The prospect of Champions League football lured Glen Johnson to Anfield in 2009. His experience of it was brief and unfulfilling before Liverpool’s decline denied him a second chance. Now, five years on, the Merseysiders are on course for a belated return to the European elite. The worry for him is that he might not be.
Johnson’s future remains up in the air. Out of contract in the summer, he has seen Liverpool expend plenty of energy in the January transfer window, though they ultimately failed to recruit wingers Mohamed Salah and Yevhen Konoplyanka.
Yet they have made rather fewer attempts to keep a stalwart of their defence. Johnson, a £17 million (Dh102.3m) signing from Portsmouth, could leave for free at the end of the season. He hopes to remain at Anfield but no new deal has been offered yet.
“I would like to stay,” he said, accepting it is out of his hands. “I have not heard anything from the club.”
His time at Liverpool has coincided with a fallow period in their fortunes. After signing for a side that had just finished second and run Manchester United close in one of the more memorable title races, they have come seventh, sixth, eighth and seventh again in his first four seasons at Anfield.
Now they arrive at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday in fourth and buoyed by a 4-0 derby win over Everton. A top-four berth has long been the target – “that was the objective at the start of the season,” Johnson added – but Liverpool’s fine form means they would be left with regrets if they finished fifth. “It would be a disappointment if we don’t do it,” he added.
Liverpool can sense the rewards it offers, the realisation of the long-term goal of a return to the Champions League.
“When I signed it was one of the major factors,” said Johnson. “It’s where all players want to be.”
The other preferred destination for high-class footballers is Brazil for this summer’s World Cup. While there were suggestions Johnson’s groin and ankle problems could put his participation in doubt, the right-back, while reluctant to name a date for his comeback, is confident his absence will end much sooner.
“It won’t be for too much longer,” he said. “Things are headed in the right direction.”
They certainly are for Liverpool. Rodgers’ reign began in earnest at The Hawthorns. His first competitive game, in August 2012, was an anticlimactic 3-0 defeat.
“Any managerial change rocks the boat a bit,” Johnson rationalised. “But Brendan didn’t try to change too much too soon. Now we have started to play the way he wants us to.” It is an approach that involves a diet of goals, goals and more goals. Because Manchester City have been so prolific, Liverpool’s own scoring exploits have been overlooked.
Yet while they had 18 championship-winning sides, none had scored more league goals at this stage of a season. “We have a killer instinct now,” said Johnson.
Thrashings have become commonplace as Albion, who lost 4-1 at Anfield in October, can testify.
“When you have the killer instinct, you don’t want to settle for 2-1,” Johnson explained. “This year goal difference could be crucial.”
Liverpool’s, of plus 29, is driven by the “SAS”, the potent pairing of Daniel Sturridge, scorer of 13 league goals, and Luis Suarez, who has 23. Johnson rates them the best strike duo in the Premier League. The Uruguayan is the division’s top scorer.
“He must feel he is unstoppable,” Johnson said. “He shoots from angles that other players wouldn’t.”
It is proving a profitable policy. Yet while Liverpool are prospering by going forwards at every opportunity, one man has retreated: captain Steven Gerrard, now deployed in a deeper role.
“I think it suits him,” Johnson argued. “He can set up attacks with his passing.”
It is a bold style of football that an attacking full-back enjoys. What he doesn’t know is how much longer he will be able to savour it.
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