Monday, April 5, 2010

Birmingham 1 Liverpool 1

This started off as the first of 6 must-win games for Liverpool. Must-win in the sense that, maybe, keeping your fingers crossed, praying hard like never before, maybe if Liverpool win all 6, the resulting 18 points added to our tally would ensure 4th place, qualification to Champions League, and provide a semblance of having saved an awful season from complete and utter failure.

So what happened? Firstly, you start the game off in the usual utterly boring, defensive manner that has become a trademark of Liverpool's play of late. The first half saw barely any chances, and at moments, I almost nodded off. This is a team which had Torres - maybe the best striker of his generation, Gerrard - maybe the best midfielder in England (although not this season). Well ok, not much more than that, but players like Dirk Kuyt, Yossi Benayounm Maxi Rodrigues and Glenn Johnson are definitely expected to rattle a mid-level team like Birmingham.

But no, this season has truly seen a terrible recession in Liverpool's quality and it continued in this "must-win" game. And one man is answerable for it, and he is Rafa Benitez.

Picture this. Liverpool score thru Gerrard early in the second half, and then quickly concede an equalizer thru some really poor defending. Birmingham are looking at nothing more than a point from the game, you know that. They are sitting back trying to absorb your attacks. They are bracing themselves, expecting Liverpool to throw everything at them as they go searching for a winner. And what do you see? The substitution board goes up. Am I dreaming? Can this be true? Is Benitez really using his first substitution to take off his best player? No, Yes and Yes are the answers to those questions.

Much to all round bewilderment, including Torres himself shaking his head at the mysterious ways of his manager, we witness the great hope being substituted with David N'Gog sent on in his place. Gerrard's look of bewilderment was captured brilliantly and just echoes the sentiments of every Kop fan around the world. Within another 5 minutes, Benitez makes the substitution he really should have made first. He brings Babel on for Benayoun, who had had an indifferent game till then.

So consequence? Babel's introduction provides some impetus, three great chances are created. Who do they fall to? David N'Gog. Can the poor bugger do anything with them? No. Would Torres have scored even one of those chances? We will never know, coz he wasn't there! But would you bet your mortgage on him converting at least one, if not two, of those chances? I think most Liverpool fans would.

What were the reasons for this act of humonguous stupidity? Was Torres, who has played only 18 or 19 games this season, so tired that he was unable to continue? There had been no indication of this, but Benitez claimed this to be his reason. Could it also be due to Rafa giving more importance to the Benfica match next week? If this were the reason, its a mis-calculation of such proportions that its hard to believe a man in Rafa's position would make it. What do we gain by winning next week's Europa cup game? Is that the aim of this club? To win the Europa league and lose out on Champions League next season?

I have very little doubt that Liverpool will fail to achieve 4th place this season. Manchester City have suddenly struck a very rich vein of form, and I wouldn't count Spurs out either. Its increasingly likely that Liverpool will end up at 5th or 6th position this season, which most likely will mean that Benitez will go at the end of the season. And if he doesnt go, will Gerrard and Torres stay? Will they stay even if he does go? Which top class manager will want to bring this club - minus its top two players - back into the elite? Especially as the Americans have ensured there isnt much money left anyway.

What a season this had promised to be. How bitterly dissappointing it has turned out. Rafa cannot be absolved of blame from this situation. His transfer policies are horrendously bad - buying Aquilani for 20 mn and not using him at all, buying a fading Maxi instead of some other players like Niko Krankjar who had become available. His horrible decision to rely on an inexperienced David N'Gog as the only cover for Torres in the striker role, again when there were options like Michael Owen available - I think most of us would take that gamble than the one which Rafa did. His continuous deployment of an extremely defensive combination of Mascherano and Lucas in center of midfield for most of the season. The list just goes on and on.

This is do-or-die time for Liverpool. The team needs to deliver by at least achieving the last of the objectives which are still achievable. The manager can after all only communicate his strategies to the team. However, at this point of time, it feels more like its the team which is being let down by its manager.