Saturday’s somewhat strangely subdued 2-2 draw with Manchester City was the Reds’ third straight tie, after also finishing on level terms with Lyon and Birmingham City. Before those games they hadn’t drawn a match in any competition all season, yet another odd statistic in a campaign where they are rapidly stacking up. It could have been much worse at the weekend, however, and it surely would have been had City showed the ambition to match their riches. If Mark Hughes and his men had shown more attacking intent then they could have easily taken all three points back down the M62 with them. For a team that has bought their way into a position where they are poised to usurp the most fragile member of the big four, they didn’t take the chance to attack the wounded animal, barely leaving their own half until Martin Skrtel’s first-ever Liverpool goal gave the Reds the lead early in the second period. City’s impressive response should leave their supporters with more questions than answers.
Yet Liverpool could have won. Shay Given was required to pull off his best Thierry Henry impression to deny a fifth minute header from Skrtel – who had an interesting day – while Dirk Kuyt could have earned a penalty when he was shoved by his former strike partner Craig Bellamy late on, and Lucas should have done better with his last gasp header – but a draw was fair. After getting a good look at one of their main challengers for a Champions League spot, Liverpool know exactly what they’re up against for the remainder of the season. We all know about City’s money – and in Emmanuel Adebayor, Joleon Lescott and Carlos Tevez they possess three players who cost more than Rafael Benitez’ entire net transfer spend in his five-and-a-half year Anfield reign, and Hughes left Tevez on the bench – but aside from their millions there is a strong team ethic there, something that should be as worrying to Benitez as the sight of the White Hart Lane scoreboard was on Sunday evening. Like it or not, these are the teams that Liverpool are competing with right now. Any title dreams have to be forgotten until Chelsea are back in sight – it is City, Tottenham and Aston Villa who they need to focus on for the time being. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal can come later. It’s an uncomfortable truth but it needs to be embraced if the club are to arrest this alarming slump.
They’re still competing with the best on the continent though, for now. Tonight could be the night Liverpool are eliminated from the Champions League in the group stages for the first time under their Spanish manager. Anything but a victory over Debrecen will automatically knock them out, while if Fiorentina beat Lyon then the Reds will be out whatever they do in Budapest. A point for Fiorentina would leave Liverpool needing to beat the Italians by three clear goals at Anfield in two weeks, while a French win means that any Reds win over Fiorentina puts them through (assuming they do the business in Budapest this evening).
From a financial point of view, elimination would be hugely costly to a club that relies much more heavily on the money generated from Champions League revenues as Manchester United – who can fit over 30 000 more bodies into Old Trafford every matchday than Liverpool can at Anfield – and Chelsea and Arsenal – who can charge London ticket prices. There may be sobering times ahead in the boardroom, but from a footballing perspective, Liverpool playing in the Europa League isn’t as unthinkable as many are making out.
The Reds were playing in the UEFA Cup as recently as 2004, losing to a Didier Drogba-inspired Marseille. The Champions League winning run of a year later was only the third time that Liverpool had qualified for the rebranded competition, and they’d gone out in the group stages in their previous campaign of 2002/03 under Gerard Houllier. The Reds were serial UEFA and Cup Winners Cup competitors before that, winning the UEFA Cup in that remarkable 5-4 final with Alaves in 2001 – Houllier’s finest hour. As the comparisons with the dark days of the end of the Frenchman’s era continue to gather around Benitez, he needs a French favour tonight if he is to avoid what would be the most unwelcome one.