If the rain that lashed down on Rafael Benitez’ head in the closing stages of Liverpool’s Champions League dead rubber with Fiorentina on Wednesday wasn’t an apt enough image of the club in this most disjointed of seasons, then Alberto Gilardino’s last-minute winner certainly was.
It was the night that gave Europe the chance to bear witness to the Reds’ underachievement. The competition is so much a part of Liverpool’s history that they now have an image of it sewn onto their shirts, but the fact that they went into Wednesday’s match without any hopes of progression to the knockout stages was one of the more desperate situations in the club’s recent history, and it was all self-inflicted.
Simplifying Liverpool’s problems is a difficult task – similar to searching for several needles in a haystack. You might eventually find the solution to one, but there are many more in there and they are difficult to pinpoint. At its most basic level, the Reds’ early exit from the Champions League boils down to three defensive mistakes in stoppage time. Emiliano Insua allowed Lyon to get a cross in at Anfield, Sotirios Kyrgiakos dallied under a high ball in France and Stephen Darby turned the wrong way against Juan Vargas and Fiorentina. All are mistakes that can be rectified on the training field. If only the club’s problems were that easy to solve. Money men, the ghost of a new stadium, a stubborn manager and underperforming players complicate matters.
While Benitez has borne the brunt of the blame from those on the outside of club, he does – bafflingly to many observers – still retain the backing of the majority of regulars at Anfield, largely because the year 2009 has seen Liverpool play their most consistent football at home for many years. But now with his reign unraveling before his eyes, the manager’s next move remains to be seen, and with Arsenal on the immediate horizon at the weekend, it’s a move he’ll have to make quickly.
The Reds played some good football against Fiorentina and, as ever, there are the positives to take from the experience. Alberto Aquilani got 75 minutes, Fernando Torres 30, while there was an eye-catching cameo from the young Catalan Dani Pacheco – an attacking midfielder with more than a hint of Cesc Fabregas in his background – his appearance and his performance. Chances were missed at 1-1, with Torres in particular looking menacing, but there remains a gaping lack of confidence that makes this Liverpool team so unrecognizable to last season’s.
Back then Liverpool were chasing the title, and had mounted an impressive challenge until the Gunners came to Anfield in late April – Andrey Arshavin touched the ball four times and one of the most remarkable games in Premier League history ended 4-4. With both struggling for form this time around, a repeat would surely be impossible, but remember that this is a campaign where anything seems possible.
Arsenal’s current injury list seems to emulate Liverpool’s of six weeks ago, and with the Benitez now finally able to call upon both Torres and Steven Gerrard for the first time since the defeat to Chelsea at the beginning of October, Reds fans could easily be confident – or at least be what passes for confident these days. Arsenal should be ripe for the taking after recent defeats to Sunderland and Chelsea dented what can be a very fragile morale, but quite what is going through the heads of Liverpool’s players at the moment only they know.
Although, it is the job of the manager to instill confidence, and while Benitez has maintained a surprisingly sunny demeanor most of the time during this wretched run of form, body language experts could have a field day analysing him. As the storm clouds continue to gather, he’d do well to remember that he hasn’t lost to Arsenal at Anfield in the league before, that he is still only three points off fourth and that he should focus on his opponents’ deficiencies rather than his own. After a dismal Wednesday night, that will be difficult.
What followed in the closing stages of that game was as predictable as the north-west weather, and while Gilardino’s goal didn’t confirm anything that supporters weren’t aware of before, it once again widened the cracks in a crumbling football club. Victory over Arsenal at the weekend would only paper over those cracks, but would be sweet relief for all concerned. The golden sky has never seemed so far away.