Oh dear where do you start with a campaign that promised so much and deteriorated so badly. But enough about Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats! Last week in politics the lunatics finally took over the asylum however Liverpool fans have known all about lunatics exerting a damaging influence for some time now? However, onto the season.
Perhaps the highlight of the season was the optimism born out of 2008-09’s second place? This was soon punctured after the first game, a 2-1 defeat at Spurs who, at our expense, ironically were the team that broke the Champions League qualification enclave of the called “top four”. Sure by the end of September we were in the top three on the back of crushing but expected wins against Stoke, Burnley and Hull but the cracks were beginning to show. After a Torres inspired win at West Ham The Telegraph and The Times reported
“Liverpool are back in the top three; even with their stellar striker they’ll go no higher with a defence like this..”
“Attempts at resistance by Liverpool were chaotic, strengthening doubts that they have become too fragile to challenge for the title…..”
Hopes that we would prove the hacks wrong simply didn’t materialise and the by the end of October we had a serious problem, a home win against the Mancs not making up for league defeats to Chelsea, Sunderland (I won’t mention the bb), Arsenal (another early Carling Cup exit) and in a Halloween horror, Fulham. Add in defeats in the Champions League and that made six losses out of a possible seven, hardly the stuff of title contenders?
Even though it was early in the season the inquests had began. Injuries were sited as a key factor for our poor form, we lost both Gerrard and Torres, then there was the departure of Xabi Alonso and the delay in introducing his replacement Alberto Aquilani which people, without scratching beneath the surface, lazily seized on as key reason for our demise. Inevitably brickbats were also thrown in Rafa’s direction.
The squad limped (literally) into November with two uninspiring home draws against Birmingham and Manchester City. Although we prevailed unconvincingly in the derby at Goodison, the final nail was all but hammered into our Champions League campaign thanks to conceding a last gasp equaliser in Lyon. Failure to get through the group stages was the most tangible sign that things were not right. We’ve had our problems on the pitch before but now there was even talk of a lack of confidence and nervousness as seen in the defence which had developed annoying habit of conceding costly late goals and, just for good measure, resurrected the old habit of regularly conceding from set pieces.
Injuries were also a key factor Aquilani broke his appearance duck in October but for all his appearances since he might as well have broken something else. Nine starts this season, not exaclty getting our £20m worth! However the malaise spread through the team at one stage we had eleven players out. The situation became so bad that we resorted to witchcraft er…. sorry placenta yet many might as well have rubbed marmite into the affected area!
December arrived there were some signs of hope. Amidst a grim draw at Blackburn and defeats to Arsenal and Portsmouth we scraped past Wigan, and Wolves the latter mainly thanks to a sending off. A trip to Aston Villa saw us make some ground towards fourth place thanks to last gasp Torres winner in the snow. However it was a case of one step forward two steps back as we embarrassingly caved into Reading in the FA Cup.
As the year ended hope sprung eternal that we would turn it around in the New Year however, by now the rumour bandwagon was rolling along at a lick. Torres and Gerrard were the subject of constant transfer speculation and when the press grew bored with this, they picked on others such as Mascherano and Babel. Aquilani was making a thoroughly convincing case for being the new Darren Anderton and Rafa’s days were supposedly numbered as vultures from Juventus began to circle. The owners showed their true colours once more via Hicks Junior’s childish, unprofessional Email outburst.
The players and the manager hit back with regular rallying calls stating that we would pull things around and that unity was needed. We waited for the words to come true, as they have often have done in the past, but there wasn’t much to get excited about. It was if the players were unable to find the spark of inspiration to propel them to the performances that everyone knows they are capable of. Every win was supposedly the win that would “kick start” our season yet every time there was a sign of us improving we seemed to turn in a performance that slapped us back down again.
Fourth place was still a possibility Everton were successfully negotiated but we then failed against Arsenal for the third time. The vital “six pointer” against Manchester City was a game where we go for it and assert our authority over these new upstarts? However, turned into a dreadfully wretched snooze fest as both sides were paralysed by caution. After putting things right against Blackburn we blew it again by losing to Wigan. We tried to turn it around with wins against Portsmouth and Sunderland but defeat to the Mancs, as Spurs and City refused to slip up when we needed them to, meant that we now had little room for manoeuvre.
As the quest for fourth place and Champions League bounty looked increasingly shaky Rafa was now coming in for a barrage of criticism. Speculation about his and the owners’ future increased as rumours of a Rhone investment appeared…. and then went! The UEFA Cup proved a successful, if not totally welcome, distraction as we beat some Romanians and Lille to reach the quarters. The second leg against Benfica was arguable the game of the season when in past campaigns it would have barely got a mention?
