Another defeat, another dark day for Rafa Benitez, in more ways than one. All the talk about the necessity of having both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres fit has really missed the point about Liverpool’s troubles this season. Sub-standard performances and sub-standard stand-in players are the real underlying causes. The United game showed how the team could play even in the absence of Gerrard and the half-fit presence of Torres. It revealed the true character of most of Liverpool’s player and their manager, the truth being that they only seem to want to get up and play against the big boys in the big games. Lucas and Javier Mascherano were unrecognisable against United compared to their quite abject performances which have characterised their seasons so far. They both hounded Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes all afternoon allowing them no time to pick out a pass and allow United to settle into the game. Contrast that with the Fulham game on Saturday and it shows you all you need to know about both the players and manager’s attitude. The intensity, embodied by both Mascherano’s and Lucas’s performances against Man U, had vanished beyond any trace, replaced by a disinterested approach after they went 2-1 down, dashing any lingering hopes that us Liverpool fans had that we could finally win the title that has eluded us for 20 years. It was almost as if they had something else on their mind, Benitez no doubt did and it certainly translated to his players.
It was almost as if Benitez had given up the ghost at 1-1, taking off Torres on the hour mark gave a great indication that his thoughts lay elsewhere. Europe to be exact where there was a bigger prize to be won. Rafa indicated that Torres’s hernia injury was playing up but judging by Torres’s quizzical look when coming off and Rafa’s decisions later on in the game there can be no doubt on what influenced his decision. If taking off Torres, Kuyt and Benayoun, three of your most enterprising players, is not an indication of where your priorities lie, I don’t know what is. Rafa’s obsession with Europe has frustrated many Liverpool fans; for our great desire is to win the league but Rafa seems to disagree once again after acquiescing to the fans will last season. Perhaps he realises that the players are not good enough to mount a serious championship challenge, an opinion only reinforced by the result on Saturday. The absence of Alonso is magnified in matches such as against Fulham, the lack of dictating the play by Liverpool is plain to see, no out ball, no link between midfield and forwards. Aquilani’s return can’t come soon enough.
Such lack of control in midfield only puts a heavier burden on defence. A defence which has been shipping goals this season with an average of two every away game. A cause not helped by Rafa selecting Degen and Kyrgiakos with Carragher and Insua in the back line, three of which would struggle to get into any other Premier League starting eleven. The loss of form Carragher is another huge worry. The argument that he has lost a yard of pace is quite bizarre, considering he never had any pace to begin with. Positioning and anticipation have always been the cornerstones of Carra’s game, and at the moment he has lost both, partly down to a loss of confidence in his own ability but also down to a loss of confidence in his fellow defenders. He is not quite sure what they are going to do next, and in turn he has totally lost his own bearings.
Benitez must take a large share of the blame for this, considering Fulham struggle to score a single goal in most matches, the fact that they scored three puts the blame squarely at Liverpool’s door, and more specifically with Rafa’s own player judgement. The saying “In Rafa We Trust” could not be less pertinent right now. His decisions are becoming increasingly questionable (taking Benayoun off against Lyon in a crucial game was odd to say the least), buying and selecting players such as Voronin, Kyrgiakos, Insua and Degen who are clearly not of sufficient quality to play for Liverpool. You could say that he has had no money to spend on better players but he has spent over £200 million worth of players during his time at the club. Serious question marks have to made about Benitez’s priorities and player judgement. The sale of Xabi Alonso was a case in point, and his absence on Saturday compounded the problems with sub-standard stand-in players as there was a lack of a steady hand in midfield who could get a tight grip on the game and help the lesser talented players out.
The game was still by no means lost however, with Torres and Benayoun on the field, there was always a good chance of a win. They started the game well enough, commanding the ball from the off, making two decent half chances for Voronin and Torres early in proceedings, as well as Yossi Benayoun hitting the bar from close range. Then so typically of recent defensive displays, Fulham score with their first meaningful attack of the game, cutting through Liverpool’s makeshift defence with ease. It didn’t change the game very much however as Liverpool continued to pass the ball well and they were rewarded when Torres hit a fabulous shot from outside the area to make it 1-1. That was as good as got however, Benitez finally played his cards, taking off Torres 15 minutes into the second half indicating to both to his own players and fans that the game wasn’t that important to risk Torres for the full game. Rafa already had one eye on the Lyon game in midweek. The consequences of the decision were there for all to see, Rafa had taken his eye off another league game which was there for the winning for his priorities lay elsewhere. The game was left for Liverpool on the bench with Torres. No midfield playmaker to create that elusive chance and no striker to put any scraps away meant that two more goals were conceded and two sent off as well. The two red cards compounded the misery, but the damage had already been done. If Benitez had instilled the same amount of urgency into his players and team selection as he had done the previous week against United, Liverpool would have come out with a result in this game, but as ever with Benitez, he was looking one step too far ahead. A dark day for Rafa in terms of the title race and a dark day regarding his own managerial judgement.