It’s not over yet – April will be the key to Liverpool’s future
By Phil Dickinson.
A week is a long time in football. It’s a horrible cliché, but you only have to look at the highs and lows of Liverpool’s last 7 days, and the constantly swinging tides of optimism and pessimism, to see that often it is a painful truism.
The Reds began the week by brushing past a demoralised Portsmouth, as a measure of balance and fluidity returned to the side and a number of expensive acquisitions began showing some form. Crisis averted.
But only days later, Monday’s man-of-the-match, Alberto Aquliani, had once again been struck with a virus and winger Albert Riera chose a not so perfect moment to discuss his manger’s shortcomings with the Spanish media. Instantly, Benitez was back in the spotlight, once again under interrogation.
“He’s never sorted out a situation with a player by talking with him. He thinks he’s in charge and everything else falls on deaf ears. His dialogue with the players is practically nil.”
Those were Albert Riera’s choice words, released into the British press on the day of Liverpool’s European rescue attempt against French side, Lille. Benitez’s lack of communication with first team players and his reluctance to build more personal relationships with them is something most Liverpool fans knew about already. But with Reds supporters still staring disconsolately at the Premier League table, a tear in the eye, the majority of Kopites could not help but think, “How can we be expected to win titles when he doesn’t even talk to his players?”
The previous outbursts of Ryan Babel, a talented player who, like a child, clearly just needs to be told repeatedly that he is “special”, suddenly become more explicable. The lack of younger players making the step up into the first team and making a difference suddenly becomes more explicable. And the striking disparity in confidence between this season and last suddenly becomes glaringly obvious. These players are left to blossom when they play well and win, and left to stew in their own self-pity when they lose, with most of the responsibility for pulling the squad up by its boot laces falling on Gerrard, Carragher and assistant, Sammy Lee. As much as I dislike the clubs’ obsessive nostalgia for its glorious past, one thing is for sure – this is not the management of the famous “boot room system”.
But that was all forgotten only hours later as Liverpool forced their way into the quarter finals of the Europa League, overturning a 1-0 defeat in France to win 3-1 on aggregate against Lille. The Reds survived a few scares to register a clean sheet and Torres added another 2 expertly taken goals to his tally. Crisis? What crisis?
I had a strange feeling going into Sunday’s game against Manchester United that any optimism Liverpool fans had now mustered would soon be turned on its head. The need for a win at Old Trafford may have appeared as imperative as it was last season, but this was a Liverpool side in a very different mental state to the one that produced that stunning 4-1 win last year.
I feared after the defeat away to Lille that further failures could hit confidence so hard that Manchester United might run riot against us, officially ending our pitiful season. But even though we didn’t fail to beat either Portsmouth or Lille and, consequently, our bitter North-West rivals didn’t quite run riot against us, the mood around Anfield is still very downbeat and talk in the media is now rife that Liverpool’s season is now officially over.
The uncomfortable truth for Rafa Benitez at the moment is that the position his side have played themselves into this season means that there is very little room for error in what is now the business end of the season. Any defeat, whether it be to Premier League also-rans or potential Premier League champions, feels catastrophic when your team is in a position as perilous as the one Liverpool find themselves in.
A loss to Manchester United is always agonising, particularly when you take the lead in the game, and even more so when there’s a slightly dubious penalty involved. But, if the truth be told, it won’t be this loss that costs the Reds Champions League football. Look no further than the early season disaster against Villa, the “beach ball incident” at Sunderland, the 2nd half collapse at Craven Cottage, Javier Mascherano’s red card at Fratton Park and the recent horror show at the DW Stadium – If Benitez’s men fail to achieve their minimum requirement for the season, those results will be where the blame lies.
As bleak as Liverpool’s prospects remain, the season certainly isn’t over. March may have been a disappointing month, a month of sweeping highs and lows, and a month in which flowers of optimism have been trampled mercilessly by marauding negativity, but April offers a chance to press on and continue the salvation mission.
After ending March at home to an inconsistent Sunderland, April presents the Reds with 4 fixtures eminently more winnable than the one just gone. Liverpool’s strongest rivals for 4th place, Spurs, will play Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United back to back. Meanwhile, big spenders, Manchester City play 4 of the league’s top 7 sides in their run in.
Liverpool’s rivals will drop points – that is for certain. If Liverpool can show some of the form they showed against Portsmouth and Lille and if Torres can keep finding the net, they are capable of being in a position to take advantage. Liverpool certainly aren’t favourites anymore, but the race for 4th spot is still very much on.
Whatever Liverpool’s final position in this season’s Premier League, 4th place or no 4th place, Benitez will face an inquest in the summer. Failure to build on last season’s 2nd place and the final realisation that Benitez has a knack for completely ignoring the personal issues of his players, will have Liverpool fans baying for change. But for now we have to make do and achieve the best we can with what we have left. All associated with Liverpool Football Club, including their bank manger, no doubt, still consider Champions League football a minimum requirement and for that reason alone the club has to keep fighting to achieve it.
And considering the sense of foreboding and fear in the Anfield air and given that fact that the public and media alike are writing Liverpool’s season off, it seems almost unthinkable that Benitez could still win a trophy this season. If Liverpool do manage to do the unthinkable and win the Europa League it will have to be considered something of an achievement. There are no easy games left in the competition, most of the remaining sides having a proven pedigree in European football.
To reach the semis Liverpool will have to deal with the much coveted skills of Benfica’s Ángel Fabián di María and later could face either Valencia’s David Villa or Atlético Madrid’s Sergio Agüero. Having done so well in the Champions League under Benitez, the clubs’ fans are naturally still disappointed to have gone out so early. But silverware is silverware, and a Europa League trophy would still be one trophy more than Benitez has managed since 2006.
In fact, I am of the belief that if Liverpool can win the Europa League and snatch 4th place from the grasping hands of Spurs and City, Liverpool fans will be able to look back on this season with a sense of relief and maybe look to the future with some vague hope. Those two modest achievements could transform Liverpool’s season from one that sends the club on a downward spiral into one that the club can comfortably put behind them should the right changes be made at managerial and boardroom level.
Admittedly, winning the Europa League without finishing 4th in the Premier League would feel like a hollow, meaningless victory and to achieve either Liverpool will have to fight a lot harder than they have for the majority of this season, but there is plenty still to fight for. Never before has a defeat to the Red Devils and the resulting taunts from down the East Lancs Road needed to be put aside and forgotten as much as now.