Liver­pool’s spine be­gins to crum­ble

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

AS LIVER­POOL sup­port­ers walked along the Thames to Craven Cot­tage on Satur­day one was heard ex­press­ing his con­cer n over this fix­ture, adding, sar­don­ically: “That’s the beauty of our team now, you never know what’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

Beaten by a beach ball a fort­night ago, easy vic­tors against the cham­pi­ons last week and then the calami­tous de­feat to Ful­ham, this sea­son’s Liver­pool are in the mid­dle of a be­wil­der­ing run that must in­fu­ri­ate a con­trol freak like Rafael Ben­itez.

Un­pre­dictabil­ity may be ex­cit­ing, but every­one at the club pines for the days when they re­morse­lessly ground out wins. That was a gen­er­a­tion ago, and last sea­son’s close pur­suit of Manch­ester United al­ready seems a false dawn in the quest to re­gain old glo­ries.

In­juries have ex­posed a lack of depth in Ben­itez’s ex­pen­sively as­sem­bled squad with the XI fielded at Ful­ham in­clud­ing such wannabes and wastrels as Sotirios Kyr­giakos, Emil­iano In­sua, Philipp De­gen and An­drei Voronin.

By the end they had been joined by Nathan Ec­cle­ston, Daniel Ayala and Ryan Ba­bel.

But the weak­ness of the fringe play­ers and sup­port­ing cast is only part of the prob­lem, there are also con­cerns about a once for­mi­da­ble spine.

In Pepe Reina, Jamie Car­ragher, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascher­ano, Steven Ger­rard and Fer­nando Tor­res, Liver­pool had a back­bone to match any in the game. Reina con­tin­ues to shine but Alonso has gone, Mascher­ano, worn down by Ar­gentina’s tem­pes­tu­ous World Cup qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign, is short of form, and Ger­rard and Tor­res are af­flicted by in­jury. Then there is Car­ragher. For­tu­nate not to be dis­missed against United last week, when bring­ing down Michael Owen, he should have been sent off af­ter an hour on Satur­day for bring­ing down Bobby Zamora. In the event, his re­prieve lasted only 20 min­utes be­fore the stand-in cap­tain again found him­self in the wrong side of Zamora.

Car­ragher and Ben­itez both in­sisted his dis­missal was wrong, cit­ing that Car­ragher got his foot to the ball as Zamora went down. He did, but had he not al­ready been hold­ing Zamora back with both arms the de­fender would never have been able to get near the ball.

Car­ragher is 31 now. He has been a mar­vel­lous stal­wart for Liver­pool, but is not get­ting any younger, or quicker. It may be the con­stant chang­ing of part­ners – Kyr­giakos was his third this sea­son – and their un­cer­tain­ties have con­tri­bu­tion to his dip in form.

Liver­pool’s cen­tre-halves are also be­ing ex­posed by Ben­itez en­cour­ag­ing his full-backs to push for­ward more. Against Ful­ham, De­gan was so ad­vanced for much of this game that Car­ragher was of­ten in the right-back po­si­tion.

Liver­pool have let in 16 in 11 league games, more than bot­tom club Portsmouth, and kept one clean sheet in their last eight Premier and Cham­pi­ons League games. Only Arse­nal and Chelsea have scored more than Liver­pool’s 25, but 14 of those were scored in three home matches against Stoke, Burn­ley and Hull.

PIC­TURE: GETTY IM­AGES

RED ALERT: Liver­pool man­ager Rafael Ben­itez sub­sti­tutes star striker Fer­nando at Craven Cot­tage ... the rest is his­tory – a sixth de­feat in seven games for the Reds.

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