There have been two Liverpool FCs this season.
There is the side who beat Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid. Facing the best teams in the world, Liverpool played out of their skin. Against Chelsea and Manchester United they mixed a tight passing game with consistent possession to keep fierce pressure on the domestic giants, forcing them to concede. They beat Manchester for the first time in years and they broke Chelsea’s long unbeaten home streak. Against Real, Liverpool doggedly fended off the Spanish side’s persistent attacks and eventually stole the first leg with a fantastic away goal, headed home by Yossi Benayoun from a set play that came after steady pressure.
The other Liverpool FC dropped points in ten draws and two losses against mid and lower table sides. The Liverpool who felled Europe’s giants would be expected to dominate and destroy the likes of Stoke, Hull, Fulham, West Ham, Middlesbrough and even Tottenham. But it was not to be. The inspiration, drive and confidence the Reds displayed at Stamford Bridge and the San Bernabeu was nowhere to be found during the trip to White Hart Lane or to today’s visit to Riverside Stadium.
Liverpool looked the dominant side during the first half hour of play. Even after Xabi Alonso’s own goal from a Boro corner, supporters should have expected Liverpool to recover from the setback. The Merseyside club had already forced Boro’s Brad Jones to make saves in front of goal and had Liverpool kept on the pressure, surely he would be forced to concede goals to a Red onslaught.
But instead Liverpool’s drive evaporated. The own-goal took the wind from their lungs and the pace from their legs. Another Boro goal in the second half seemed to seal Liverpool’s fate, and despite positive substitutions from Rafa Benitez, the Reds could not recover from the deficit.
Had the first Liverpool shown up every week this season, the Reds could have feasibly added another twenty points to their tally, accepting that the draws against Aston Villa, Arsenal and Manchester City are acceptible for true title contenders. Instead they will surely be fighting for second place while Manchester United collect another title.
If Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres regain and maintain their fitness, it is reasonable to think Liverpool can challenge for another Champions League trophy, since further advancement would mean facing more of the strong sides who bring out the very best in Liverpool, we can expect the first Liverpool to show up to the matches.
But there will have to be a reckoning come the next transfer window. Fernando Torres cannot be Liverpool’s only star striker. They will need more convincing firepower to support and cover the Spanish genius. The attacking width of Albert Riera, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio has been great for the Reds, but they could use some more wide creativity on the right hand side. An Arjen Robben or even a Shaun Wright-Phillips could make a huge difference in Liverpool’s attack and ability to break down the ten-men-behind the ball sides who have persistently prevented the Reds from securing the three points again and again.
This year Liverpool have stayed in the race longer than they have in years. Liverpool have given Manchester United a true title challenge until today with far less resources than Sir Alex Ferguson’s side can boast. They have it in them to beat the biggest sides in Europe. But when they learn how to consistently beat the smaller sides in England, Liverpool will finally be able to take home title number 19.