Monday, 21 December 2009

Portsmouth was the lowest of the low for Liverpool FC

NEVER mind how many days left until Christmas, how many days left until the football season is over?

It's 139 by my calculations and if Saturday against Portsmouth was a barometer of how the rest of the season will go, May 9th can't come soon enough.

The 2-0 defeat at Fratton Park was the worst of the lot this season. And there's been a lot. Seven now in the league, a situation that has left the Reds eight points from the coveted fourth spot and the invitation to continue to dine at Europe's top table that comes with it.

With trips to Villa Park, Old Trafford, The Emirates and Eastlands still to come, plus home games with Spurs and Chelsea, further defeats in the league must be considered likely on current form.

Whatever way you look at it, no matter what mitigating circumstances are presented, it's a grim time to be a Liverpool fan.

No back-to-back wins since September and just four wins in 17 would ring alarm bells at any football club.

Most fans seem desperate to lay the blame at someone's door - be it Rafa Benitez, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, or the players.

The truth is, everyone has played a part.

Fans that fell from the optimistic tree continued to dig for reasons for the defeat to bottom of the league Pompey.

From the harsh sending off of Javier Mascherano to the fitness and form of players, exceptional finishing by Portsmouth and even the pitch.

Calling it as I saw it, it was down to predictable play and fragile confidence.

Even with 11 men on the pitch, Liverpool barely made a chance worthy of the name. Daniel Agger headed over when he should of scored, Dirk Kuyt swung at the air when well placed in the box and Fernando Torres had a speculative shot from outside the area.

And that was about that.

Once Mascherano was given his marching orders out came the white flag, in went the towel and it never looked like anything else but a home win.

And that was what really grated. Did every player bust a gut to try and get something from the game? Did they squeeze out every last bead of sweat in an effort to salvage a point for the club that pays their hefty wages? Did they take some responsibility, grab the game by the scruff of the neck, go for broke? No, no, no.

But it can be done. And it can be done by a Liverpool team managed by Benitez.

Rewind to March 2006, an Anfield derby. Steven Gerrard is sent for an early bath after just 18 minutes. Rabid Evertonians celebrate in the Anfield Road end like they've just won the FA Cup. With not even a quarter of the game on the clock, and the score at 0-0, they sense victory.

Cue team spirit, hard work and passion. Liverpool steamroller the Blues with a high-tempo approach that the Toffees can't cope with and win the game 3-1.

That performance compared to the one on Saturday is like comparing Pele to Phil Neville. 

Next question - why?

 It was a strong enough line up on Saturday, and clearly one that Benitez felt could win the game, so why a performance so meek? It came on the back of a win over Wigan - didn't that lift confidence?

Clearly not. What's worrying for me is the play has been pedestrian for some time, even in victories, and teams seem to be getting the measure of Liverpool.

Portsmouth followed Fulham in allowing the Reds possession and sitting deep but while they saw a lot more of the ball Liverpool did little with it in the final third.

Benitez's insistence on sticking with out of form players is not helping matters. I'm a big fan of the Spaniard, he's brought the club forward in his time in charge and provided some truly memorable moments but that does not mean he is absolved of blame for the current crisis.

Kuyt is crying out for a rest, he's clearly far from his best, as is Emiliano Insua. Yet still they start matches. The Dutchman's touch and decision making has deserted him while the young Argentinean, still a great prospect, needs a spell out of the firing line as he is regularly being exposed and found out of position.

Stubborness is the chink in Benitez's armour. And the longer he persists with the policy of trying to play certain players into form, that chink will get bigger.

Petulant behaviour to the media doesn't help either, the 'perfect' diatribe may have been born of frustration but it just gave Liverpool's many knockers another stick to bash the club, and Benitez, with - an invitation they duly accepted with relish.

Just as Rafa is not immune to criticism, neither is Gerrard. He is a shadow of his former self. Still injured, not fit, struggling for form or fed up? We can only speculate from the outside looking in. But the skipper hasn't hit a ball in anger that I can recall since returning to the side. He looks off the pace and his body language, while never great, is even worse than usual.

Other players are going backwards. Glen Johnson looked a world beater a few weeks ago. But his confidence must be flimsier than Fabio Aurelio's limbs, because one own goal later he looks a bag of nerves.

So what now, what's the answer?

Well the club acting like a club would be a start. The players, the manager and the owners need to collectively pull their fingers out and start working for the common cause.

The owners need to stop behaving like the landlords of a dodgy student house. It's all well and good paying a two-bit decorator to paint the walls but if you don't pay the big bucks to tackle the dry rot, it'll come back to bite you on the arse.

I'd like to see them take their rigid business plan and throw it in the Mersey. Instead, recognise the problems on the playing side and stump up some cash for a bit of January window shopping. And  preferably in Harrods rather than the dump bin at Netto.

On the playing side, every player needs to look in the mirror and say am I trying my hardest? Am I being professional? Quite a few players need to ditch the petulance and play like they mean it.

For Rafa, I'd like to see him throw off the shackles. The Pompey line up was cautious and caution sends out the wrong message, certainly to fans and maybe to players, too.

Danny Pacheco showed enough against Fiorentina to suggest he would not be out of his depth, so play him. Bring him on, let him do his stuff. It would send out better vibes than Jay Spearing coming on for Lucas in the 88th minute...

The fear of the unknown could at the very least unnerve some opposition defenders.

My worry is that if things don't change quickly, the Americans' fingers will pull the trigger.

If Hicks and Gillett read it that Rafa is not the right man to protect their 'asset' I have no doubt they will fire him. Non-football men with power in football is a dangerous thing. Ask Mark Hughes.

If that happens then where will Liverpool be? My guess is up shit creek..without a paddle.

Because make no mistake, if Liverpool are looking for a new manager in the next few months there's a very real chance it won't be at the top end of the market.

Endless internet forum posts talk about Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink but let's be serious here. Neither will struggle for job offers, so why choose to voluntarily join the dysfunctional family that is Liverpool FC?

Warring owners, bickering fans, huge debt, no money to spend and a proviso that you must sell to buy. Hiddink? Mourinho? Don't make me laugh. More likely a 'second tier' manager keen to prove themselves or an ex-player with an emotional tie to the club. Either option is a step down from Benitez.

And mediocre managers spells mediocre players, then the downward spiral really will start.

Portsmouth was the lowest of the low for Liverpool this season. Let's hope now the only way is up from here on in.