Club Focus – Liverpool – Liverpool travel to Birmingham looking to improve on last year’s result

Pictures can tell a thousand words and if one image could have illustrated the story of Liverpool’s 2009/10 campaign, then it came at St. Andrew’s in Birmingham. The Reds’ 1-1 draw there in April wasn’t a bad result on the face of it – Blues drew at home to six of the top seven teams last season – but with Liverpool in dire need of points as they chased a top four finish, victory here was imperative if Rafael Benitez’s team wanted to keep pace with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. In this context Rafa Benitez’s 64th minute decision to replace Fernando Torres with David Ngog was his most puzzling of the season.

The scores were level at 1-1 at the time, and while, looking back, there was some sense in Benitez’s substitution – the unfit Torres would need a knee operation a week later, while Ngog came within inches of scoring on a couple of occasions after he came on – the damage had been done by the unwitting reaction of the Liverpool captain. When Steven Gerrard saw the No. 9 held up on the fourth official’s board, the look of bewilderment on his face spoke volumes. One quizzical look at Torres was followed by a glare back at his manager, and then a shake of the head. The trust in the boss had gone. Benitez – with all of the uncertainty and questions surrounding his position after the most disjointed of seasons – had effectively made a rod for his own back. If Liverpool didn’t score in the next half an hour or so – which, whatever your opinion on Torres’ fitness, they would surely have been more likely to do with their star striker on the pitch – then the boss would be left open to more ridicule and yet more criticism of his management style. They didn’t, and he was. Although the beginning of the end for Rafa Benitez came long before that particular decision, it did mark the end of many a supporter’s patience with their Spanish boss. He’s gone now though, and it is a new Liverpool who will roll into the second city on Sunday.

Not as new a Liverpool as many would have hoped though, as supporters are still left frustrated by the failure to add another recognised striker to the squad – something Liverpool have needed ever since Robbie Keane left the club midway through the 2008/09 season – before the closure of the transfer window. The giant German Mario Gomez was the top target, and the Reds were confident that a loan deal could be done until Bayern Munich moved the goalposts, while West Ham weren’t keen to allow Roy Hodgson’s second choice Carlton Cole to leave without snapping up a replacement first. These things tend to come in threes, and so after the failure to land both Gomez and Cole, the damaging news that Dirk Kuyt will now be out for a month with a shoulder injury could have been expected by many a pessimistic supporter. However his absence throws yet another lifeline to one of his compatriots, a man whose Liverpool career appears to have at least nine lives.

Had things been different, then Ryan Babel could have been lining up for Birmingham on Sunday. Blues boss Alex McLeish made at least one firm offer for the Dutchman last January. Like many sportsmen, the forward has been in trouble for comments on his Twitter page, a small section of the internet that now appears to have passed into legend. Anyone who ‘follows’ Babel’s adventures will know of the many scrapes he gets himself into, but what is also apparent is a genuine affection for Liverpool – an affection that hasn’t always been most apparent on the pitch. He wants to succeed, that is clear, and he surely now has to seize his chance to impress. It isn’t easy for him given his frequent appearances from the bench – impressing in a 10 minute cameo is tough – but the talent is there. Now, with those lives running out, he simply has to show it.

With Kuyt’s injury, he may get a chance from the start at the weekend, and line up alongside probable debutants Paul Konchesky and Raul Meireles, two experienced, worthy additions to Hodgson’s squad. The pair will add an energy and dynamism to the group ahead of what looks like a crucial period in the season. Birmingham away is tough, just ask Benitez. The hope has to be that his predecessor’s weekend decisions at St. Andrew’s are looked back upon in a more favourable light than the Spaniard’s were.

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