Liverpool aren’t scaring anybody these days. Danny Murphy pointed this out during the Liverpool/Birmingham City half-time show. Unfortunately, he’s too right.
Against Birmingham, Liverpool spent more time with the ball than an NBA forward playing one-on-one with a ten-year-old kid. The Reds completed something like five times as many passes, and they kept the ball in Birmingham’s end so much the Birmingham players nearly changed into swim suits and took out their cameras whenever they made an attack because it must have felt like they were on holiday the rare times they approached the Liverpool goal.
But still, Birmingham were not afraid.
They were facing a Liverpool that had only one win in the last eight outings. (The commentators informed me if we lost again it would be our worst start to a season in 45 years. Who needs coffee? If that doesn’t wake you up on match day, there’s not enough caffeine on the planet.) On top of that, Birmingham entered the match with the second to least amount of goals conceded in the League. So they were content to let Liverpool keep crashing into the wall and capitalize on two of the few opportunities they were given. They haven’t lost to Liverpool in their last six encounters and they are exactly the kind of side to give Liverpool problems no matter how the Reds are playing.
But when N’Gog scored the opener, I thought for sure we had this.
It was one of those rare times when I decided to watch from home. I made myself a cup of coffee in my Liverpool mug (before I heard the 45-year thing), put a penny in the Liverpool piggy bank and wrapped myself in my Liverpool fleece. Short of going out and buying a six pack of Carlsberg and dying a glass of beer red, I had all my superstitious bases covered. (I need to stop mixing my sport metaphors, don’t I?)
When N’Gog scored I launched myself in the air, banged my shin on the coffee table and jumped around the hardwood floor like I’d just won the lottery. My neighbors downstairs must have wondered what the hell was going on. Three in the afternoon on a Monday and the ceiling is shaking. Nothing to worry about here, girls.
This goal lifted me doubly. First of all because we were ahead and we were dominating Birmingham. Secondly, because N’Gog’s goal was brilliant. It started with a fantastic run from Glen Johnson (one of Liverpool’s recent returnees from injury who actually looks like he’s back to fitness) who put the ball in for Dirk Kuyt. Kuyt’s shot was deflected but Yossi Benayoun got to it and hurled it back into the area. He found N’gog who hit the first-time volley into the roof of the net.
To me this goal coupled with his collected effort against Manchester United are signs of a player coming to maturity. Young N’Gog is bursting with confidence and ready to go at it with the big boys. This is of great reassurance with Torres still struggling with injury.
But my glee didn’t live for long. From a free kick (of course) Birmingham created a chance for Christian Benitez to head the equalizer past Reina. Glen Johnson had kept him onside and “Chucho” ate up the free header.
It’s alright, I said. We’re still dominating. We’re still playing the way we should be. Good pressure. Dominant possession. Something’s going to go in!
But fate shook its head. As half-time neared, Albert Riera (fresh back from the physio’s) was on the ground clutching his hamstring. He couldn’t continue. As I heard the roar of the crowd I thought they were only applauding Riera’s efforts. But the camera cut to Steven Gerrard taking off his warm-up kit. Stevie G. The captain was about to come on. If he was close to fit he could turn the match upside down. Was he fit though?
When the minutes were announced, I thought it was just enough time for Liverpool to make a statement. Retake the lead before the break. Let them know who’s in charge of this match.
But instead it proved to be enough time for Birmingham to break our hearts. On 47 minutes Cameron Jerome took the ball down on his chest, warded off Mascherano with his left arm, set himself up and fired the ball from about 18,000 miles away from goal. And it went in. It was one of those goals that is glorious to behold even as it tears your heart out of your chest and throws it in the waste paper basket.
This was tough to take, but I still felt we could win. Liverpool were playing the way they were supposed to. Driving forward. Using the wings. Charging into the area. The finishing wasn’t there except for that one brilliant N’Gog moment, but I felt sure we’d figure it out. Birmingham don’t score very often and it was unfortunate they’d converted two in the first half, but we could contain them and turn it around. Plenty of time.
Now, I complain about diving a lot. I’ve fumed over Ronaldo’s flops. I’ve accused Drogba of cheating us out of the Champions League. I’ve called for retroactive punishment against Eduardo. So when David N’Gog tumbled over Lee Carsley’s leg and the replay showed there had been no contact at all, I was at war with myself inside myself. It was an ugly dive. N’Gog should have stayed up or waited for contact. But dammit we need the goal! I was sick about the dive but when Steven Gerrard stepped to the spot and belted it home, I was thankful for the penalty. In my defense, I spent the rest of the match praying we’d get two more so that N’Gog’s dive wouldn’t be the determining moment.
But no more goals came. And what’s worse: Yossi Benayoun pulled up before the match was over, clutching his hamstring. It’s bad enough Riera was only back for forty-five minutes before going off again, but now the player who’s been the most threatening for us with Torres and Gerrard going missing was coming off injured as well.
Now, Manchester United are not as good as they were last season. With Ronaldo gone and Giggs and Scholes showing their aging, the Champs are a weaker outfit. But they still put the fear into their opponents and they still have that inimitable confidence that comes with being Manchester United. Even when they are struggling they still have the grit (and the reputation) to make the difference and eke out a result on a bad day. (Unless they are down to Chelsea in which case they just start fouling everybody and then bitch to the ref like they are being persecuted every time he blows the whistle. So Chelsea’s reputation precedes them as well.)
Liverpool, however, have lost this kind of edge. Even when we’ve struggled in seasons past we’ve still had the mentality of being a top four side that is hard to beat. If we blew it one week, we’d come back the next. Sides still feared us. Our players still believed they could come back no matter how little time was left. This was evidenced in all the late winners of last season.
But now, with this extended rut, Liverpool’s confidence is shattered and our opponents come at us with the belief they can extend our miserable streak.
I thought the match against United would turn things around. And then we didn’t play badly against Lyon. But that essential mentality is missing. We need to get it back. I’m not even worried about silverware this season anymore. I just want to see Liverpool play well and reestablish the winning chemistry. Even if we don’t make it out of the Champions League group stage (unlikely anyway) and finish sixth in the League (feeling like a real possibility at the moment), I’ll feel better about everything if we just play with conviction and put that fear back into our opponents from here on.
Of all our many problems that’s the biggest one.