Sunday 1st February, 17.49:
“Nando better pull something out of his arse here or its 18 all”
Wednesday 4th February, 19.36:
“It’s all over mate, Dossena & Lucas are starting”
Saturday 7th February, 19.30:
“How to get out of f***ing jail”
It is perhaps a bit facetious to reduce a week in the life of Liverpool Football Club to a trio of text messages sent between two world-weary fans. After all, these are the two fans who spent the summer hoping that Xabi Alonso would be replaced by Gareth Barry, and at least one of these fans predicted that Bolo Zenden would be “the answer” on the left of midfield (not quite sure what the question was on that one).
But in truth, these three simple messages- crass, cryptic and scousified though they may be- pretty much say it all. Following Liverpool is never easy, but it’s always worth it. Mate.
It’s been a strange week at Anfield. Again. From the delirium of Chelsea to the despair at Goodison and finally a nice middle-ground at Pompey. In between we have seen Steven Gerrard succumb to the same injury that has disrupted Fernando Torres’ second season at the club, Robbie Keane cast aside and sold back to Spurs just six months after bounding into Melwood with the enthusiasm of a hyperactive puppy dog, and further claims made that Senor Benitez is indeed “cracking up”
It all started last Saturday. It is not an uncommon thing for me to wake up on a Saturday, pick up the paper and read about some “sensational swoop” or another, especially amongst the Red Tops. I take them with a pinch of salt (and a spoonful of disgust). But this particular story struck a chord. Keane to Spurs. £12m. Deal done, apparently.
The reason I believed this was simple. My sister. The lesser looking version of myself. She works at the club shop, and had been ordered to refuse any printing of Keane shirts until after the transfer window was closed. No big deal really, it’s quite a common thing to suspend shirt printing as the window draws to a close. The shop doesn’t need the hassle. But this was Keane, we only signed him in the summer, and every media outlet has been crawling with stories of him leaving for the past month. There was something in that, most definitely.
But first, there was the small matter of Premier League action to get through. We hadn’t managed the league double over Chelsea since the last time we won the league (amazing really considering how bad Chelsea used to be), and if we didn’t manage it this time then we could pretty much count ourselves out of the title race, no fear. Manchester United had beaten our friendly neighbours Everton on Saturday evening thanks to another soft penalty conceded by Mikel Arteta (very friendly neighbours), and were five points clear at the top. Defeat, or a draw, against Chelsea would leave us climbing the proverbial mountain.
The news on the day confirmed what I suspected. Keane was off. Not even in the squad. Ngog & Babel would provide the attacking threat from the bench, again. Ngog gets a bit of a hard time of it with Liverpool fans, but you can see their point. This kid only has four goals in his professional career (only one of which was in the league). Not quite sure how he qualifies as a better option, even from the bench, than Ireland’s record goalscorer, and a man who has netted over 100 Premier League goals (one of only sixteen players to do so by the way). But hey, Rafa knows. And he knows it.
The game itself was strange. I have become used to watching us play Chelsea with a burning fear inside me for the entire match. Every time one of their superstars has possession or they win a set piece, I am convinced that this is it. This is the moment when they score. But this Chelsea side is a bit different to Mourinho’s or even Grant’s (even Ranieri’s if you like). Gone are the terrifying raids of Arjen Robben & Damien Duff, missing is the poacher’s instinct of Hernan Crespo, lacking is the drive of Michael Essien, subdued is the monster threat of Didier Drogba. Even John Terry’s presence seems less frightening. In Nicolas Anelka, Salomon Kalou & Florent Malouda, Chelsea possessed over £30m worth of talent, supported by Frank Lampard & Michael Ballack no less. And created nothing. Literally, nothing.
At no point did my pessimism insist that this was the time Chelsea nicked the three points. Instead it concentrated on wondering when, or indeed if, we would make that critical breakthrough. Mike Riley helped the cause of course, the red card was laughable in hindsight, but I was up out of my seat at the time- just like everyone else- and you can see why it was given. A passionate crowd, studs were showing, Riley reacted too quickly. But hey, if it helps the Reds…
The first text arrived with about five minutes to go, and though the wording may sound confusing to some, the message is clear- “We need a goal now or it is United’s (18th) title”. No questions asked. No point being the better side unless it leads to three points. Benayoun is on and making a difference, Drogba is on for them and making none. Then all of a sudden Aurelio finds a bit of room down by the corner flag and delivers a decent ball, Torres makes up about five yards to nip in front of Alex and flash a header that seems to catch Cech completely by surprise, and nestles in the net. Cue pandemonium, although Torres is not fussed, sliding on his knees to adopt to perfect sitting position and a face which says “you didn’t really think I’d let you down did you?” Yes Nando, we did. Cos we’re a miserable bunch, don’t you know!
