There comes, perhaps, a point when there can be no further glossing over of it all. Upon the full-time whistle at Anfield this evening, Roy Hodgson looked defeated, and not just in terms of this particular football match. He was carrying the gaunt expression of a man that is surely now only living on borrowed time and it is difficult to imagine how this situation can resolve itself with any dignity for the manager. Returning home this evening, flicking through the newspapers tomorrow morning, some Liverpool supporters may look up the table to see how far they are from the Champions League places. Others may look down the table to see how far removed they are from the relegation positions. They are, of course, considerably closer to the latter than the former. It is also worth considering, however, that there are still eight teams below them in the table.
Tonight, though, wasn’t entirely about Roy Hodgson. To suggest that he can be solely responsible for such a lifeless display from the team is over-stretching the potential of his powers somewhat and the Liverpool players themselves need to take a long, hard look at themselves and their attitudes this evening. The Wolves goal came eleven minutes into the second half, but Liverpool seldom so much as threatened the Wolves goal in the remaining thirty-five minutes or so of the match. It was a comfortable an evening as their back four could have hoped for and reached its nadir with a ball, three minutes into injury time, lumped lazily towards the penalty area whereupon the whistle blew for an utterly predictable offside call. It was a forehead-slapping moment of knuckle-headed football which completely betrayed the position in which Liverpool find themselves. If this, one could only rationalise, is as much as they could manage in such a desperate situation, what does it say about them as professional athletes? Lifeless and disorganised, this was such a poor performance that the players have to accept a degree of culpability for it.
Hodgson, however, will remain the ultimate target for the ire of Liverpool supporters and the fact of the matter that the manager takes, whether he likes it or not, the ultimate responsibility for the actions of his players on the the pitch. By the end of this evening’s match, he cut an eerily similar figure to that of Steve McClaren as England were knocked out the European Championships by Croatia in 2007. This, it is becoming apparent, may be a manager out of his depth at a club whose common currency during 2010 has been gently bubbling chaos. What is the most troubling about their current predicament, however, is the question of where any improvement is going to come from. Fernando Torres looks bored, whilst Steven Gerrard’s slump in form this season has been so great as to leave one wondering whether it’s irreversible. If the rot at Liverpool FC is as terminal as could be interpreted from this evening’s display, even replacing Hodgson may not be enough in itself to prevent a lowly finish this season, and the January transfer window doesn’t seem to be open wide enough to bring in players that will satisfy the expectations of the club’s support.
If it isn’t – and I’m not wholly convinced that it is – then there is still all to play for, and hysteria seems unlikely to do the club a great deal of good. Hodgson’s position may or may not be “untenable”, but finding a replacement half-way through the season will be far from an easy task? Those calling for the return of Kenny Dalglish or Rafael Benitez seem oblivious to the shortcomings that have ended up blighting both of their records. Of the other potential candidates, well, Martin O’Neill is available but seems unlikely to win too many popularity contests on Merseyside right now, and the idea that any team of Sam Allardyce’s would inspire anything but righteous fury amongst the support seems improbable. In this respect, Liverpool are in the same boat as Aston Villa. Stick or twist? Both have potential dividends but the cost of getting it wrong could be bordering upon being beyond the comprehension of many Liverpool supporters.
Yet to sum this match as another episode of “Carry On Anfield” would not be giving credit to Wolves. They were booed from the pitch at the end of their last match, at home against Wigan Athletic. Tonight, they arrived with a game-plan which, whilst not the most adventurous that the world will ever see, wasn’t all about parking the proverbial team bus in front of the goal and hoping for the best. They were neat, tidy and well-organised. They moved the ball efficiently through midfield and deserved their win. They were, in short, everything that Liverpool weren’t tonight and they deserved the only goal of the match, even though there was an element of farce to it. Sotirios Kyrgiakos handed the ball to Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. Blake pushed the ball between two Liverpool defenders who seemed to stop for each other to clear the ball and on to Stephen Ward, who rolled the ball under Pepe Reina and in. Wolves, like so many other teams in the Premier League this season, are proving what they are capable of in fits and starts, and this win lifted them from the foot of the table again. Further focussed performances like this will give them every chance of avoiding the trapdoor this season.
Liverpool supporters have, down the years, been remarkably lucky. Those over a certain age can recall trips all over Europe, and a torrent of silverware that they may have thought would never end, whilst even the younger ones have a certain night in Istanbul to reignite the belief that they are one of the world’s great football clubs. These are experiences, however, that are not an automatic right and that most football supporters would give their right arms to experience so much as a fraction of what they have. Liverpool Football Club hasn’t finished below half-way in the league since 1955 (the first eight seasons of which were in the Second Division), and it has been the same amount of time since they lost more league matches in a season than they won. This is a record that no other club in English football can claim – not Manchester United, not Arsenal, no-one. As such, it still feels counter-intuitive to suggest that Liverpool will end this season relegated, although such a scenario is far from out of the question. Mid-table still feels like a more realistic assessment of where they will be at the end of this season, but perhaps the most significant question in the Premier League going into the new year will be that of how a club so singularly unused to a relegation battle might react to being dragged into one.
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