It is always one of the greatest sporting occasions. Thousands of people descend on Merseyside every year to watch the Grand National, won this year for the first time by the great Tony McCoy on Don’t Push It. It was McCoy’s first National win in fifteen attempts at Aintree. A day later – and just down the road at Anfield – Liverpool looked as though they had ‘achieved’ something that they had successfully avoided for six years under Rafael Benitez. Champions League qualification looks beyond them now, and they have only themselves to blame.
Sunday’s match with Fulham was atrocious. We have all heard about how European hangovers can affect teams, but when both experience them at once then it makes for a pretty poor spectacle. Fulham’s hangover was the kind when you can scarcely summon the energy to leave your bed. They just sat there, seemingly incapable of leaving their own half, but just doing enough to survive. The isolated Bobby Zamora barely got a kick. Liverpool’s hangover was the worst kind however – one which you pretend is not there but causes you to go through your daily routines at a much slower and much less productive pace. They were listless, lethargic and lacking in the ingenuity to break down a stubborn Fulham side, who were perfectly within their rights to approach the game the way they did – even though Roy Hodgson later expressed his regret at the way his side played. If this is to be the Europa League final, then for the sake of all involved let’s hope it is a lot more entertaining.
The Reds needed to rely on their players who were not heavily involved in the energy-sapping win over Benfica to produce in front of goal, but none of Alberto Aquilani, Ryan Babel, Maxi Rodriguez, David Ngog and latterly Dani Pacheco were able to summon up a match-winning strike. The Italian Aquilani in particular is an enigma. At times he looks ideally suited for the Premier League – one late burst in to the box on Sunday gave the impression of a young Paul Scholes in the making – but he often appears to want too much time on the ball, can go missing at times and frequently seems unwilling to put his foot in – one of the lesser discussed qualities of Xabi Alonso, but one of the most missed by this Liverpool side since his departure for Real Madrid. Aquilani was heavily involved in the intricate passing moves that often got the Reds to the edge of Fulham penalty area – as was Rodriguez – but the final ball was always lacking, while too many players turned down opportunities to test Mark Schwarzer in the visitors’ goal. The absence of Fernando Torres became more keenly felt with each passing goalless minute, as Liverpool failed to score at home for the first time in 37 games.
Benitez stated in his programme notes that he believed his team would need to win all of their remaining five matches in order to finish in the top four positions, and so after falling at the first fence it must be safe to assume that their hopes are over and that Manchester City will win a one-horse race. In truth, Liverpool have not really deserved it after the most disjointed of seasons, and while solace can still be found with victory in the Europa League – knock the competition all you want, but do not underestimate the affect a Liverpool team holding aloft a European trophy could have on the club’s perspective across the continent – it certainly was not what the players, their manager and their supporters had in mind in August.
Because of Benitez’ portrayal in media – where he is largely believed to be arrogant and aloof – much has been made of the ‘guarantee’ he gave about a top four finish back in December, while barely any mention has been made of his interview last week in which he admitted to making many mistakes throughout this and other seasons. It does not fit in with many people’s agendas, and so it is not brought up, and while this summer is likely to see many changes at the club – we will discuss the latest boardroom goings on and what they mean next time – it would still be a huge surprise if the manager was to walk away or be sacked.
It would be a huge surprise if Liverpool were to qualify for the Champions League too, and while it remains a race to be run, the gap between the Reds and City certainly looks to be a few furlongs too wide as they enter the home straight. McCoy could teach them a few things about persistence though, and the challenge now is to bounce back fitter, stronger and better – to get back in the saddle, if you like.