Sunday, October 4, 2009

Worrying Trend Developing at Liverpool, Inability To Beat Good Teams...

Liverpool have played 11 matches this season, four of them against decent opposition and they have lost all four. Is a trend beginning to develop at Anfield that could deny the club of that coveted Premiership title?

Liverpool slumped to their 4th defeat in 11 games with a 2-0 loss at Stamford Bridge against high flying Chelsea. The result leaves them just outside the top four and with an uphill battle if they are to have any say in the direction of the title this season.

The loss at Chelsea was always likely, neither side have been playing well over the last couple of weeks, but the Pensioners have a much stronger squad and when push came to shove their experience and guile pulled them through.

It was the manner of the defeat that will hurt most Liverpool fans though. The Reds only threatened occasionally and both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres were expertly marshaled out of the game by a clever Chelsea side.

It was similar in the first game of the season when Liverpool travelled to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham. The Reds had hammered Spurs 3-1 at Anfield in the last game of last season and more was expected this time around.

But a new look Spurs took the game to Liverpool, and again both star players were ushered out of the game before Spurs took complete control to inflict the first defeat of the season on Rafael Benitez's team.

The following weekend Liverpool were to taste defeat again. This time Martin O'Neill's struggling Aston Villa travelled to Anfield. They produced a perfect smash and grab performance to win 3-2.

Again Liverpool struggled to create much, and found it very difficult to deal with Villa's counter attacking game.

The end result meant that after three games of the new season, Liverpool had lost as many games as they had in the entire of the previous one.

Both Villa and Spurs are expected to challenge for the Europa League positions this season (5th to 7th), and are decent teams, but they were challenging for the same positions last season, and teams with title ambitions like Liverpool, United, and Chelsea should be putting these type teams to the sword.

A good run of results against the weaker teams in the EPL saw Liverpool win four games on the bounce and score a credible 16 goals, which set them up with their best goal difference start to the league of all time.

In reality though, Liverpool were showing signs of weakness.

In between those four Premiership games, Liverpool took on Debrechen from Hungary in their first game of this seasons Champions League group stage. The Hungarian champions, the only actual champions in group E, were expected to be cannon fodder for the Reds.

Over the course of their 1-0 win Liverpool continued to struggle to break down their opposition. Debrechen came with a game plan, and left it up to the Reds to break them down, again Liverpool struggled.

Their next game was against Gianfranco Zola's struggling West Ham side. The first half was a very tense affair but the class of Fernando Torres widened the gulf between the two teams as Liverpool moved to a 3-2 win.

Next was Leeds in the Carling Cup. A 1-0 win for the reserves over Leeds was enough to see Liverpool through to the next round against Arsenal but baring in mind that Leeds are a League One team, the difference in class of the opposing teams was not very apparent.

A return to form against relegation bound Hull City saw Fernando Torres run them ragged with a fantastic hattrick as the Anfield giants roared to an impressive 6-1 win.

Liverpool then had to travel to Florence to take on Italy's 4th placed team, Fiorentina. This was to be their biggest test since the Aston Villa game. Their first real opposition since then.

A dreadful performance saw the Viola run out well deserved 2-0 winners with Montenegro's striker Stevan Jovetic bagging both goals.

Four days later the Reds travelled to Stamford Bridge to take on their fourth good team this season, and the rest is history,

The Liverpool unit of this season are a very different beast from the team last year. League wise, the Reds only lost twice last year, to Spurs and Middlesbrough.

They did start slowly last year with a run of poor performances against Middlesbrough and Sunderland amongst others, but as the best teams often do, they prevailed against the weaker opposition and emerged as real title contenders after Christmas.

They put in an incredible run of results from March that saw them thump not only Real Madrid but also Manchester United on the way to winning 10 games and only drawing once from March.

They were expected to kick on in the same vein this year.

But there are huge differences between this seasons Liverpool team and the team who finished 2nd last year. And the club have a few problem areas.

The defence:

On paper, the right full back problem has been finally cured.

Fair enough, Rafael Benitez did overpay for Johnson, a sum of £18 million was exchanged between Liverpool and Portsmouth for the players services. For the exorbitant fee, Rafa gained the best attacking full back in the EPL. But also one who is not a great defender.

His marauding runs are creating havoc for opposing teams but when Liverpool are hit on the counter as they often are as favourites, the lack of pace in their central duo is being exposed. Jamie Carragher in particular is coming under intense scrutiny for the manner of his performances this year.

On the left, Emiliano Insua is still learning his trade, but that is scant consolation for a team that needs every player up to speed straight away.

The midfield:

There have been as many column inches written about how Liverpool were going to miss Xabi Alonso's influence as there were when he was a player. Alonso was always a player who came in under the radar. A players player. He did the simple things that others would not. Little passes, little tackles, little runs. Alonso was an excellent player. One the team could not afford to lose.

But lose him they did. It says much about the respect that his fellow players at Liverpool had for him when Steven Gerrard went to Benitez before the transfer begging him not to sell the player. After the sale, by Benitez, Gerrard told his manager of how he was "utterly disconsolate" at losing his midfield maestro.

Young Lucas Leivia had big boots to fill. And he has failed to do so.

Javier Mascherano looks less of a player without Alonso, so too does Gerrard, who now spends much of his time backtracking to pick up the ball when he was used to picking up Alonso's forward passes.

The squad:

Liverpool's squad is paper thin. Considering that Rafael Benitez has spent some £200 million over five seasons on 48 players, so the squad should definitely be stronger. But when you go through the seven substitutes on the bench against Spurs it makes grim reading.

Cavalieri, Kelly, Dossena, Benayoun, Spearing, Ayala, and Voronin. Of this group of players only Yossi Benayoun stands out as a player of high enough calibre to play for a club like Liverpool.

The manager:

Like it or not, and most Liverpool fans will not. Rafa is one of the problems at the club, or at least the owners see him as one of the problems. His transfer record has come under intense scrutiny in recent times and led to Rafa only being given a couple of million to spend last summer.

As recent as last year, Jurgen Klinsmann was sounded out by Rick Parry about becoming the next Liverpool manager, and twice in the last nine months bookmakers have closed the book on Rafa being sacked.

What you can take from this is that there is no smoke without fire and somebody of high ranking power within the club wants Rafa out, and is beginning to hamper him in running the club by withholding transfer funds.

Less than one week after the transfer window closed, the club announced a record £80 million sponsorship deal. And none of that money has been earmarked for transfers.

Benitez is under intense pressure to produce a Premier League title, but with three league defeats from their first eight games it looks most unlikely.

If there is a club who could do it though it will be Liverpool.

The only other team to win win the league title with three losses from their first eight games was Liverpool, in 1899.

Football has changed since then, and now Rafa needs his team to rediscover their form against decent opposition.

Last season Liverpool went unbeaten against fellow top four opposition. Winning four and drawing twice. They have already lost once to them this year and will now have to win the other five games to have any chance of winning the league.

It looks a tall order at this early stage of the season and Rafael Benitez has his work cut out if Liverpool are to win the league this year.

Ominously, Liverpool's next four games are against Sunderland, Lyon, Manchester United, and Arsenal.

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