Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Liverpool in big trouble

It was billed as make-or-break time and in the end Liverpool's reputation lay in tatters all around Anfield.

You might think that overly harsh after a 2-1 defeat, courtesy of a late, late goal, at home to a talented Lyon side in the Champions League.

But this was Anfield. This was English football's European fortress. A venue famous around the world for its intimidating atmosphere, its anthems and history - and the crushing pressure which invariably sucks the life out of opponents.

Against Lyon there was none of that.

Against Lyon there were all the signs of an ailing football club, a mediocre team and a manager in Rafael Benitez who is feeling the strain and running out of ideas.

Heaven knows, Liverpool have been making do and mending for some time now.

The new stadium they were promised has not materialised.

The in-fighting between American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett has been unhelpful.

The big cash to compete with Chelsea and Manchester United has not been forthcoming.

There has been a pervading sense of catastrophe just around the corner.

Football always finds out the weaknesses eventually and a run of four successive defeats suggests Liverpool are in big trouble.

"A massive disappointment," was Jamie Carragher's verdict. In truth even that was understatement.

In mitigation, Liverpool were missing top striker Fernando Torres and £17m Glen Johnson. And after 24 minutes club talisman Steven Gerrard joined them on the sidelines after suffering a recurrence of his groin injury.

Three top talents gone; few sides could ride such heavy blows without breaking stride.

But Liverpool have made a habit of railing against adversity. Remember that late, late goal against Olympiacos? Remember 2005 in Istanbul and all that?

But those came courtesy of Gerrard.

It has been obvious for some time that they have been a side over-reliant on Gerrard and Torres.

But it would be simplistic to say their problems ended there.

After all, where is the speed of thought? Where is the imagination? Where is the precision passing and unity they had shown when they slugged it out for the title with Manchester United only last season?

The obvious answer is that they have relocated to the Bernabeu where Xabi Alonso is helping to make Real Madrid tick.

Alberto Aquilani might be a suitable replacement for Alonso. The problem is no-one knows because he has not played since his summer transfer and the folly of purchasing an injury-prone player amid a rehabilitation programme has not been lost on a section of Liverpool fans.

That is down to Benitez. So was the bizarre decision to substitute Yossi Benayoun, Liverpool's goalscorer, 10 minutes before the end when the Israel international was their brightest creator and a tireless worker.

Yet a nervy night was not all about Liverpool's failings. Lyon play eye-candy football: slick passing, pretty patterns, lacerating crosses with Sidney Govou, Kim Kallstrom and Lisandro Lopez a real handful.

They were the better side in the first half hour and while Liverpool found a way to claw themselves ahead through Benayoun it has to be said that Lyon more than shaded the second half.

They deserved their equaliser when Maxime Gonalons headed home after a double save from Jose Reina. And can anyone argue that they did not deserve their last-minute winner from Delgado after they had pressed back Liverpool with the quality of their passing? Not really.

So where does it leave Liverpool? Struggling for sure to reach the knockout stages in a group which also contains the impressive Fiorentina.

Yet Benitez's biggest test is yet to come - at Anfield on Sunday against Manchester United when defeat would almost certainly end their hopes of the Premier League title for another year before the autumn leaves have fallen.

The Liverpool of old would relish such a challenge. They would belt out 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. They would invoke the spirit of Shankly and Paisley. In all likelihood they would walk all over their biggest rivals.

But nothing about the current Liverpool can be taken for granted, even at Anfield. In short, the aura is missing. It is Benitez's biggest problem.

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