Just when you thought that the Liverpool ship couldn’t sink any lower, along came Brian McDermott, Shane Long and an excellent Reading side who were thoroughly deserving of their FA Cup third round replay victory at Anfield on Wednesday night. Sadly for Reading however, they are not the main point of discussion – Liverpool and their steep, cheerless decline are.
If you’ve been a regular reader of this column throughout the season then a) I hope that the treatment for depression is going well (no you can’t send us the bill) and b) you’ll know that this writer doesn’t like to succumb to hype and hyperbole without a fight. But watching this current Liverpool side makes that an increasingly difficult task with each passing match. On Wednesday night the Reds frequently squandered possession, were very wasteful in wide areas and highly reluctant to test goalkeeper Adam Federici who is apparently a Reds transfer target. Liverpool were also lacking leadership and were indecisive and insipid when attacking. In an Anfield performance as poor as any that the club has served up in living memory, Reading could have had the tie won in normal time, only for their finishing to let them down. While the last-minute penalty was unfortunate – there was no doubting Yossi Benayoun’s contact with Long, although it appeared to be a deliberate attempt to play the ball – it was no more than the Royals deserved. Thursday morning’s headlines didn’t make for pleasant reading for Reds supporters and there were more thundering blows to be delivered after the storm.
There is a shattering symmetry about Liverpool’s latest set of injury problems. Steven Gerrard is out for two weeks, Benayoun for four and Fernando Torres for six. It is a sequence of even numbers that – added to the further problems for Glen Johnson, Javier Mascherano and Albert Riera – paint another unhappy picture at a time when the Reds seemed to have recovered from the worst of their medical problems. The club are now woefully short of genuinely quality ahead of two vital matches during the next week. Saturday’s trip to Stoke City will be closely followed by Wednesday’s rearranged Anfield clash with Tottenham Hotspur. If Liverpool were to win these encounters then they could quickly emerge from this latest hole with dignity and provide evidence that their season remains intact, if only by a thread. If they lose both, they’ll be descending into greater farce, while Spurs could be ten points ahead.
The worst aspect of this nightmare season has been Liverpool’s continuing inability to prove their critics wrong. When Torres and Gerrard left the field on Wednesday night all hopes of FA Cup progression went with them – just like all of the club’s fiercest critics would have muttered. The rest of the squad now has to step up. Jamie Carragher and Dirk Kuyt are natural leaders, but few appear willing to follow them at the moment. If they want to remain at a club of this stature then they need to prove they are good enough to grace the Anfield turf.
There have once again been questions about the manager’s position and these are unlikely to go away any time soon. Liverpool won’t sack Rafael Benitez this season as they can’t afford to and a fresh manager is unlikely to make much of a difference to the current campaign, but the current malaise at the club cannot continue for much longer. In a week that started with upheaval behind the scenes – Tom Hicks Jnr and his interesting use of the English language would have been the biggest story of the last seven days at most clubs – Liverpool’s American ownership has once again come under the microscope.
The long-term future is difficult to picture as the present remains so disconcerting, but it seems plausible to envisage that by the beginning of next season Liverpool could be without two of Tom Hicks, George Gillett or Benitez. Perhaps the manager would have held on and both Americans would have jumped ship, or maybe Benitez will have gone and one of the two owners will have sold up to a moneyed man of the Middle East. Liverpool fans will not yet be looking ahead to next season – they will be praying that their team will manage to turn their current season around. For a side with ambitious and illustrious individuals such as Gerrard and Torres, a spot outside of Champions League qualification could be destructive.