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Liverpool chase a silver lining from a frustrating season


By Guest Writer Tony Appleton.

As the headline-grabbing volcanic ash cloud dies away, fans of Liverpool may well be forgiven for thinking that the Icelandic eruption was Mother Nature’s way of conspiring towards a disappointing end to the Anfield side’s underwhelming 12 months.

Rafa Benitez and his band of not so merry men have had to travel for the best part of 2 days to reach Madrid. They will undoubtedly be tired, and without invaluable training, before Thursday’s Europa League semi final leg against Athletico in the Vicente Calderon stadium.

Well out of the Premier League title race, struggling to reach that coveted 4th place that many pundits believed was Liverpool’s to lose (if they didn’t reach an even higher league position), knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage, and exits to Arsenal’s young starlets and Reading’s battling side in both national cup competitions. All have lead to a sorry state of affairs on and off the pitch that few believed was possible from one of the most feared and respected football clubs in European history.

So why the cloudy skies? Why the apprehension and struggle and lack of progress that is painfully evident in Liverpool’s forgettable season? The easy answer is the right one; too many things haven’t clicked for the Kop. The sale of Xabi Alonso left a creative chasm within the heart of the Liverpool midfield. Alonso’s ‘puppet master’ role, dictating play by spreading passes to feet from any area of the park, was transferred to Real Madrid for a handsome fee. Alonso wasn’t going to turn that offer down, and the boardroom bigwigs were correct in letting him go, rather than holding on to an unhappy player whose head had been turned. Liverpool have unfortunately failed to replace him.

The acquisition of Roma’s Alberto Aquilani for a rumoured £20 million has been an all too familiar tale of Benitez’s transfers failing to perform. Injured for the start of the season, he was brought in sparingly, and despite a few fleeting touches and passes, he has one goal this season and no more than a handful of assists. Incidentally, Roma now lead Serie A, above Champions League semi-finalists Inter Milan. They took that £20 million and strengthened. John Arne Riise might well have a smile on his face.

Aquilani is certainly not the only example of a player flattering to deceive during Bentiez’s time at Anfield. Even if you only take into account the strikers, then Robbie Keane, Fernando Morientes, Andrei Voronin, Antonio Nunez (remember him??) and possibly even Craig Bellamy will look upon their time spent at Anfield as a disappointment within their careers.

Loyal Reds fans may feel the same way; did any of those players justify the prices for a Kop season ticket that the supporters are happy to pay year in, year out? Benitez isn’t wrong all the time; Yossi Benayoun, Javier Mascherano and, of course, ‘El Nino’ Fernando Torres are well respected and admired when playing for the club, but it’s a case of few and far between since Rafa took the job.

Fans may also question the tactics of the former Valencia manager. Too many times he has sacrificed Torres, the world’s best striker on top form, when the club need a goal. Too many times they have failed to find it. Furthermore, is the 4-2-3-1 formation suited to the English game? It has worked in Europe (see 2005 and 2007) where games are much more cagey, cat and mouse affairs, but in the Premiership it has failed, especially away from home. Clubs have seen a defensively minded line up, with 2 holding midfielders and a right winger in Dirk Kuyt who won’t be beating the left back for pace and whipping in a devilish cross, and quickly realise that if they can shackle the brilliant Torres and the off-form Steven Gerrard, then they can win the game.

Liverpool struggle for width, and this is exactly where rivals have succeeded in the shape of Nani, Antonio Valencia, Theo Walcott, Florent Malouda, Aaron Lennon and Bellamy. The infection is also seen at Anfield, albeit slightly differently. Despite swatting aside the woeful West Ham on Monday night with consummate ease, the attendance was the lowest seen at the ground for a Premiership game since 2004.

Even if it is denied at press conference level, the off field problems that surround the North West giant must have an effect on what goes on during a Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon or Monday evening. The club is up for sale. A Chelsea fan is the new chairman. Gerrard stood trial for assault, and was cleared. Benitez could quite possibly have been sacked following the Champions League exit, but vicious rumours circulated that they kept him on because the club couldn’t afford the pay-off. Since then he has been reported as being Juventus’ number one target in the summer; a situation he prefers not to talk about. It points to a soap opera, not the way a football club should be run.

More forceful critics may well point out that Bill Shankly will be spinning in his grave. Despite the incredulous goings on, Liverpool remain in the hunt for glory. The two legged affair against Athletico Madrid will be contested tooth and nail by the players that are asked to do the job. Jamie Carragher bleeds red, literally and subjectively. Pepe Reina is a world class goalkeeper. Gerrard will want to get back to his best form before the World Cup in the summer. Yes they will miss Torres, but Madrid will be without Kun Aguero for the first leg, and aren’t exactly brimming with confidence themselves.

Make no mistake, Madrid are there to be beaten, and are an easier task than Valencia; best of the rest in La Liga and who Athletico squeezed past in the last round. This is their silver lining, and if they fail to win the competition, together with missing out on 4th place in the Premier League, then those murky, cloudy skies may surround Liverpool for a good while longer.

Will success in the Europa League be enough for Liverpool fans this season? Please leave your comments below.

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