Liverpool on knees after latest knockout


SOCCER:FOR A Mancunian or Evertonian the timing could not have been any more hilarious. On Wednesday afternoon, during an interview with LFC TV, the Liverpool chief executive, Christian Purslow, was heard to say in no uncertain terms that “the club’s raison d’etre hasn’t changed – we exist to win trophies”.

A few hours later, it became clear someone had forgotten to inform the players of that mission statement as they sank, almost literally given the monsoon-like conditions, to a pitiful defeat against Northampton Town in the League Cup third-round. Just when Kopites thought it could not get any worse, it very much did.

Talk of yet another full-blown crisis at Anfield should be tempered by acknowledging the side Roy Hodgson put out on Wednesday was far from his strongest. Of those that started, none began the 3-2 defeat by Manchester United last Sunday and, before kick-off at least, only Daniel Agger, Lucas Leiva, Milan Jovanovic and Ryan Babel could have realistically hoped to be involved against Sunderland tomorrow. Nevertheless, it remained a strong team, one that contained five internationals, four of whom travelled to the World Cup in South Africa. They should never, ever, have lost to a team who sit 17th in League Two and whose previous fixture was a 3-1 defeat at Shrewsbury.

What must have been most distressing for the home crowd was the manner of the defeat. This was no freak result, a smash-and-grab that was wholly unjustified or based on the whim of an incompetent referee. No, Liverpool were thoroughly outplayed after they had taken the lead through Jovanovic’s ninth-minute effort and would not have reached the penalty shoot-out had their right-back Martin Kelly not cleared a shot off the line immediately after David Ngog had pulled the score back to 2-2 in extra-time.

Hodgson’s third defeat since arriving from Fulham would also have made it clear to the Liverpool manager that the squad’s depth is not as healthy as he perhaps first thought. The second string had performed encouragingly in pre-season and even more so in the early stages of the Europa League but, when pressure is put on them and momentum is hard to find, they appear to lack the talent or nous – or both – to turn things round.

Some leeway should be given to the goalkeeper Brad Jones and defender Danny Wilson, who were making debuts following transfers from Middlesbrough and Rangers respectively, and to Kelly, who has looked generally impressive since making his debut last season.

No such excuses can be found for Lucas or his central-midfield partner Jay Spearing, both of whom have been given multiple chances to establish themselves in a midfield shorn of such players as Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, but have only infrequently performed to a high standard.

Of the senior players Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Jovanovic are undeniably willing but, given their status as regular international players, must be considered to be falling short of the required Anfield standard, a judgment that could also be made about Agger, who is generally assumed among Liverpool fans to be a star in the waiting.

Then there is Babel. Given until January by Hodgson to prove he is a player of substance as well as potential, the Dutchman should have viewed an outing against fourth-tier opponents as a chance to run riot. Instead, he again went into hiding.

What may also concern Hodgson is the general sense of stagnation and despondency that continues to associate itself with the club. However hard they try, whatever positives they can gain from new signings, displays or results, Liverpool remain, from the outside at least, a once-mighty being that has lost its heart and soul. The ongoing dramas of the boardroom do not help, and the pain that has caused the supporters will be evident again tomorrow, when many will protest before, during and after the visit of Sunderland.

But it should be remembered that under Tom Hicks’s and George Gillett’s ownership the club reached the 2007 Champions League final and the semi-final in 2008, and were within four points of winning the Premier League the following year. The Americans must take a large chunk of the blame for what has gone wrong, but they cannot be expected to carry the entire burden.

It causes only bafflement to wonder when and why the gloom truly descended. Some will point to the sale of Alonso to Real Madrid just over a year ago as a turning point, while others will say Liverpool’s failure to get off to a positive start to last season, when they were expected to sustain a challenge for the title again, ultimately proved fatal.

Whatever the case, the departure of Rafael Benitez and the arrival of Hodgson as manager were meant to signal a turning point. Instead it has been another less-than-encouraging opening to a season, with Northampton Town’s victory an almost eerily stark reminder of the misery that has come to characterise a club who for years have been defined by the pursuit of glory. As one Liverpool supporter wrote in a text on his way back from Anfield and reflecting on last season’s home defeat in the FA Cup third round: “This is Reading all over again – shit rain and shit performance.”

Credit should be given to Hodgson for not attempting to camouflage the defeat in excuses. He seemed genuinely confused and hurt by the team’s performance when apologising on their behalf afterwards. The 63-year-old now fully realises the scale of the task ahead of him and will no doubt spend as much time as he can before the Sunderland game studying what went wrong against Northampton and pondering how he can prevent it happening again.

The damage can be limited immediately with a win against Steve Bruce’s side, but that will take such players as Jose Reina, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, all of whom are scheduled to return to the team, to prove that this season is not going to be like the previous one – to show that a dispiriting defeat does not have to be followed by another.

Liverpool once again find themselves on their knees. Now they must stand tall or face falling apart altogether.