THIS has been the season when comparisons have been made between regimes and now, perhaps, we have the most startling similarity of all.
You cannot fail to have heard at various stages of this campaign all about the spooky parallels between the final years of Gerard Houllier’s tenure and the way things have started to go askew for Rafa Benitez during the current campaign.
Consider these, for instance: early exits from the Champions League (2002/03), failing to mount a credible title challenge after finishing runners-up (again 2002/03) and a frantic, desperate battle to squeeze back into the top four (2003/04).
Now, though, there is a far more significant resemblance between Benitez and Houllier; for Dietmar Hamann’s substitution during the Champions League tie with Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, read the replacement of Fernando Torres at Birmingham in 2010.
First, it must be stressed that Benitez’s decision to withdraw his lethal weapon yesterday was, according to the manager, because the player was “exhausted” and unable to raise a gallop after leading the line so valiantly in Portugal three days earlier.
What’s more – and while some may view this statement as bordering on the heretical – it must be pointed that Torres was way below form here, his body language after a couple of hefty buffetings early on sent out all the wrong signals.
But – and here’s the crux of this debate – he is still Fernando Torres. The moment Benitez beckoned him to the bench and replaced him with David Ngog, jaws dropped, gasps were inhaled, hands were thrown in the air and heads were shaken in disbelief.
Given Liverpool’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League were so precariously balanced, many felt Benitez had taken the riskiest gamble of all and, looking at the end result, you can only say it backfired.
However, that should not have been the case; in the time Torres spent on the bench, Liverpool fashioned six chances, ranging from acceptable to glorious, and with a hint of composure or a sliver of good fortune, they would have won this at a canter.
Unfortunately for Benitez, none of that matters. Ngog’s profligacy means he finds himself subjected to more critical headlines and, if we are brutally honest, Liverpool’s hopes of playing Champions League football next year are all but over.
The young Frenchman has made good strides since last August, scoring a number of goals and performing diligently during the times when Torres has been injured but the occasion, to everyone’s dismay, appeared to overwhelm him at St Andrew’s.
To be a top class striker, you have to take one of the three openings with which he was presented but he flicked a header wide, flashed another shot past a post and, most damagingly of all, lost his nerve when Steven Gerrard sent him clear in injury time.
That, quite simply, is the harsh truth. Inevitably, the 3,202 Liverpool supporters who made the trip to England’s second city, coupled with many, many more elsewhere, were left asking the question, “which one would Torres have taken?”
It is wrong to assume anything in football and, given the way Torres had played, he could easily have had as much success as Ngog in front of goal; he has proven himself to be human in recent weeks.
If, though, your life depended on a striker scoring for you when it mattered most, 99 times out of 100 Torres would be the choice and that’s why the brouhaha over Benitez’s decision will rumble after another wretched away day; will it come back to haunt him?
Take a glance at the table and you will see why Liverpool are embroiled in such a desperate scrap to salvage what has become the minimum requirement, chasing fourth place rather than pursuing loftier ambitions.
When written down, the facts make startling reading; they have scored less goals on their travels than Wolves, Wigan and Bolton and won fewer games away from home – four compared to five – than yesterday’s opponents.
Another grim statistic is that you have to go back to December 29, when Torres flattened Aston Villa in the coldest, most clinical manner, to recall the last Premier League success away from Anfield.
Should they happen to fall short of their target, as is looking likely, it won’t take an in-depth post mortem to discover why the campaign went off the rails – a chronic bout of travel sickness has been the root of Liverpool’s ills.
With that in mind, then, it was no great shock they failed to return with maximum points from St Andrews, especially when you bear in mind Birmingham have not been beaten here since September and have held Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal.
On this performance, one wonders how they have such a record, as Liverpool completely dominated the first 45 minutes, looked a class above for much of the contest and, paradoxically, produced their best away performance of 2010.
Not that that provides a modicum of comfort today. There is no possible encouragement to be taken from them bossing possession or from the exciting way they ripped into Birmingham in the final 20 minutes.
All that feel-good was destroyed by the defence switching off to enable Liam Ridgewell to run 40 yards unchallenged to bundle in an equaliser, moments after Gerrard had fired Liverpool in front.
Gerrard was outstanding from first whistle to last, trying everything he could to inspire a grandstand finish, operating like a quarter-back, and producing the moment of the game with a ball to Ngog that was pure Hollywood.
Only the intelligent and industrious Maxi Rodriguez bettered the captain’s performance; it is such a shame he is ineligible for the Europa League, as Liverpool’s chances of beating Benfica on Thursday would have improved immeasurably for his inclusion.
As it is, that competition is Liverpool’s last hope of ensuring this season finishes on a happy note.
Of course, Manchester City could still implode and open the door for Liverpool to rip Champions League qualification from their hands.
Those who like a flutter, nevertheless, will not be forming an orderly queue to back them; the dark irony is that Grand National week has started with a big gamble failing to come off. Only time will tell what it means for the future.
BIRMINGHAM CITY (4-4-2): Hart, Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell: Fahey, Bowyer, Ferguson, Gardner: Jerome, McFadden (Phillips 78). Not used: Taylor (GK), Parnaby, Vignal, Larsson, Madera, Benitez.
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina: Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Insua: Gerrard, Lucas: Rodriguez, Kuyt (Aquilani 80), Benayoun (Babel 71): Torres (Ngog 65). Not used: Cavalieri (GK), Mascherano, Agger, Degen.
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson
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