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Yet another afternoon of frustration for the Reds

FOLLOWING an outbreak of widespread euphoria through Merseyside late on Saturday afternoon, normal service frustratingly resumed 24 hours later.

After the revelry induced by Tony McCoy’s thrilling win in the John Smith’s Grand National on Don’t Push It, there was little to stir the soul at Anfield yesterday, as Liverpool’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League effectively evaporated.

Though it is still mathematically possible for them to finish in the top four, the chances of it occurring are now so remote it is best to stop entertaining the idea that the Reds will come with a late, withering charge to overhaul Manchester City and Tottenham.

Having insisted after last Sunday’s stalemate with Birmingham City that nothing other than five wins would be good enough for Liverpool, Rafa Benitez, too, has been forced to admit the that game is almost up domestically after this tepid draw with Fulham.

Missing the injured Fernando Torres, Liverpool were toothless and failed to exert any kind of sustained pressure on Mark Schwarzer which meant for the first time since December 2008 – a run of 37 games – they failed to score in front of their own fans.

So costly. City’s thumping win over Birmingham has carried the team from Eastlands six points clear of Liverpool and they still have a game in hand; that basically leaves Benitez and company with an impossible task.

But, if we are honest, the writing has been on the wall for months.

The fatal damage to Liverpool’s aspirations was not done yesterday, as they laboured against Roy Hodgson’s well organised side, it was inflicted during a wretched summer and ruinous winter.

Like one of the Grand National also-rans, Liverpool have clouted too many obstacles and lacked the gears to keep pace with the leaders; it should come as no surprise, then, that they have ultimately tailed off.

Doesn’t it make you wonder, however, how they can look so special in steamrollering one of the sharpest sides in Europe but follow it up with such a laboured effort against a team that has suffered from chronic travel sickness in recent years?

In many ways, this season is starting to mirror 2004/05.

Remember a win over Juventus being followed by a defeat to a dreadful Manchester City team or how semi-final draw at Chelsea was preceded by a loss against a Crystal Palace side on its way to relegation?

So maybe something similar will happen next month and Liverpool will go on to lift the Europa League in Hamburg; the players, clearly, want to add to their medal collections and also to prove the club is not in freefall.

For that to happen, Liverpool will need to play with more panache than they did here and it was worrying how much they missed Torres, who has gone to Barcelona for a consultation with Dr Ramon Cugat on the knee that he had operated on in January.

Without his rapier pace and incisive movement, the Reds were all huff and no puff, lacking the wit to break down a team that has been revived by the wily Hodgson; if these clubs were to meet in Hamburg, a Liverpool win would certainly be no formality.

Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano did their best to galvanise Liverpool but too many of their colleagues were not at the races; Alberto Aquilani, Maxi Rodriguez and David Ngog all failed to impose themselves on the contest.

Aquilani had what can best be described as a curious game.

There was nothing wrong with his effort or energy and whenever Liverpool streamed forward, he always seemed to be within touching distance of the ball.

Yet, too often, he wasted possession with skew-whiff passing or sliced good shooting opportunities wide; on one hand you had an acrobatic overhead kick that Mark Schwarzer did well to save yet, on the other, there was a free-kick that clattered straight into the wall.

His travails during the current campaign have been well documented and there is no need to revisit them but it can only be hoped that he is a quick learner, so he can show his true potential next year.

It’s all very well playing a starring role at home in the flattening of desperate side – think of his performance when Portsmouth visited last month – but Liverpool need Aquilani to excel in the games that really matter, particularly away from home.

Aston Villa in December apart, Aquilani has not sparkled outside Anfield and, if we are honest, the same can also be said on Merseyside; he is clearly a very talented footballer but it has not happened for him so far.

With that in mind, it came as no surprise that Benitez ended his afternoon prematurely, replacing him with Dirk Kuyt one of the heroes of Thursday’s demolition job on Benfica, to give Liverpool’s attack some urgency in the final 25 minutes

Unfortunately, that never happened; Fulham maintained an excellent shape throughout, two banks of four working relentlessly to protect Schwarzer and they did it superbly as the Australian was never tested.

He should have been called into action when Kuyt engineered some space to cross but Sotirios Kyrgiakos, anxious to find that crucial breakthrough, powered a header over the bar, when Rodriguez was waiting to pounce.

Kyrgiakos had actually been one of Liverpool’s better performers, winning every aerial battle and nullifying the threat of Bobby Zamora, a player who is fancifully being talked of as a potential member of England’s World Cup squad.

Once that header had gone, they had nothing left to give and the fact there was no booing at the final whistle gave the clearest indication that Liverpool’s fate has been reluctantly accepted – there will be no Champions League football at Anfield next year.

This is not the first time that such a scenario has happened and, speaking after the game, both Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina were quick to point out it is not the end of the world; Liverpool have the potential to bounce back.

For that to happen, the off-the-field mess must be sorted out quickly. That, more than anything, has been the biggest irritant during the past few months and it is no wonder Benitez and several of his trusted lieutenants are finding their patience wearing thin.

Investment is needed for Liverpool to get the ‘feel good’ factor back; if it doesn’t happen, the feelings of frustration, sadly, will continue to pervade.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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