Torres added another, a tap in after an enjoyable howler from Ashley Cole, and suddenly the wheels were back on. Memories of Stoke, Everton & Wigan were banished, and it was Scolari’s turn to duck the bouncers served up by the media. Debate raged about Lampard’s red card, and whether Gerrard deserved one for a petulant kick of the ball against Bosingwa, a theatrical dive on the edge of the box and a full blooded lunge on Kalou (for the record- probably, yes). The officials were under fire also for missing perhaps the worst foul of the entire match in stoppage time as Bosingwa heaved Benayoun into the corner flag like Grant Mitchell disposing of a couple of trouble-makers in the Queen Vic’s glory days. To be fair the linesman did have his flag up straight away as the Portuguese studs raked down the Israeli back, but only to signal a throw-in for Chelsea!
Monday saw Keane depart. £12m apparently. Some clever newspapers decided that this was an £8m loss, ignoring the fact that at least £3m of Keane’s original fee was due only if he helped Liverpool win the Premier League, and that other add-ons were due should he make x amount of appearances and score x amount of goals (neither of which happened). No new faces in on deadline day, there were tenuous links with Saviola of Real Madrid, but you have more chance of spotting Tomas Rosicky than you do him, so Benitez will have to make do with the squad he has now. Ngog and Babel it is then.
So anyway, with Chelsea down the road (and out of the race if you believe some stories), and Keane back in the Spurs car-sharing scheme with Jermaine Jenas, attention turned to the FA Cup replay with the other blue lot. I don’t know if this is the case with other derbies, but as a Liverpool fan I find it literally impossible to enjoy a Merseyside derby until the final whistle is blown (and the Reds have won). Maybe it is because invariably the football played in such matches tends to be dross. Maybe it is because at Goodison Park every element of physical contact is greeted with pathetic appeals and cries of injustice. Maybe it’s because Liverpool’s otherwise-assured backline seems to have a mental block when it comes to Tim Cahill. Either way this derby was one which I, and most other Reds I know, viewed with a sense of trepidation.
And rightly so. For a start, Benitez left out Mascherano & Aurelio in preference of Lucas & Dossena (see text # 2), whilst Everton welcomed back Arteta & Fellaini, who had missed the original game at Anfield. Then with just quarter of an hour gone, and with Liverpool starting to monopolise possession as usual, off went Gerrard. Hamstring injury. The Everton fans celebrated like they had scored. I don’t blame them. On came Benayoun, no comparison.
Liverpool created a sum total of nothing. Riera had half a chance but it was more of a 50-50 with Tim Howard and it was smothered. If Torres v Jagielka had been a boxing match it would have been stopped after about half an hour, so dominant was the Everton man. Torres’ frustration grew, as the Gwladys Street’s delight filtered through. Hard to blame the man, he was receiving so little service from the abysmal Kuyt, the anonymous Benayoun and the tiring Riera, as well as the usual dire delivery from the full backs, that he never stood a chance. Everton handled him.
At the other end there were a couple of moments that left the heart fluttering, Osman smashed one off the post when he really should have buried it, Reina made a world class double save from the same player, and Gosling’s rebound, and Cahill won yet another header from a set piece that flashed just wide. Then Lucas intervened. You could see it coming, I always feel I can in fact. Already booked, he had actually just produced a neat piece of play, keeping the ball under pressure and playing an expansive square pass. But as Lescott intercepted and strode forward through midfield, the Brazilian was woefully out of position, and heading straight towards him at completely the wrong angle for a challenge. All Lescott had to do was nudge the ball forward and wait for hip on hip contact. Easy. Second yellow for Lucas, eleven versus ten for quarter of an hour (and extra time if we are lucky).
Lucas may well have been aggrieved that Pienaar had stayed on the pitch for a couple of awful challenges on him, but having conceded the points-costing penalty at Wigan a week earlier, this was another undisciplined intervention from a player adored by a discipline-preaching manager. Mascherano on for Riera to get us to extra time.
Extra time. The “sock robber” jokes had dried up by this point. The resourceful chaps who had arrived at Goodison armed to the teeth with rolled up balls of socks to throw at any Evertonian unfortunate enough to pass in front of them were now engrossed in the game (or out of ammunition), and Evertonians were fearing the worst should the game go the penalties.
