Like hiding from the serial killer hunting down his victims in any number of Hollywood fright-fests, you’re only safe for so long. After last weekend’s brief – but welcome – interlude in the horror show that has been 2009/10, the haunted faces of Rafael Benitez, his players and the Liverpool supporters returned at Craven Cottage on Halloween – a day when harrowing, unlikely events occur. Frighteningly for everyone connected with Liverpool, a 3-1 defeat at Fulham was certainly spine-chilling, but not in the least bit unexpected – the only consolation coming from the fact that October has now ended, a month that brought five defeats in six games.
Reds supporters have got used to the fact that, this season, anything that can go wrong will go wrong – from goalscoring beach balls to international injuries – and so sinking on the banks of the Thames – home to a talented Fulham side overseen by an excellent manager – without an entire team of injured players plus a half-fit Fernando Torres wasn’t surprising. Torres, of course, doesn’t need to be firing on all cylinders to display his genius, as his expertly taken goal showed, but relying on one clearly unfit player to take on an entire team’s attacking responsibility – however gifted he may be – is at best a huge gamble at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher, and at worst it is unforgivably irresponsible management from Benitez. Injuries and suspensions are part and parcel of football, of course, and one of the skills required of a top boss is adapting and surviving various problems – as Benitez has before – but Liverpool’s depleted squad currently looks so painfully thin that if it was a supermodel it would be less than a size zero, with many supporters giving them only a slim chance of getting a result in Lyon tomorrow – a trip to France that doesn’t offer any welcome distractions from the horrors of home.
There seems to be no hiding place from the terror of this season for Liverpool, with problems multiplying by the match. Take Philipp Degen (many supporters wish you would), the injury-prone Swiss international – a Liverpool player for the last 15 months – made his first-ever Premier League start at Fulham in place of the injured Glen Johnson, with the England man’s backup – the promising youngster Martin Kelly – still out with the injury he suffered on his eye-catching debut at home to Lyon. Degen’s somewhat harsh straight red card puts him out of the next three league games, and due to Champions League restrictions on foreign players he’s not even registered for European competition. Barring a successful appeal against his ban, the finally now-fit Degen won’t be available for the next month.
Who will play at right-back in France in the absences of Johnson, Kelly and Degen is a mystery, with the most obvious solution being to move Jamie Carragher – another who’ll miss the next three league games, although this time deservedly – across to the right flank from centre-back. Seemingly the perfect answer then, until you realise that both Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger are extremely doubtful for the game, and the thought of a Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Daniel Ayala centre-half partnership coming up against Lyon’s expensively-assembled forward line will send chills down the spines of supporters, so youngster Stephen Darby may be drafted into that troublesome right-back slot, if he’s fit. Irony surrounds Alberto Aquilani too, who – fully recovered from his ankle surgery – has now picked up a virus, along with Diego Cavalieri, Skrtel and David Ngog, and with the likes of Fabio Aurelio, Albert Riera and, of course, Steven Gerrard all likely to be missing, then the buck passes to Andriy Voronin, Ryan Babel and even 18-year-old Nathan Eccleston, who has appeared from the bench in each of the last two games. Lyon’s players are hardly likely to be quaking in their boots.
These countless problems come before one of Benitez’s most important games in recent years, given the high standards that he has set in Champions League football. Defeat would put the French side out of reach at the top of the group, and with Fiorentina facing a home game with the group’s whipping boys – Debrecen, not Liverpool – then the Italians could just be one point away from qualification come full-time. The alarming rate at which things have unraveled and deteriorated in recent weeks has been clear to see on the pitch, but should the Reds fail to qualify from the group stages for the first time under Benitez then the financial implications could be catastrophic, and the future of the Spaniard at the club he loves will be under renewed speculation too. If the weekend loss at Fulham was scary, then it might be about to get a whole lot more frightening. Many will be watching from behind the sofa tomorrow night.