In my NyQuil haze, I screwed up the math. Through some combination of the time change (which happens earlier in England than in the States) and me sleeping through my usual routine of checking multiple sites to figure out the kickoff, I was an hour off. As I slumped into the pub, sucking on a cough drop, I still thought I was early enough to grab a seat and some pre-match breakfast, but I found a room full of sullen Liverpool supporters and a match well underway. Thirty-five minutes in and Liverpool were a goal down. Crap.
I sidled up to my friend Jay, who was shaking his head as he saw me approach. “Just awful,” he said. “We’ve been awful.”
I parked myself in front of one of the many TVs and tried to get my match bearings. Liverpool had possession. We were building things up toward goal. Someone passed the ball into the middle… and that’s when I saw… the ponytail! The ponytail? Voronin was starting??
You see, as I’d been sick all week, I’d spent most of my home hours in bed under a pile of blankets. I missed the Arsenal match and I’d fallen behind on most things Liverpool. While I could live with myself sleeping through the Carling Cup, I was not missing a League match for anything. The Fulham match was only on Setanta which I didn’t have at home, so I dragged myself out into the world for two hours. But I didn’t realize until I saw our starters that Liverpool were sicker than I.
Voronin, Degen and Kyrgiacos all in the starting XI. Eccelston, Ayala, Gulasci, Plessis, Ayala and Spearing all on the very youthful bench. At least Torres was starting. I knew Gerrard and Riera were still out but I had no idea that N’Gog, Aurelio, Agger, Skrtel, Johnson had been added to the list of casualties. I knew Aquilani had been given some minutes at Emirates, but now he was nowhere in sight.
Liverpool looked sluggish and uninspired as they chased the equalizer. I learned Bobby Zamora had scored in the 24th minute and it had been poor marking that had opened the door.
Where was the Liverpool who’d beaten Manchester United 2-0 the week before? Largely in the hospital, it would seem, along with that winning mentality.
But shortly before the half our faith was restored. The ball fell to Torres on the edge of the area and he smacked the volley into the back of the net. A stunning, confident goal. Just the thing to fire Liverpool up coming into the second half.
Decent pressure in the early parts second half but no real spark to compliment Torres’ goal. Then Torres came off for Ryan Babel. It was clear El Nino still hadn’t recovered completely from injury. As with the United match, he’d played against Fulham less than fit and out of necessity.
On 73 minutes, Dirk Kuyt made a bumble and gave Paul Konchesky the ball and the space to send a deadly cross into the area. Gera headed it to Nevland who put it past Reina.
Any faint hopes that our side could equalize again were quashed when Philip Degen went in on Clint Dempsey. Not a particularly dangerous challenge but the ref must have felt his studs were up. Straight red card. Three minutes later Jamie Carrager would see red as well after taking down Zamora. Carragher was the last man so he was gone. Dempsey would score again in the 87th minute, but nine-man Liverpool showed little sign of coming back from 2-1 so the third goal changed little except make our hearts sink a little bit lower into our ankles.
I know I need to look at this match the context of Liverpool’s overwhelming injury woes. But ultimately this result made for the biggest footballing disappointment I’ve known. Part of it was the performance. Part of it was the sinking feeling that came from two red cards in three minutes. Part of it was it meant we’d now lost six matches in seven outings. The biggest part was that one week after one of the most satisfying wins I’ve known (the 2-0 over United with great goals from Torres and N’Gog) came such a devastating loss against Fulham. So quickly falling from the highest peak into a ravine in a gulch in a valley.
A week ago Liverpool felt back in the title race. Six points behind Chelsea. Now the result and our painful lack of depth makes the nine point gap seem so much greater than it probably is. The United win now seems a stranded oasis in the desert of loss.
Of course many will call for Rafa’s head. Many will restart the tired arguments of how Liverpool are a two-man team. But all the best managers would struggle with that many injuries. And after beating United without Gerrard and with Torres less than fit, the two-man argument remains meaningless.
The real problems are:
-We haven’t fully replaced Xabi Alonso (a more influential player last season than Torres or Gerrard).
-Our defense hasn’t remained consistently fit long enough for any four players to develop the essential chemistry to remain impregnable.
-We don’t have suitable backup for Torres.
When Robbie Keane left I felt the pangs of this last worry. Not because I thought we should have kept Keane per ce, but because we brought in no new striker when Keane left. N’Gog is full of potential but is far from full bloom. Dirk Kuyt is one of our most important players but is really a midfielder. We’ve spent so much time converting Babel to being a winger I’m not sure he remembers how to be a striker. Voronin… well… if Voronin is a Premier League striker than I am a Premier League striker (note: I am not a Premier League striker unless there’s a video game console involved).
Chelsea have Anelka and Drogba. They can play one or the other or both together. If Rooney gets injured United still have Berbatov and Owen. Arsenal have ample strikers and everybody on their side looks ready to attack at any given moment anyway.
But if Liverpool loses Torres for any amount of time, there is no suitable cover.
I hope the men with the money see this. I hope they see it soon. While players are more expensive in the January window, this is the time for an expensive coup. Go after somebody who can play up front by himself or compliment Torres in a partnership. Buy somebody born to score. My dream would be to capture David Villa. We already know from the Internationals he can play alongside El Nino. And he can get the job done by himself too. When we still had Xabi I would have felt we’d had enough Spanish draw to lure Villa if the price was right. Now I’m not so sure. But I’ll keep hoping.
We need somebody anyway. Honestly, right now, I’d take Bellamy back golf clubs and all (I’m not sure I mean that but bear with me). I’d take Crouch without hesitation. I’d take Darren Bent. More likely we’ll import if we grab anybody. I’d love to get our paws on Kun Aguero.
Even if Aquilani comes in and lives up to expectations, Liverpool supporters will still have small heart attacks every time Torres hits the ground and clutches his leg or ankle. And defenses clearly won’t stop pummeling him. They’re too afraid of what he can do unchecked. This has nothing to do with having a two-man team. It has everything to do with having one world class striker and nobody near him in quality up front to play when he gets injured. We can play without Gerrard if we have to. I convulse at the thought of being without Torres right now. Something needs to be done.