That’s a question we’ve grown used to asking in the last few seasons, but it’s been directed at another competition.
While Liverpool has seen great success in the Champions League in the past few years, the same success has not followed in the league.
In 2004-05, Liverpool stumbled to a fifth-place finish in the league in Rafa Benitez’s first season in charge, 37 points behind champion Chelsea and three points behind arch-rival Everton for the fourth and final Champions League spot.
But, there was that run through the Champions League, which very nearly didn’t happen, as they needed a win over Olympiakos to qualify for the knockout stage.
They came back from a 1-0 halftime deficit in that match to win 3-1 and qualify on goal difference, and from there, blasted Bayer Leverkusen in the round of 16, used a 2-1 home win and a fine defensive performance to knock Juventus out in the quarterfinals, and then used one of the most controversial goals in recent history to get past league nemesis Chelsea in the semis.
Then, in the final, down 3-0 at halftime, they channeled the same fighting spirit that had lifted them to the final, and shocked AC Milan with three goals in a six-minute period to level the game. And then, in the penalty shootout, Jerzy Dudek made himself an Anfield legend by stopping Andriy Shevchenko to hand Liverpool a miraculous victory and the Champions League trophy.
They got the opportunity to defend their title the next season, but instead of their league form faltering, it was their European form, as their march was ended early by Benfica in the round of 16.
However, in the league, they fared much better, posting their best league point total since the 1987-88 First Division title-winning side posted 90 points in 40 matches. And, even though it wasn’t good enough to put them over the hump of not winning a title since 1989-90, their 82-point total was far better than in recent years.
Then, last season, it was back to excelling in Europe and faltering in the league. In Europe, they won their group, then knocked out the previous year’s champions, Barcelona, on away goals in the round of 16. Following that shock result, Liverpool easily disposed of PSV in the quarterfinals, and met Chelsea for the second time in three seasons. A penalty shootout went in Liverpool’s favor, but a second title in three years wasn’t in the cards, as AC Milan (who shouldn’t have been in the competition in the first place) won the trophy with a 2-1 win.
And, in the league, they, like every other team in the Premiership, were little more than mere spectators as Chelsea and Manchester United battled it out for the title. Another place in the Champions League was sealed by virtue of a third-place finish (on goal difference over Arsenal), but third was good for 22 points behind champions United.
This season, the trend is reversing, as they’re fourth in the league through nine matches, with a chance to close the gap with a victory over leaders Arsenal on Sunday.
However, if they want to close the gap, they’re going to have to perform much better than they did in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Turkish side Besiktas.
That loss has the Reds in the basement in Group A, with one solitary point from their first three matches – a draw in Portugal against Porto, a 1-0 loss at Anfield against Marseille (17th in Ligue 1, but tops in Group A), and now the loss to a side who had dropped their first two group stage matches.
At this point, it’s almost a must that Liverpool wins their final three matches in order to qualify, or they could be staring at a place in the UEFA Cup, or if their form doesn’t improve, even worse – complete elimination from Europe.
While Benitez and everyone else in the Liverpool camp seem to be unfazed or aware of what’s going on in Europe, it won’t be long before it affects their domestic showings.
Each of their Champions League results thus far has been followed by a home draw, as the draw with Porto was followed by a goalless draw against Birmingham City, and the Marseille loss was followed by a 2-2 draw with Tottenham, where a Fernando Torres goal in the final minutes was needed to secure a point.
Such has been the case throughout the last few seasons.
I left out 2005/06, since they exited early, but included the seasons in which they advanced to the final.
Qualifying round/group stage: 5 W, 1 D, 2 L
League matches following those matches: 2 W, 1 D, 5 L
Knockout stages: 5 W, 2 D
League matches following European matches: 0 W, 3 D, 3 L
Qualifying round/group stage: 5 W, 1 D, 2 L
League matches following: 3 W, 1 D, 3 L
Knockout stages: 4 W, 3 L
League matches following: 3 W, 1 D, 2 L
Many might use the excuse that there’s a strain put on you by traveling, or by having so many matches, but it is, just as I said, an excuse. Late in the season, it might be a viable reason for struggling, but if you have a solid rotation, then you can minimize the potential effects of the wear and tear that will inevitably occur over a 50+ match season.
But, what it comes down to is consistency. Why can’t they get up for one game but not the next? They’re all of equal importance, and the goal is (or should be) to play your heart out 110% from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
Or vice versa – why can’t they get up for the league matches, but not for the European matches?
Both are extremely important in the club’s fortunes. Without a top-four league finish, there’s no qualification for the Champions League. If there’s an early exit in the Champions League, then the big financial benefits don’t happen. Not only that, but there are reputations to uphold and honors to fight for in both competitions, because there’s nothing like being the best of the best in your country, and especially being the top dog in your continent.
It’s safe to say that Porto is probably a hell of a lot better than Birmingham City, and Marseille and Tottenham might be equally pitiful right now, but maybe someone needs to tell the Reds that.
Defense hasn’t been an issue (though Sami Hyppia might need a refresher course on the fundamentals of football if he puts another ball in his own net in the near future), but consistent goal scoring has. While Liverpool has scored 16 goals in league play, if you take out the home match against Toulouse in the 3rd qualifying round, they scored only three goals in the other four European matches.
Benitez has done a lot of shuffling in his rotation thus far, may it be to keep everyone fresh for the long haul, or so he can figure out what his best XI is on a regular basis, but it hasn’t led to consistent results.
But, whatever rotation he settles on, if he does indeed settle on one, they need to wake up soon, because not only could it ruin their hopes of another deep run in Europe, but it could also spell doom for their domestic hopes as well.