The game was barely 15 minutes old before the sickening sound of Jamie Carragher’s head crunching into Martin Skrtel’s jaw echoed around a hot and sunny White Hart Lane. As a metaphor for what was to follow, the duo’s slapstick stunt could not have been more apt.
Liverpool’s central defensive partners both went into the clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday carrying injuries, and that both should suffer further – this time self-inflicted – wounds was symptomatic of a day when the Reds shot themselves in the foot on more than one occasion. Liverpool were well below par – getting exactly what they deserved and exposing flaws that many fans hoped had been eradicated last season. Sure, they probably should have had a second penalty when Andriy Voronin was felled by Benoit Assou-Ekotto late on, but anyone who has been to a game ‘refereed’ by Phil Dowd cannot expect him to get more than one major call right in 90 minutes. Incorrect decision or not, a furious Rafa Benitez should have known better than to be overly critical of the referee after the full-time whistle – such is the strength of the media reaction he always provokes when discussing officials. For Benitez and Liverpool, the worst thing about this defeat was its sense of inevitability – the fact that it has proved so many of their critics right. Yes, their zonal marking did not look too hot for the winning goal. Yes, they do look woefully short of options upfront. Yes, Xabi Alonso’s influence was missed in the centre – even though the Spaniard’s elevation – by Liverpool’s detractors – from merely a very gifted player to one of the greatest midfielders of all time has been hilariously exaggerated since his transfer.
Even the identity of the winning goalscorer seemed predictable. Sebastien Bassong had started the week thinking he wouldn’t be available for the game due to a suspension lingering from his time at Newcastle, but the FA allowed him to play anyway. Presumably this is a law that has changed from 2005, when Liverpool were not allowed to field Peter Crouch for two matches due to a red card he received whilst playing for Southampton. Crouch was on show again here – this time in the white of Spurs as he begins another new chapter of his career at yet another new club – and his presence served as a reminder to Benitez of just what he used to have – quality in reserve. The quality (or lack thereof) of Liverpool’s substitutes on Sunday – the talented Yossi Benayoun apart – underlines the need for swift investment in the playing staff. With Spurs holding on to a one goal lead late on, Harry Redknapp is unlikely to have been daunted by the options on Benitez’ bench, which housed Voronin, Andrea Dossena, Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly and Danny Ayala – the 18-year-old got 15 minutes in place of a clearly dazed Skrtel.
With Alberto Aquilani still at least a month away from fitness, Ryan Babel still kindly referred to as ‘enigmatic’ and Voronin proving to be the answer to a question that no-one asked, it seems imperative that Benitez has to be given the funds to bring in one, possibly two, attacking players before the transfer window shuts. The identities of those players remains a mystery, as it is difficult to find signings who are both good enough to play for Liverpool and who will fit a tight Benitez budget.
Questions will have been asked of the players after this defeat, but the over-the-top reactions and doom-saying – not uncommon following a Liverpool loss – can be largely ignored. The Reds lost this fixture last season and still had their best league campaign for some time, so to write them off as title contenders now would be folly, just as it would be to say the likes of Aston Villa and Everton will struggle because they too lost their opening matches. Liverpool did not do themselves any favours at the weekend, and no-one else did them any either. Chelsea and Manchester United won, just. Arsenal were imperious at Goodison Park. Let us throw Manchester City and Spurs’ hats into the ring as well. Whichever way you look at it, Liverpool are – to borrow some irritating business jargon for a moment – ‘behind the eight ball’ already. But the Reds are often at their most dangerous when they are the wounded animals – something that Stoke City might find out at Anfield tomorrow night.
Liverpool have to treat their White Hart pain as simply an aberration, a blot on the landscape, a false start before a Usain Bolt-esque sprint to the finish line. If they do not recover and learn from the defeat, the mental scars could prove to be much more important than the physical ones on the faces of Carragher and Skrtel last Sunday.