One is a modern great of the game, a world class forward who is a household name across the globe. The other is a talented, but raw striker who only turned 21 the other day and – until this season at least – was barely even a household name in his own household, yet Fernando Torres and David Ngog’s worlds have often collided, and with mixed results.
The latest episode came at Birmingham City’s St. Andrew’s on Sunday afternoon, when, with a must-win game level at 1-1 after 65 minutes of action – or inaction in the case of the first half – Rafael Benitez decided to replace the ‘exhausted’ Torres with the fresh Ngog, who went close to finding the net three times in the 25 minutes he was on the pitch. Now of course the temptation is to believe that Torres, who had been largely anonymous throughout the afternoon, would have taken those chances that Ngog did not, and the substitution becomes yet another stick with which to beat the manager. We have seen it before this season, where a similar decision by Benitez was viewed as one of the reasons behind a disappointing draw in Lyon – despite it being largely irrelevant – but in October, Torres was replaced by Ngog at home to Manchester United, and the young Frenchman went on to score the goal that clinched victory for the Reds. This time it was different – this time there was no match-winning goal from Ngog, nor from Maxi Rodriguez or Ryan Babel either, who both went close. This time there are questions to answer, but they are on more important things than a mere substitution.
Questions such as why it took the Reds until Liam Ridgewell’s 56th minute equaliser to finally look like a well-functioning attacking unit, questions about why Liverpool rarely looked like threatening Joe Hart’s goal throughout an insipid first-half, and further questions surrounding their claims for a top four finish. While almost all the Liverpool fans watching on were replicating Steven Gerrard’s look of disbelief at his manager’s decision to withdraw his star striker, there is no doubt that Benitez would have been completely sure of his mind. He knew what he was doing, and while the Reds did go on to create far more chances without Torres on the pitch that they did with him on it, the fact that none of them were taken leaves the boss open to criticism. He would have known that when he made the decision. He would have known all of the weekend results of the other contenders for that fourth placed finish. Birmingham have now drawn at home to every one of the top six teams this season, earlier in the campaign a 1-1 draw there would have been considered a decent result, but not so now. Five wins from their final five games are now imperative if Champions League football is to be played on Merseyside next season.
Europa League football will be played there on Thursday, with Benfica visiting for the second leg of a quarter final tie that packed more action into the first encounter in Lisbon than in the majority of Liverpool’s European campaign this season. There were explosions, red cards and a manic referee over there, and the 2-1 defeat has placed the Reds’ European ambitions in serious doubt, and they’ve got difficulties too. Ryan Babel was sent off last Thursday, Emiliano Insua picked up a booking that will see him missing too, Maxi Rodriguez, Fabio Aurelio, Martin Skrtel and Martin Kelly will be out, while Albert Riera might not even be a Liverpool player by kick-off time. Those absences mean the left side of the Liverpool team will be the most intriguing, with no obvious left-back available. Glen Johnson played there in pre-season and could be ushered into the role, with Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher amongst the other possibilities. Many of the youthful contenders for the position are either injured or out on loan, while Yossi Benayoun looks to be the only player available who could start on the left wing.
A few problems then, but one of them won’t be the atmosphere at Anfield. After initially being told by the media that they were not going to respect the Europa League, Liverpool’s fans have turned up in their numbers to watch their team in European action. The players are up for it too, with the competition representing the last chance to attain some sort of glory from a messy campaign. If the 2-1 deficit is to be overturned, both crowd and players will have to be on form. The manager will too, with all eyes likely to be on who he brings on from the bench as much as the players on the pitch. There is no substitute for a big European night at Anfield.