What, Manchester City vs. Liverpool isn’t on television? A potentially season-defining match that could decide the race for fourth place that Sky Sports are so fond of endlessly discussing is not being shown? They would rather screen an easily winnable Aston Villa home match and the Greater Manchester mud-wrestling championships live from the DW Stadium in Wigan? Ninety minutes of ‘action’ at Eastlands later, and you can see that the TV companies made the right decision.
It’s not that City and Liverpool were especially negative in their meeting at the weekend – we are used to seeing both sides in their tried and trusted formations – but rather that neither side was good enough to break the other down. They were dull. These are the kind of matches that can be won on set-pieces or on brief moments of genius, but neither seemed to possess players with the ability to produce them on the day, bar Steven Gerrard’s excellent corner that Martin Skrtel should have buried with a free header. It was a game that was starkly similar to the Anfield meeting between the two sides in November – except back then four goals were shared – and while that goes to show that Roberto Mancini’s City are barely any different to Mark Hughes’ City, it also shows that Liverpool still haven’t put right their failings from earlier in the season, and they are fast running out of time in which to right those wrongs. A gaping lack of creativity has been Liverpool’s main problem ever since they suddenly toughened up and became difficult to beat in mid-January. The solidity has always been there in those recent weeks – typified by the excellent Skrtel at the weekend – but that hasn’t been allied to the best football, and it is no surprise that the Reds have struggled to score goals, only hitting the net once in their last three games. Hope emerged from the horizon, however, as two of the answers to those problems emerged from the bench at Eastlands.
The welcome sights of Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun back in their Liverpool shirts at the weekend could scarcely have come at a better time for the Reds. The good form of the encouraging David Ngog – unavailable on Sunday due to an ankle injury picked up in training on Friday – could lead to the argument that Benayoun has been more sorely missed than Torres. The Israeli – whose honesty prevented him from going down under a Vincent Kompany challenge in the penalty area in stoppage time – has a creativity and goal-scoring ability that add more to this Liverpool team than often meets the eye. And with the Reds’ next three league fixtures – against Blackburn (home), Wigan (away) and Portsmouth (home) – all likely to see them on the front foot and attacking their opponents, his involvement and ability to unlock a defence could be crucial.
If it is Benayoun to create the chances, there is no-one that Liverpool fans want to see on the end of them more than Torres. The Spaniard’s involvement at Eastlands surprised many, but Rafael Benitez wouldn’t have risked his main man had he not been 100% certain that he was over his latest fitness problems. Everyone knows just what the presence of the brilliant forward brings to this Liverpool team, and the Reds with a fit-and-firing Torres in the starting line-up are a match for anyone on their day. With next season’s Champions League qualification seemingly hanging by a thread, he and they are going to have to produce more of ‘their days’ as winter turns to spring.
On Thursday, focus switches back to the competition that Liverpool are desperate to win this season (but not defend next), and a trip to Bucharest to face Unirea Urziceni in the second leg of their Europa League tie. At 1-0 down from the first leg, the Romanians will actually be forced to attack this time out, a tactic that should play into Benitez and Liverpool’s hands, and the prospect of Torres enjoying the wide-open spaces of the Unirea half suggests a night when the Reds could well reap rewards on the counter-attack. However they play it, Liverpool have to improve on their play in the final third if results are to improve in the coming matches, but with two of their forward-thinking stars having returned to the ranks, optimism has to rule ahead of the closing stages of the season. After all, it can’t be that dull again. Can it?
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