Liverpool’s slump: An insipid, flat display at a freezing Fratton Park; a struggle to create any chances that were worthy of the name “big four”; an under-fire manager appearing to have lost the ability to inspire his team; several underperforming, inconsistent players; a crushing sense of inevitability about yet another defeat.
These are signs that even the manager’s most ardent followers are losing patience with a man who in their eyes used to be able to walk on the River Mersey, and a whole lot of difficult questions to be answered.
It was February 2004, and Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool had just lost 1-0 to Portsmouth in an FA Cup fifth round replay on the south coast; their second defeat at Pompey in the most dispiriting of seasons. The Reds – wearing white and black – were awful. Michael Owen missed a penalty, the likes of Bruno Cheyrou, Anthony Le Tallec and Milan Baros couldn’t inspire a performance, and the south coast strugglers thoroughly deserved their victory – courtesy of a Richard Hughes goal – and their place in the next round. It was the loss that created irreparable damage to Houllier’s reign. In the following week there were slogans daubed on the walls of the Liverpool training ground calling for the Frenchman to be sacked. Three months later he was out of a job.
What made the latest loss at Portsmouth – courtesy of stunning goals from Nadir Belhadj and Frederic Piquionne – all the more depressing was the sheer desperation of it; a new low has been reached. Jamie Carragher had as poor a game as he’s ever had in his 600 appearances for the club. Glen Johnson – Liverpool’s best player this season, and the recipient of Pompey’s Player of the Year award before the game – looked off the pace in his error-strewn performance. Daniel Agger was also edgy, and nervous. Emiliano Insua and Andrea Dossena’s legs were willing, but their output was weak. Dirk Kuyt and Lucas continued their uninspiring form. Steven Gerrard’s threat was marginalised by Pompey’s close attention to him. Fernando Torres stood alone upfront, forlorn and frustrated, and then there was Javier Mascherano.
To describe the Argentinean’s red card as reckless would be an understatement in the extreme; idiotic would be more accurate. The midfielder was asking for trouble in making that kind of tackle, especially with Lee Mason refereeing – the Bolton official was the man in black when the Reds had Philipp Degen (bafflingly) and Jamie Carragher sent off at Fulham in October – and it was obvious that he would be reaching for his top pocket as soon as the Portsmouth players began surrounding Mascherano, whose knee ligament injury sustained in the challenge would have kept him out of the four matches that he’s now suspended for anyway. With January around the corner, and a Mascherano who so clearly wanted to leave in the summer – a want-away hope that has shown in many of his performances this season – it’s questionable whether we’ll ever see him in a Reds’ shirt again. If the Reds can get close to £30m for him then they should certainly look into it.
Where next? What now? How low can Liverpool go? All are questions that have popped up with alarming frequency during this bizarre campaign, and none of them have answers. Perhaps it’s reached a point where the only answer lies with Rafael Benitez’s position. A North West club sacked a manager at the weekend after a record of just two wins from their last eleven games, Benitez and Liverpool have three in eleven.
It is easy to call for the manager’s head, but should the Reds dispense with their boss now it would be the first time in the club’s history that a boss was sacked during the season. Many will claim that these drastic times call for drastic measures, but with January around the corner and the desperate need for fresh blood to shake up a sleeping squad, Benitez will surely be given until the end of the campaign to try and sort out this mess that – whatever your feelings towards the Spaniard – his players have been just as culpable in creating.
It has been an odd Premier League season, what with the big hitters dropping points more often than Tiger Woods is dropped by his sponsors, and perhaps the most surprising aspect of the campaign is just how comprehensively the traditional elite have been turned over time and time again. If Liverpool and their manager haven’t learned from their many, many damaging losses, then they won’t be getting out of this alarming slump any time soon. Houllier didn’t learn from that bleak FA Cup afternoon at Fratton Park, and look what happened to him. Benitez, please take note.