Thursday, 3 January 2008
No matter what enjoyment you might occasionally derive from it, no matter how well things may seem to be going on one front, football will always conspire to bring its share of abject misery. Thus with Ballymena winning regularly and internationals in abeyance for the time being, Liverpool are contriving to throw away their championship challenge for yet another season in the most frustrating fashion.
Rafa Benitez and his side have managed to fritter away an encouraging start due to a series of baffling decisions, inexcusable performances and failures to capitalise on territorial dominance. The stark facts are that the Reds have not only thrown away points against sides they should have beaten, they have also failed to beat all three teams with whom they should be contesting the league title. Take away three good results in Europe and a handful of convincing wins against poor opposition and Liverpool have done nothing right this season.
The responsibility for this underachievement lays ultimately with the manager who has declined to field a consistent team, has performed patchily in the transfer market and whose tactical judgment has abandoned him repeatedly in domestic competition. Perhaps the final nail in Liverpool’s Premiership coffin was driven home last night with a failure to dispense with lowly Wigan at Anfield. In a must win game Rafa elected to play only one recognised striker. Benitez now goes into the January transfer window with his moral authority to demand money for signing players greatly diminished by results. Why give extra funds to a man who last season shelled out £10 million on Dirk Kuyt? And yet what hope is there of salvaging something from the season if no new players arrive?
My only visit to Anfield this season coincided with one of the most uninspiring performances. Liverpool drew 0-0 with Birmingham and in many ways the game epitomised the failure of Rafa’s decision making. The manager elected to omit Fernando Torres and instead selected the unworkable combination of Voronin and Kuyt. Several days later Torres was picked in a largely second string eleven against Reading in the Carling Cup. He won the match more or less by himself.
Steve Bruce was Birmingham’s manager for that game. He has since taken charge of Wigan and last night he once again returned from Anfield with a valuable point for his side. Three days earlier Liverpool failed to break down a woefully unambitious Man City team prepared to play for a 0-0 draw at home. Now that City side have overtaken Rafa’s outfit and are currently in the fourth Champions League slot whilst the Reds languish in fifth.
It is hard to know what to prescribe in order for Liverpool to turn around their season and at least attempt to salvage a late run which would see them comfortably qualifying for the Champions League (because that is the minimum that supporters should now expect). Certainly Rafa must remedy the lack of attacking threat Liverpool pose and select a line-up which can consistently convert possession into goals.
Currently Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres offer the team’s only credible goalscoring threat. That is an unsustainable situation for a club who aspire to a title challenge. Benitez must find a regular partner for Torres and deploy him consistently in a 4-4-2 formation. Kuyt is desperately out of form and his busy, physical style has proved to be limiting – he should be consigned to the substitutes’ bench. Voronin is as mobile and incisive as my 11 month old niece. He should be sold. Unless Rafa is given the resources to buy a striker in the January transfer window, this leaves him with Peter Crouch, who has been unaccountably ignored throughout this season or my favoured option, which is to call up Ryan Babel at centre forward. Babel has played most of his football in Holland up front, he has scored regularly since joining Liverpool and it is my belief that he will offer more threat, certainly than Kuyt or Voronin.
Hopefully with Xabi Alonso gradually returning to full fitness, the lack of precision in Liverpool’s passing will be solved. Rafa will then be left merely with the conundrum of how to accommodate the Spanish playmaker in a midfield already comprising Gerrard and Mescherano. It may yet prove that Gerrard’s free-scoring runs are best facilitated by starting the captain on the right, whilst giving him license to move inside. This still leaves a midfield berth for the mercurial skills of Benayoun or the more conventional wing-play of Kewell or Pennant.
Whichever formation Benitez favours, the crucial thing is that he consistently fields his best players in it and does not constantly tinker with the team or persist with squad members who are blatantly out of form.