Okay, lets get all of the puns out of the way from the off. Liverpool were deflated at Sunderland on Saturday; their title dreams have burst and been blown away for now, beached upon the sands after sailing in choppy waters all season, any proclamations of glory now seem to be just a lot of hot air.
In a campaign that has seen plenty of scapegoats blamed for the club’s various and increasing number of failings, a large red ball full of air – and, quite fittingly, decorated with various Liverpool crests – became the latest in the long list of items with which the Reds have shot themselves in the foot this season. Various credible match officials – and Jeff Winter – have since come out claiming that the goal should not have stood, that the red ball was acting as some sort of suspicious ‘outside agent’ lurking within the goalmouth before clearly diverting Darren Bent’s shot past Pepe Reina. But, quite refreshingly for one of the bigger clubs in the land, Liverpool have decided to ignore this, Rafael Benitez and Jamie Carragher – his captain on the day – choosing not to detract attention away from a poor performance against Sunderland by blaming the referee. Maybe others should take note.
Both Benitez and Carragher realise that the problems at Liverpool run far deeper than the fact that the inflatable childrens’ toys seem to have turned against them, and if ever a defeat courtesy of a freakish goal deflected in off an errant beach ball can be deemed predictable, then this was it. The ill-feeling about this fixture began during the international break, and then intensified at Benitez’ Friday afternoon press conference with the news about the injuries suffered by Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres whilst playing for their countries. Now we’re not going to delve into that tedious subject of the ‘two-man team’ again – Liverpool proved on many occasions last season that they can win, and win well, without either or both of their two headline acts, but the gap in quality between the duo and virtually everyone else in the squad seems to be getting bigger. Such is the club’s willingness to prove all of their fiercest critics right during this slow start to the campaign, a Saturday struggle at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light suddenly became startlingly foreseeable once it became clear who wouldn’t be there.
The Reds were supposed to challenge Chelsea and Manchester United this season, but one look at the weekend’s teamsheets and you could easily deduce that without skipper Gerrard and their three most expensive players -Torres, the jet-lagged Javier Mascherano and the still recovering Alberto Aquilani – Liverpool’s patched-up starting XI was weaker than those of Arsenal, Manchester City, Spurs, Aston Villa, and even their opponents Sunderland – but is that so much of a surprise? The Reds are much less financially stable than all five, and – in terms of net income and outlay – were outspent by four of them in the summer. Much was made of the decision to revert to three centre-backs at the weekend but it’s likely that Benitez was simply forced to due to lack of numbers, while the game was tough on local youngster Jay Spearing, drafted in for his Premier League debut in a struggling, depleted side. Replacements David Ngog and Andriy Voronin have their qualities – well, Ngog does – but neither gave you the confidence that they could inspire another famous fight-back when they were brought on in the second half.
The widespread belief that this year’s champions will suffer more defeats than usual does seem to be gathering pace, and while Liverpool will have to hope beyond hope that they can force themselves back into the race, for now they just have to move on. Helpfully then, they have two home games this week with which to do so, starting with Lyon in the Champions League tonight and followed by the visit of Manchester United at the weekend (and if United’s supporters don’t bring a flurry of beach balls with them to Anfield on Sunday then there must have been serious sense of humour bypasses in the Salford area).
Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, in the French city for its film festival, paid a visit to check out Lyon at the weekend, and oversaw a surprise 2-0 home defeat to Sochaux. Benitez and Liverpool can take heart from that, and after three straight defeats that have clearly demonstrated the Reds’ Bad and the Ugly sides, tonight would be the perfect night to rediscover some of the Good. It might be advisable for those on the Kop leave their blow-up holiday toys at home, though.
Liverpool Club Focus
The People of Thailand & Singapore vs. Xabi Alonso – July 29
Should nobody expect a Spanish acquisition? – August 5
High hopes – August 12
False start – August 18
Plenty of bets, but no slip – August 21
Three games, two defeats and one big problem – August 25
It gets no easier – August 27
Smells like team spirit – September 1
Babel crows for return to homeland – September 4
Into the Twilight Zone – September 8
Settling the score – September 11
Benayoun defies hs critics – September 15
Probably not the best performance in the world – September 18
Darren Potter and the Cup of Youthful Dreams – September 21
David Ngog, following the leader – September 25
Florence, and the goal machine – September 29
Sting, Prince, and playing the Blues – October 2
The Bridge of Sighs – October 6
Internationals rescued, but at what cost? – October 16
A Beached Fail – October 20