“Happiness: an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.”
– Ambrose Bierce
Liverpool supporters have had to endure a fair amount of misery this season. A few bright spots aside, the Reds’ campaign has drifted from mishap to calamity at quite alarming regularity for a team that was supposed to be building on an encouraging 2008/2009 season to mount a serious title challenge the likes of which have been all too rare for nigh on 20 years. This year was supposed to be different. This was supposed to be their year.
For fans of other clubs of course Liverpool’s season has been a source of hilarity. Nowadays such slapstick comedy moments, like the beach ball incident for example, are hard to find through conventional means (you’ll know if you’ve ever tried sitting through 30 minutes of some of the utter dross the BBC passes off as ‘comedy’) and as lady Bierce alludes to above, who doesn’t love a good laugh at the misfortune of others?
Liverpool fans however should take heart. Though their title challenge melted quicker than a teenage girl’s heart at a Robert Pattinson premiere, there are reasons to keep heads held high as they walk through a stormy battle to finish in a lucrative top 4 Champions League place. Personally I’m convinced Liverpool will still finish fourth. Here are my reasons why:
The contenders keep throwing it away
Sure, the teams directly below the so-called ‘Big Four’ perform well at certain points in the season and are capable of rising to the occasion on their day. But what has consistently let teams on the fringes down over the years is a rampant inability to develop the killer instinct necessary to finish 4th.
Aston Villa are an exemplary case in point. Last season they were 8 points clear of Arsenal at one stage and looked almost certain to be heading for the Champions League. A run of 12 games without a win soon put paid to that though, as Martin O’Neill’s team fell away in dramatic fashion. The embodiment of this ability to waste golden opportunities came in Villa’s 2-2 draw with Stoke City when, 2-0 up with minutes remaining, they blew it.
Again this season, Villa provide a perfect example of what I call the Faberge Egg and butter effect. Before last weekend the Villans were 3 points behind Spurs with a game in hand, facing highly winnable looking home games against Wolves and Sunderland. Two games and two draws later they’re now 4 points behind and level on games played. You simply cannot draw two consecutive home games against such opposition and expect to play Champions League football. A top four side wouldn’t.
Tottenham’s tough run-in
With eight league games to go Spurs are certainly frontrunners for 4th right now. But here are their remaining league fixtures:
Manchester United (a)
Manchester City (a)
Tottenham’s London derby woes against Arsenal and Chelsea are well documented, while both trips to Manchester look highly challenging. Compare this to Liverpool’s run-in:
Birmingham City (a)
West Ham (h)
Hull City (a)
If four of Tottenham’s games look like potential banana skins only one or perhaps two do for Liverpool. Clawing back a 4 point gap (7 if Spurs win their game in hand) looks feasible. Manchester City, post-home defeat to Everton, are yet to play neighbours United, Arsenal (away), Aston Villa and Spurs. The path to 4th for Roberto Mancini’s men looks far from straightforward.
Without Champions League football, Liverpool finish seasons strongly under Benitez
Here is Liverpool’s record in the last 7 games of a Premier League season under Rafa Benitez since the 2004/2005 season:
04/05 – 7 games, 2 wins, 2 draws, 3 defeats *
05/06 – 7 games, 7 wins
06/07 – 7 games, 3 wins, 2 draws, 2 defeats *
07/08 – 7 games, 5 wins, 2 draws
08/09 – 7 games, 6 wins, 1 draw
Liverpool reached the Champions League final in the 2 seasons starred, which helps explains their poorer league records those years as Benitez wrapped his first team in cotton wool and turned attentions to Europe. In the other 3 seasons Benitez’s record is more than commendable. The stats show Liverpool tend to go on a run around now, and with key players like Fernando Torres and Alberto Aquilani fit again and others (Martin Skrtel and Fabio Aurelio) on the mend, not to mention a kind run-in, a pickup in form seems likely.
For these reasons I get the impression that although Liverpool have lost almost 1/3rd of all their Premier League games, embarrassed themselves in the Champions League and become a steady source of humour to supporters of their main rivals this season, come May Rafa Benitez’s bold ‘guarantee’ of fourth place won’t look so outrageously daring after all.
Jonathan F is Editor-in-Chief of Just Football, bringing you an analytical look at the world’s game.