When Fernando Torres limped off against Real Madrid in the Champions League last week, you knew Liverpool were going to find goals hard to come by on Saturday, even against a struggling Middlesbrough side who had only kept five clean sheets all season in the league prior to hosting the Reds.
“The title was difficult before, it is more difficult now,” said Rafael Benitez after Middlesbrough inflicted a 2-0 defeat on his Liverpool side that has made Manchester United’s position at the Premier League summit almost insurmountable. “What we have to do is take our chances, and that is something that has been the same problem the whole season.”
He is, of course, referring to Fernando Torres, who has had a season blighted by injury that has highlighted Liverpool’s lack of strength in depth. All too often this season it has been Steven Gerrard and the mercurial Spaniard who he plays off who have come to the Reds’ rescue in games, and without the two Liverpool look a very ordinary side.
It’ just a shame for Liverpool it took Rafa so long to figure it out.
At times Liverpool have looked bereft of ideas and devoid of the attacking guile they possess when the duo play and they have been held to a series of draws by teams they really should be beating.
Quite simply they don’t possess the strength in depth a team at the top should – the game at Middlesbrough proved it. Nabil el Zhar, David N’gog, Leiva Lucas and Stephen Darby aren’t match winners and wouldn’t add much even to a hapless Middlesbrough side.
They aren’t game changers.
Rafa’s ploy of playing Torres as the lone front man and Gerrard off him indubitably works, but take one half of the holy trinity out of the equation and it’s a different story.
Liverpool have won 15 games in the Premier League this season, and in only four of those Gerrard or Torres haven’t hit the back of the net.
Torres arrived in England like a force five gale last year, claiming 33 goals in 46 matches, but this season in the league he has been quite literally hamstrung by injury and has managed just 15 appearances, bagging eight goals.
Benitez himself admitted the loss of El Niño has dented Liverpool’s title challenge and said “maybe if Torres had not been injured so much things would be different, but we cannot change the situation now. Everybody has players who get injured.”
Except they plan for it, Rafa.
Most teams have more than two players capable of winning matches. Did he expect Torres and Gerrard to play every game this season?
Take Manchester United, the team keeping them from claiming their first league success in 19 years. The injury Cristiano Ronaldo sustained during Euro 2008 game him a belated start to the new season and Wayne Rooney has recently had a spell out injured. And in the middle of that incredible clean sheet record the Red Devils’ rearguard achieved players came in and out of the side, including the youngster Johnny Evans who has looked assured of a place in the first team squad for years to come.
The enviable wealth of talent Sir Alex Ferguson can call upon means anyone he brings into the side will do a job, and do it well.
“At this stage of the season when every point is important, having your best players available is the most important thing because they have the experience,” Benitez said. “It is not fair to expect young players to come in and change games, that is when you need your more important players to bring something more to the side.”
Liverpool have players that could walk into any side; Pepe Reina, Javier Mascherano and Xavi Alonso are top, top individuals, but past a strong first 11, the Reds’ squad is filled with sub-standard individuals who aren’t fit to grace a “Big Four” team.
Ferguson doesn’t have the same problem at Old Trafford and it’s debatable whether or not he actually can say “this is my strongest eleven”. He doesn’t need to know though. As his side march unremittingly towards an unprecedented quintuple Fergie is capable of putting out two sides that could do him proud.
In the Carling Cup final he had the confidence to know that Ben Foster, Darren Gibson, Johnny Evans and Danny Welbeck could step in and give an industrious performance that brought United victory on penalties. Even in the cauldron of the San Siro he had so many options that he could afford to omit Wayne Rooney from the starting line up for what was arguably Manchester United’s biggest game of the season against Inter Milan in the Champions League.
The match finished 0-0, although United dominated and Fergie will be disappointed they didn’t grab an away goal to take back to Manchester.
Darren Fletcher, Ji-Sung Park, John O’Shea and Wes Brown are all capable of walking into most sides in the division, but the difference is that the Red Devils have so many match winners.
Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are the in autumn of their football careers and alongside Dimitar Berbatov, Rooney, Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, they can call upon players with an enviable wealth of talent and experience who can create something out of nothing – spot a pass others wouldn’t or carve an opening out of even the stingiest of defences.
Ryan Babel just doesn’t offer that, at least not in a Liverpool shirt, although ardent Reds fans would argue he isn’t a winger like he has so often been deployed since his big-money arrival. He is an out-and-out striker.
The decision to sell Robbie Keane was an odd one, even if he wasn’t Benitez’s choice as the media claims because Liverpool are lacking firepower up front. But although the “one up, one off” up top works, it has its limits. A top class striker isn’t going to be content sitting on the bench, Phil Scolari failed to keep Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba happy with life at Chelsea. Dirk Kuyt has been pushed out wide-right and on the bench is a host of rookies who have yet to prove it at the top level.
Liverpool are still in the Champions League, and after their sensational 1-0 win against Real Madrid in the Bernabau you wouldn’t bet against them making it through to the next round of the knockout stages, after all Benitez is a shrewd tactician in Europe, but it seems to sum up the Reds.
A good side who are a match for anyone on their day, yet over the course of a season just don’t cut the mustard.