FA collapse, Euro stunner: Which is the real Liverpool?
Posted: Friday February 22, 2008 1:06PM; Updated: Friday February 22, 2008 2:37PM
What's going on at Anfield? Liverpool was expected by many pundits -- ourselves included -- to be serious title contenders in the English Premier League this year.
Instead, its star-studded team finds itself embroiled in a tight four-way battle with Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester City for fourth place and the last Champions League qualifying spot.
On Monday, Everton travels to City, with Sven-G÷ran Eriksson's side knowing that a win will bring his team even with the Toffeemen. But it's on Liverpool that we're focusing.
Last weekend Barnsley -- England's 34th-best team and heralding from a small 72,000-population Yorkshire town -- arrived at Anfield for a fifth-round match in the FA Cup knockout competition. It was a game in which, to quote Barnsley's own Council, "People were expecting a rout and even the most ardent fan was hoping for a good day out and to keep the score down."
All was going as scripted when Liverpool took a lead in the 33rd minute, thanks to Dirk Kuyt. An hour later, the Reds had been humbled 2-1. Two key moments summarize the game: first, the quality of Martin Devaney's long-range, pinpoint cross that Steve Foster headed home for the Tykes' opening goal; the other, Xabi Alonso's role in Barnsley's second strike.
Alonso was half-hearted in his tackle on Brian Howard as the Barnsley captain advanced toward the edge of the box. Alonso hadn't done much wrong -- two defenders were blocking the direction of Howard's advance -- but the Spanish international was just somewhat lethargic. It was error enough as Howard shot and scored from the edge of the area before those defenders reached him.
It was at the last minute, and Liverpool was left shamed as Alonso knelt regretfully on the turf. Barnsley was rewarded by drawing a home matchup with Chelsea in the quarterfinals, while Rafa BenÝtez must have been dreading his next game, Tuesday's Champions League matchup with Inter Milan.
Talk in England was rife that a loss to Internazionale would spell the end of BenÝtez's reign, and with the Nerazzurri 11 points in first and still undefeated in Italy's Serie A, Team Limey wasn't betting against BenÝtez joining us in drinking games down at the welfare center. Yet the Italian side failed to live up to Barnsley's precedent, going down 2-0 to late goals by Kuyt and Steven Gerrard.
Perhaps BenÝtez got lucky when Marco Materazzi received a second yellow card after only 30 minutes, but it doesn't require Pinkerton's to work out that Rafa's European match record is better than his domestic one.
Why? The obvious answer is that he's Spanish, and learned his trade on the continent, where the soccer is less frenetic than in England. In fact, it's the only answer we can think of. Surely that goatee demonstrates a failure to understand or adopt English styles.
The second biggest FA Cup shock last weekend was Arsenal's capitulation to Manchester United. ArsŔne Wenger's men left Old Trafford with bruised egos after they dropped their trousers and took a 4-0 battering from their Premiership title rivals. Worse, the personification of mediocrity, Darren Fletcher, rubbed salt into Arsenal's gaping wounds by being good for once.
The man of the match, Nani, did plenty of harm as well. The Portuguese youngster broke the apparent "unwritten" rule in soccer with his one-man application for the London Zoo's seal enclosure. His showboating earned him a berating from his manager, and severely bruised legs from Mathieu Flamini's and William Gallas' acts of retribution.