Albert Riera’s shoes would have been interesting ones to fill yesterday morning. With his coaching staff and team-mates all no doubt mentally and physically shattered from the previous day’s exertions at Old Trafford, the fresh Riera would have breezed through the gates of Melwood after a few days off.
Rafael Benitez wouldn’t have been in the best of moods, and it is likely that he let his compatriot know. Whatever the Spanish for ‘hairdryer treatment’ is, the winger would have been on the receiving end of it. Riera’s outburst last week – in which he labelled the club a ‘sinking ship’ – was the final straw for a player who has been treading water at Liverpool throughout the campaign. A promising first season hasn’t been built on, and poor form, a bizarre training ground bust-up in which he struck a youth team player and last week’s comments have sealed his fate. He won’t play for Liverpool again. Perhaps the ship will be far steadier without him. If it is to be, then it hasn’t set off on the most even of keels. Sunday’s defeat at Manchester United wasn’t as desperate or as disconsolate as some of the others that Liverpool have suffered this season – the Reds did at least function as a football team for the majority of the match – but the opposition, the manner of the loss and the self-inflicted wounds that led to it will have hurt the players, their manager and their supporters in the immediate aftermath. They will still be hurting now. Hurting because, quite frankly, Liverpool let United off the hook on Sunday. As hard as it might be for supporters to accept, United are a cut above Liverpool at present on several fronts. They will finish above them for the eighteenth time in the last nineteen seasons come the end of the current campaign, and a title success would finally put them above the Reds on 19 league titles.
After Five minutes on Sunday, Old Trafford was rocked. A clinical counter attack, a precise Dirk Kuyt cross and an emphatic Fernando Torres header stunned Old Trafford into even more silence than usual. Suddenly United’s three consecutive defeats to Liverpool came into sharp focus. Suddenly those men from Merseyside were primed to storm Sir Alex Ferguson’s castle once again. Suddenly Jamie Carragher was shackling Wayne Rooney better than any defender worldwide has managed for the last six months. Then they shot themselves in the foot. Mistakes allowed Antonio Valencia to burst towards the penalty area, and he was pulled back by Javier Mascherano. While the initial offence did happen outside of the box, Howard Webb – never far from controversy in Liverpool matches this season – was always going to either award a penalty or send the Argentinian off. He had given five penalties to United in his last eight games at Old Trafford so he went for the former, the only surprise was that he didn’t do both.
There was no surprise in what happened next. Pepe Reina’s penalty saving prowess has dug the Reds out of several holes before, and perhaps a stop from Rooney’s spot kick would prove to be the catalyst for a stirring, backs to the wall victory. Perhaps it would restore flagging confidence to the levels reached on this ground twelve months ago.
Perhaps it would prove to be the turning point that led to Liverpool’s ultimate goal of a place in the top four of the table come season’s end. Or perhaps Reina’s save would drop straight to the feet of Rooney and he would be left with the simple task of putting it in the net. This is 2009/10, and so it was pretty obvious that it would be the latter. After that, if one team did deserve to win then it was United, although a draw would have been a fairer outcome. That Liverpool did not get one was down to their decision to leave the Korean Park Ji-Sung in enough space to park several Hyundais, Kias and Daewoos, and Torres’ fluffing of a late chance. A defeat then, and to opposition that ensures that it won’t be forgotten about for some time, but the task now – as ever – is to recover from it. Sunderland at home is their next chance to do just that, and to try and prove Riera wrong. The lifeboats aren’t needed just yet. For now.
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