It was only a few months ago that Jamie Carragher and his Liverpool defence faced a barrage of criticism. As mistakes proved costly, questions arose about the performances of the former England defender. But six clean sheets in their last eight games have put Liverpool in contention for a fourth-place finish in the table and into the last 16 of the Europa League.
That early-season scepticism had baffled Ryan Nelsen. Since the Blackburn Rovers captain arrived in England five years ago, players like Carragher have impressed him most. Nelsen, whose team visit Anfield today, believes Carragher, along with Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand, is one of the most consistent performers in the top flight. "Jamie and Rio have been throwing out incredible performances season after season, game after game, for more than 10 years," said Nelsen, the New Zealand international. "Then they have three or four games with human errors and they get ridiculed. It's absolutely ridiculous. Of course you can have a bad game, but good players don't lose that quality.
"I admire guys like that who keep stepping up to the plate. I know how hard it is and I admire a lot of the guys who play for England because the pressure they are under is horrendous. You've got to be made of rhinoceros skin to play for their team." Carragher quit England in 2007, but his versatility, strong character and winning mentality are assets that might have benefited them at this summer's World Cup.
Carragher will switch from right back into the centre of the defence today following Martin Skrtel's broken metatarsal that will keep him out for up to six weeks. That will be a blow for Liverpool, but offset by the fact Fernando Torres could start. He has scored three times in the last two corresponding fixtures with Rovers. "He can score goals from anywhere. He's deceptively strong and quick and has very good technique. He can create something out of nothing and you can't give him space. For me, he is the complete striker," said Nelsen. Those words will offer little comfort to Christopher Samba and Gael Givet who will be trying to stop the Spaniard in the absence of Nelsen, who is out with a knee injury.
But successive wins against Hull and Bolton have lifted the spirits of Sam Allardyce, their manager. "We are in good form and have got a lot of confidence in the place at the moment. If we are technically and tactically right, and there is perhaps a little fatigue from Liverpool, we may come away with something," he added. Everton could do their city rivals Liverpool a favour today when they travel to Tottenham, who are in fifth spot, a point ahead of Benitez's team in the race for a coveted Champions League place.
Everton are arguably the form side in the top flight, having beaten Chelsea and Manchester United - the division's leading two teams - in their past two league matches, but David Moyes, their manager, fears they have left it too late for a challenge for fourth spot. Everton are 11 points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand. "I've said this all along - that the start we had to the season makes it too big a catch-up for us," said Moyes. "Obviously we will keep trying to get as close as we can but I think to mention coming fourth is a bit too extravagant."
In the day's other game, Sunderland host Fulham having gone 13 games without a win. Lee Cattermole, the Sunderland midfielder, said: "We were on a bit of a bad run, but once you put a couple of wins together, people start talking about Europe. It's ridiculous how quickly things can change." firstname.lastname@example.org