Reactions to Torres substitution reveal that fourth place is as distant as ever for Liverpool
By Phil Dickinson.
Another disappointing result, another blow to Liverpool’s Champions League ambitions, another Monday morning inquest from fans and press. It’s been a very familiar story for Rafa and his Reds this season, far too familiar.
But this time around, the team’s failure to secure an away day victory and close the gap on their rivals paled into relative insignificance against the backdrop of obvious bemusement and disbelief from senior players. The look on captain, Steven Gerrard’s face as striker Fernando Torres was hauled off 20 minutes into the 2nd half said it all. Perplexed, confounded and exasperated, it was the look of a man losing faith in his manager.
Benitez has since blamed fatigue for bringing off his main goal threat during the side’s 1-1 draw with Birmingham City on Sunday.
“Fernando knew we needed to win and he knew he was tired. All the players want to be on the pitch and make a difference but you could see Ngog with fresh legs, and also Babel, making a big difference in the last few minutes.”
If Torres knew he was tired his reaction to coming off, including a confused shake of his blonde locks, didn’t seem to suggest so. If his captain’s contorted frown was anything to go by, Steven Gerrard didn’t realise Torres was tired either.
What was absolutely clear was that Liverpool’s most senior first team players fundamentally disagreed with one of their manager’s key decisions in a match of the upmost importance. It was the latest, and probably most telling, episode in a series of events that hint Benitez has completely lost the dressing room.
Many dismissed the outbursts of Albert Riera and Ryan Babel as those of overpaid prima donnas who just refused to knuckle down and show some professionalism during periods of not being in the first team. Now that the clubs’ more professional stars are showing signs of discontent, fans are being forced to ask whether it is in fact Rafa that is the problem.
Going into April, I was confident that Liverpool could still haul themselves back into 4th place. Looking at the fixtures of all 3 sides involved in the Champions League hunt and analysing Liverpool’s more confident performances against Portsmouth, Lille and Sunderland, it seemed perfectly possible, even probable.
Sunderland’s 3-1 victory against Spurs on Saturday further seemed to confirm that this race wasn’t over. With the top 3 next up for Tottenham, the game at The Stadium of Light was one most Liverpool fans would have assumed the Lillywhites would win – which they didn’t. And because of Spurs’ failure to beat Sunderland, and because Manchester City themselves still have some very tough games still to play, theoretically Liverpool’s stalemate at St. Andrews doesn’t completely end their chances of 4th just yet – providing they win their remaining 5 games, of course.
The hope of the Liverpool fan fails however when the apparent dressing room unrest is brought to mind. The question is, how can Liverpool possibly expect to win 5 games on the bounce, including one against title-chasing Chelsea, when the players doubt the manager and his decisions?
The task that Liverpool faced in rescuing their season was a monumental one. But Liverpool fans have always had faith in the ability of the club and team to rise to a challenge and triumph against the odds – to do things the hard way and still succeed.
Nevertheless, looking at the face of Liverpool’s great symbol of strength only to see confusion and exasperation gives every indication that this is a bridge too far for Benitez’s broken dressing room. While Liverpool have in the past always been capable of putting a run of 5 or 6 league wins together, in the current climate The Reds look totally incapable, impotent and utterly phased by the needlessly difficult task they have set themselves.
The majority of Liverpool’s players are a professional and disciplined bunch. The likes of Gerrard, Torres, Kuyt and Carragher will continue giving what they can for the cause without resorting to publically criticising the manager. But whether they believe in Benitez enough, whether decisions like the one to take off Torres on Sunday put up psychological barriers that inhibit players, is another matter entirely.
Having got an away goal in Portugal, Liverpool still have every chance of progressing in the Europa League. Benfica showed they are a very dangerous side in the first leg but the atmosphere at Anfield will be highly charged and will help the team put aside Sunday’s disappointment, if only for the time being.
However, even if they progress to the semi finals of the Europa League, Liverpool will return to Premier League action once again under the microscope, under investigation and under pressure.
Sadly, I no longer believe Rafa is able to lift his players enough to cope with the burden of this challenge. Liverpool may win a fair few games between now and the end of the season. They may even surprise us and win a trophy. But, given that the players don’t look like they believe 100% in Benitez’s management, the prospect of winning enough games to finish 4th looks exceptionally bleak.
The fixture list made 4th place look achievable; the body language of Liverpool’s players this weekend showed us it is almost certainly not. At St. Andrews this Sunday, it seems as though a substitution revealed to us more than the final result.
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