Okay, The Beach Ball Moment was ridiculous and surreal and I am still trying to remember if it really happened or if it was part of a dream I had after late night pizza and video games. But it alone did not cost Liverpool the points at the Stadium of Light. Bent’s shot deflected off the foreign object and went in on 5 minutes. Liverpool then had more than an hour-and-a-half (when we remember the seven minutes of second-half stoppage time) to rectify the situation. But from Bent’s “goal” onward, they played like the match was over and done.
The Liverpool of last season would have let that early goal against be the spark, the lighting rod to spur them into the winning mindset. But our attacks were unconvincing and languid. And in all that time we never took control of the match. Without the balloon goal, we were still drawing Sunderland at best. We needed maximum points to keep believing the title is still in reach. We were never coming away from that fixture with more than a point.
Then, against Lyon yesterday, I started to think we were snapping out of it. Even when Steven Gerrard came off with his injury flaring up again, Liverpool looked like they could keep the French side on the back foot and come away with the win.
Yossi’s measured shot was fantastic. He took the ball in the box, calmly aligned himself and fired it past the keeper. Another sure sign that LFC’s favorite Israeli international should start every week.
Substitute Fabio Aurelio also made a great impact once on. With Gerrard gone, Fabio looked like he knew what needed to be done and he kept creating chances and even had a beautiful shot on goal which I am still amazed the Lyon keeper saved. He put one hand up to Fabio’s effort just in time.
The side was maintaining good pressure after the first goal and I felt sure we’d get another. (Until Rafa subbed Yossi off, I felt sure Yossi would get another. Voronin for Yossi. I almost threw up.)
But when Lyon got the equalizer, we collapsed. Pepe Reina made two fantastic saves in quick succession but couldn’t secure the ball and Lyon’s third attempt went in.
In stoppage time we conceded again.
Losses to Lyon and Fiorentina. We beat Debrecen, but they put up an amazing fight at Anfield and I only see them giving us a tougher contest when we visit them in Hungary. I felt so good about this group when we drew these teams. I knew nothing of Debrecen, but I saw Fiorentina and Lyon as sides who would inspire us to great performances. We usually rise to the challenge of stiff opposition. Now it looks as though we won’t live to see the round of 16.
Our title hopes, which were so fresh and alive last season, look more dismal by the day and barring a win against Manchester United (which takes on the old feelings of impossibility despite doing the double over them last season), it’ll be hard to muster up the optimism that this season can produce anything tangible by season’s end.
Mostly though I just feel crushed. Last year held so much promise. I saw us building on that campaign with a firmer grasp on the League and Europe this year. Now, every match seems a struggle. The confidence, the drive Liverpool seemed to have in excess last season must have pulled a hamstring or broken its metatarsal. As with Mssrs Torres and Aquilani, it is, for now, nowhere to be seen.
Before yesterday’s match, I half-jokingly said we might have to win the Champions League in order to qualify for it next season. Now, we are flailing in both of the most coveted competitions. I have a dark vision of us struggling to stay in the top four at season’s end.
Then there’s the matter of Rafael Benitez.
Whenever Rafa hit a rough patch in the last couple of years, the usual media outlets would start speculating about his imminent sacking. Now with four losses in a row (the worst red losing streak in 22-and-a-half years) combined with George Gillets recent public criticisms of Rafa, one feels as though this round of speculation might have something behind it.
We need a sign of intent on Sunday. The side needs to show that it isn’t about Torres’ or Gerrard’s fitness. That our hope aren’t hanging on two players. That the rest of the group can dig in and come up with a performance on par with the 2-1 or the 1-4 against United last season. We beat them at Anfield with Torres out and Gerrard coming in off the bench and we demolished them at Old Trafford without Xabi Alonso, our most influential player last season.
And if Liverpool can do that, they must carry that mentality into the matches against Arsenal, Fulham, Lyon away and Birmingham.
Liverpool’s real problem in recent years is while we play against clubs like United and Chelsea as if everything is at stake, we don’t play every match that way. If Rafa could have convinced our boys that Sunderland were really Rooney, Berbatov, Scholes, Fletcher, and co. disguised in Blackcats kits, we may well have overcome that 1-0 deficit with room to spare.
But until we learn to play as if our fate is on the line for every match (at least in the League and in Europe) then we will not live up to the potential we showed throughout last season. And our goals will slide further from reach.
I’m trying to cling to my remaining strings of optimism. But I need something explosive on Sunday. It is time to bounce back. Even if the League is out of reach already, Liverpool need to charge toward the end of the season with the grit and integrity they showed most of last year. To the players: this team is not two men. It is time to remind the supporters and yourselves of that fact.
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