By the time we had completed miserable draws at Birmingham and at home to Fulham our chances of a Champions League place had all but gone especially as Torres had broken down again. Good wins against Burnley and West Ham were too late and our last game of significance was the defeat against Chelsea. Sadly the significance was to do with the fate of the Premiership and had nothing to do with us, even though we did our bit! Before this our season had ended with exit from the UEFA Cup Semis at the hands of Atletico Madrid. A miserable season was ended with an appropriately insignificant and meaningless, goalless draw at Hull.
So a bad season let’s sack Rafa or, depending on your point of view, support him. Let’s turf out half the squad and spend millions upon millions upon revamping it. Sadly however, at present it’s not as straightforward as that. Liverpool are a club in limbo. On the verge of a heart breaking downward spiral or a new dawn which will allow it move forward, compete with the usual suspects and one or two new upstarts who have pretensions to gatecrash the so called top four.
What form will this take? Will Rafa be on board or a victim of the change that so many now see a vital to the future good of the club? The recent announcement that we that we made a loss of around £55m mainly through servicing loans and interest payments that our wonderful duo have saddled us with has well and truly seen the chickens come home to roost. The balance sheet, if it were ever needed, is now tangible indication of the mess Hicks and Gillett have created, yet when or if they sell they will probably walk away with a handsome profit? Does anyone have any illusions about these two now? Before people talk about Rafa the team and signings surely the priority must be to find a buyer and send these two packing as quickly as possible?
And the team and Rafa? Rafa came under more and more scrutiny to the point where I wouldn’t have blamed him if he chucked and walked away. Some of the coverage he got was disgraceful bordering or libellous. Is this really the country that thrives on a sense of fair play probably so but not in the media? However, that said when he sits down at “Benitez Towers” this summer can he, hand on heart, and say he wouldn’t have done things any different? Can really say that, despite the mitigating handicap of injuries, he really got the best out of his players this season? Was his approach positive, did allow caution to stifle creativity too much, possibly due to constantly having to field a weakened team, tempering the attacking approach we saw the season before?
And Rafa’s future…….. ? I guess it all depends if there is a takeover? If it happens and funds are available to change the squad then will Rafa stay? However, if we get new owners will they want him to stay? If nothing happens will Rafa stay? If nothing happens can we afford to pay up Rafa’s contract or recruit another top class manager? What a mess?
The squad? This is essentially the same as the one that came second the season before however, injuries and a lack of continuity saw us pay the price almost from day one. As with Rafa can any Liverpool player, as they head for South Africa or the beach this summer, say that they performed to their very best? Aquilani and Glen Johnson, our two major signings, didn’t have the impact we had hoped for. The Italian was injured for most the campaign and when he did play showed signs that he could be worth money, too early to say yet tough. Glen Johnson provided attacking width but contributed very little to making the defence stronger via a series of positional blunders that belied his £17m fee.
Of the other key players Torres, when fit, was Torres. Gerrard appeared a distant, troubled player unable to produce the form we know he is capable of. He was injured but it seems to go deeper than that. What is troubling him, only he knows but something isn’t right? Jamie Carragher had a bad start and came good at the end. However, all too often he also appeared troubled or frustrated by the lack of consistency or cohesion in his back four due to injury, poor play or decision making or simply going AWOL up the pitch! Xavier Mascherano proved his worth again but will he be with us come August? His defensive midfield side kick Lucas, despite some unwarranted criticism, had his best season for us. Elsewhere in the squad there were too many performances, from players who should know better, that were inconsistent or simply suggested that they were not good enough to wear a red shirt? Player of the year? Jose Reina by absolute street who belied all the comments above and kept us from mid table obscurity with some of his performances.
And the squad’s future…….. ? I guess it all depends if there is a takeover. If it happens and funds are available to change the squad then fine and if reports are true the likes of Torres and Gerrard will stay. If nothing happens will we need to sell and will our top players want to stay? It is clear that there is some deadwood to be cleared however, if we sell will the proceeds be enough to buy the players we need and will they want to play for us now we aren’t in the Champions League? What a mess?
So where are we? History all too often shapes the future expectations, ours is that we should always lifting silverware, whatever the circumstances. Should we, given the situation of the club on and off the field, be really thinking in those terms now? Liverpool fans are always accused of going on and on about the past and why we shouldn’t it’s a thing of pride and shaped the approach and philosophy of the club for the good. However, you can’t live in the past and it is the future, the immediate future that is really important now?
The 2009-10 season has gone, forget it, however the remainder of this calendar year could be one of the most important periods in the club’s history and could if it’s not handled correctly, or if nothing happens, then those expectations will be even harder to realise. The outcome of last take over was a harsh, chastening lesson however, hopefully we can learn from this experience? We cannot afford to f*ck it up this time?