Club Focus – Liverpool – Insults, injuries and injury time

It was always going to happen wasn’t it? You didn’t think that Liverpool FC would mark the turning of the year without a suitable dose of drama did you? Eastenders, Corrie and Hollyoaks all do it, so why not the Reds? After all, 2009 has seen the club become a far more interesting soap opera than any of those, and 2010 should have some more surprise storylines in store.

Fernando Torres probably hadn’t enjoyed his Christmas night out in Birmingham too much. For 93 minutes he’d huffed, puffed and battled against the arctic conditions with scant reward; until his moment came. Other imports to this country would have taken one look at the winter wonderland on show at Villa Park, shrank in their shivering boots, done a vanishing act and ended the night wrapped up in several blankets on the substitutes’ bench, but not Torres. No hiding, no shirking of challenges, not even a pair of gloves; the steely Spaniard was ready for battle, and Reds supporters wouldn’t have wanted anyone else on the end of the club’s last opportunity of 2009. Torres took it, and the confidence that his goal could bring heading into 2010 could be immeasurable.

Do you remember September? The dancing stopped when Patrick Swayze died, the G-20 were thrashing out the global economic crisis in Pittsburgh, and Liverpool were winning back-to-back Premier League games for what would prove to be the last time for three months. West Ham were beaten 3-2 at Upton Park, and then Hull City were trounced 6-1 at Anfield, and while back then this column hinted that the victories could provide a welcome stabilising effect in the months to come (the crystal ball wasn’t working that week), there is little doubt that wins in the festive fixtures with Wolves at Anfield – a timid, turgid, but deserved victory – and at Aston Villa simply have to signify an upturn in fortunes, for there are few other options now.

There should be a siege mentality around Anfield. Liverpool have taken so many brickbats, insults, mocking laughter and finger pointing over this season that they could do a lot worse than use it to their advantage. The great Reds’ sides of the past used to close ranks whenever criticised, and then ram their accusers’ words down their throats on the pitch. It’s a trait that Sir Alex Ferguson developed with his successful Manchester United teams too, and can be just as useful in bad times as well as good. To salvage something out of this bizarre campaign Liverpool have to find their spine – both in the metaphorical sense and the physical one. That toughness and mental strength that used to be the hallmark of Rafael Benitez’ team has been conspicuous by its absence this season, but will return if the backbone of the side – Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres – can inspire the performances of those around them, as they did last season when the likes of Yossi Benayoun, Dirk Kuyt and Lucas stepped up their form. The desire that Gerrard showed in scoring against Wolves – a simple refusal to be beaten to the ball by any of the visiting defenders around him – needs to be replicated if any sort of prolonged Red revival is possible.

If there is to be a resurgence, then it will have to be conducted without Glen Johnson. The right-back – whose brilliant early season form has steadily declined due to a series of niggling injuries – will be out for at least a month after sustaining a knee ligament problem in a challenge on Gabriel Agbonlahor late on at Villa Park. The loss is of course a blow, but the Reds are well stocked in the position, with Carragher able to play there and Philipp Degen, Martin Kelly and Stephen Darby all featuring there this season. Youngster Kelly – who impressed everyone on his first senior start at home to Lyon in early November, but who is still out injured with the groin problem picked up in the same game – would be the choice of many for the role, but the most likely solution – especially with Degen available to anyone who wants him – will probably see Carragher temporarily move across to the right flank.

Reading await in the FA Cup on Saturday, a club against whom the Reds have had entertaining and high-scoring cup clashes with during the Royals’ time in the Premier League. If 2010 is to signify a fresh start in the Liverpool soap opera, then victory and progression in a competition that represents a real chance for silverware is imperative. Which way will the plot twist next? Stay tuned to find out.

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