In my last post (before the United match), I was filled with cautious optimism. But ultimately I had every reason to believe Liverpool would put up a better fight at Old Trafford than they ended up doing. Even when the Reds are struggling, we tend to switch on and turn into a tougher, more combative side against United. In the fixture at Anfield in October, we managed a two-nil victory amid a horrible patch of ill-timed injuries and hard losses. But two Sundays ago, despite the team’s good form against Pompey and Lille, Torres and Carragher looked about the only players up for taking on the Red Devils full steam. El Niño’s brilliant header gave us hope in the opening minutes, but Mascherano’s foolish contact with Valencia earned the home side the penalty that turned the tide. Park would break our hearts by popping through the crowd and heading in the winner.
I’m not upset at the result. Before the match, my friend Jamie and I were talking about our expectations. When we’re honest with ourselves, we expect to be beaten at Old Trafford in a season when Liverpool have had so many problems (and when Wayne Rooney seemingly can’t be contained unless you sign the Great Wall of China as your goalkeeper). A loss was expected. A point would have been wonderful. A win would have made us mad with joy and we likely would have torn down the walls of our favorite pub to burn off all that frenetic energy. (Our only redemption in the fact that one of the pub’s owners, Kevin, would have been there tearing the walls down with us while buying rounds for anyone in a red shirt… okay maybe not the rounds, but he would definitely have been in on the demolition…)
When Torres rose high and smashed that ball past Edwin van der Sar, we began to believe again. But United came back. And, honestly, it could have been a lot worse. Rooney seemed off that day and except for rebounding a blocked penalty kick, didn’t look ready to facilitate our undoing. He needed Mascherano and Park to help. If he’d been in normal form that day, we could have been in far worse trouble.
I’m more upset by our performance than their victory.
Then came the Sunderland match. I had less optimism going into this one. Sunderland just felt like a side to give us headaches with our current problems and I feared a draw. But, boom, suddenly our whole side looked fit and eager and ready to tear through anybody. Where was this outfit the week before? We gushed confidence and diligence. We maintained pressure and improvised inroads. When we lost the ball, we dug our feet in and got it back. When we ran into tight quarters, clever touches and passes opened up new alleys, new angles on goal. Not that we needed direct avenues: before the third minute was up, Torres opened the scoring by running at two defenders, finding a small window between them at the side of the box and firing at an impossible angle into the far post, bouncing it in. In the first half we could have put the game away. It seemed like every time we approached their goal one of our players had a chance. We finished the match 3-0 with a sweet deflected shot from Johnson and another Torres goal to finish things off, but it really could have been 7-0. Gerrard, Kuyt and Maxi were among those with clear chances, and in one of the strangest moments I’ve seen for Torres, we watched the striker blast one of the post only to have it land right back at his feet. He only missed the rebound because he was still reeling from that how did that not go in feeling and didn’t expect the ball to come right back at him. The most important thing is we played well. We were bursting with chemistry and drive. Torres led the charge but this was a consummate team win. Everybody played his best and contributed. If we had this spark against United we would have earned at least a point. I’m sure of it.
So here’s what I want for the rest of the season: good form. Finishing outside the top four will be devastating, but if we make a good run of it I will survive. If we finish seventh but we attack our remaining fixtures the way we attacked Sunderland, I will have my pride. Few sides could have done better than us with as many injuries to key players as we’ve had. Sure, Chelsea and Man City could field almost two winning starting elevens with their depth, but any other top side asked to play without its stars as much as we’ve done would not be sitting where they are now. If you’d told me in August that we’d have stretches without Gerrard and Torres and Yossi (at one point at the same time), I might have crawled into a cave for the season. Especially since I would have still been in mourning over Xabi’s sale. But we’re here and we’ve got to deal with it. So now just give me that form. Play like a hungry, tireless, beautiful, wily pack of rabid footballers. Give me attack. Give me chemistry. Give me vision. Give me goals. Birmingham, Fulham, West Ham, Burnley, Hull: we should win most of our remaining domestic fixtures. Hell, if we play against Chelsea with the spark and grit of last Sunday, I wouldn’t rule out a win. Benfica will be tough today, but I’m full of confidence again. If everybody keeps their heads and keeps fit, we can go on a tear and end the season with our heads up. That’s all I ask at this point.