even be around for next Thursday’s Europa League clash at home to the Swiss side FC Sion, who’ll arrive at Anfield 19 years to the month of their last visit in the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup.
At 2-1 up from the first leg, the Reds – then managed by Roy Evans – contrived to go 2-0 down before bouncing back to win 6-3 on the night, an almost perfect example of the nature of Evans’ attacking team which could simultaneously delight upfront and deflate at the back. Sound familiar?
If Rodgers’ future at Liverpool is one that is running a little short on time, then he might find his Reds career compared to that of Evans, who created a stylish, watchable team which ultimately fell short when the pressure was on.
How he ends up being judged by history could well depend on these next eight days.
What the Liverpool hierarchy need to do is evaluate whether they truly believe that their club can improve and achieve success under their current manager, or whether that 2013/14 title attempt was his one shot, his missed opportunity. Virtually everything since it happened suggests that it was.
All of the answers might not be found in the next three fixtures, but as the ghosts gather and the mist descends on the Liverpool manager, he desperately needs to win them.