It didn’t of course, Andy Van der Meyde (yes, that Andy Van der Meyde) whipped in a cross, Arbeloa had one of them mad moments and got caught underneath it, and Dan Gosling stayed calm to get the ball on his right foot and see his curled effort take a couple of nicks and fly past Reina. 118 minutes gone. Goodison erupts; the celebrations seen had not been topped since…..Gerrard was forced off in the 16th minute. Torres was off by this point, Babel on. No chance of recovery, even for Liverpool. Take it on the chin boys. Pass me those socks.
So with the wheels back off, the aftermath brought further bad news. Not only was Gerrard ruled out for at least three weeks with his hamstring injury, but Lucas’ ban is only one match, rather than three. Add to that injuries to Alonso & Torres, and further proof that Dossena is not up to scratch and you have all the ingredients needed to write a couple of “crisis” articles. And with a tough trip to Pompey on the horizon, Rafa’s goatee was very much back in the crosshair.
After neatly fielding questions about Keane by bigging up his “other striking options”, and eager to release as few players as possible for international duty next week, Rafa was always likely to spring a few surprises with his team selection at Fratton Park. But few could have realistically predicted the line up that flashed up on Setanta at about 5 o’clock. Three centre halves? Dossena & Arbeloa as wing backs? Aurelio in the centre of midfield? Ngog leading the line alone? Two lads in the pub saw the line up and walked out. Gobshites.
Still at least the terms of his loan deal meant Pennant couldn’t come back to haunt us. The smallest of small consolations. They still had ample opportunity to kick us in the teeth though, a strikeforce of Crouch (former Red) and Dave Nugent (mad-arse Blue) would have taken great delight in getting one over the title-chasers.
First half was pretty dire. Couple of chances for the Reds, Aurelio dragging one wide, Benayoun slipping as he shot, and Mascherano drawing a good save from David James, but all in all Ngog looked out of his depth against two mammoth centre halves, and Babel’s confidence and form looks at rock bottom right now. Even more so when he fails to connect with Kuyt’s cross with the goal gaping. Could have been costly. And sure enough just after the break we were hit by the sucker punch, Crouch feeding Nugent, and he beat Reina with a low finish. I thought Pepe could have done better, but maybe I’m being ultra-critical. 1-0 down, we hadn’t looked likely to score once, never mind twice.
But then two old-boys gave us a helping hand, a crazy back-pass from Crouch forcing James to handle, and allowing Aurelio to blast the indirect free kick past a crowd on the line for 1-1. Now then. Torres on, lets go and win it boys. Doh. A free kick from the right, a free header for Hreidarsson, and Reina deceived by the bounce. 2-1. That’s it, we’ve cocked it all up. Twelve minutes to go. No chance of three points now. Rafa’s fault.
A howler from Distin, Torres gets away, his cross isn’t perfect, but Kuyt makes the most of it and hammers it past James from an acute angle. Five minutes left, 2-2. Kuyt made a difference here. It’s easy to get on his back, and yes his first touch is atrocious, but that was a big goal, and Dirk scores big goals pretty often. Suppose with Chelsea drawing earlier then a point with five minutes to go might be ok.
Will it? Stoppage time, Mascherano & Benayoun carve Pompey up from a throw down the left, and Yossi delivers a perfect clipped cross for Torres to power a brilliant header past James at his near post. Again, maybe the keeper might have kept it out, but do I care? Did Torres? No chance. 3-2, and Rafa has slammed the door in the face of the scaremongers once again.
“Out of jail” is the common consensus. Especially on Setanta. Tim Sherwood, Steve McManaman & Craig Burley take their turns to lay into Benitez, who does himself no favours by saying “It is important to see Ngog, Ryan, Benayoun…all playing well”. In truth Ngog looked like a boy amongst men, and Babel looked like…Voronin”. Benayoun had a good game again though. And lost in amongst all that was the fact that we were back on the top of the pile. If only for a day.
But anyway, six points from six in the league (after three successive draws) goes someway to compensating for the Cup exit, Torres has three in three- yet some still claim he is playing poorly- and we proved we can win without Gerrard (something which the likes of Hansen & Lawrenson will no doubt continue to deny). And lets get one thing straight….
It is FEBRUARY. We ARE in the title race. Isn’t that what we have demanded for the past fifteen years?