Champions League Dreams, Sunday League Minds

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It’s often been said about Steven Gerrard, given his penchant for dramatically decisive and crucially timed moments of magic, that the Liverpool captain is working to a script. That his moments of magic are so regular and wondrous that they could only be written by storytellers.

This was one script that got lost in translation.

As Liverpool-born Gerrard placed the ball on the penalty spot, where hordes of Liverpool players had previously fought to no avail in a crushing evening against West Bromwich Albion, Gerrard knew he had done this a thousand times before. In his garden as a child, on the training pitch as a man, and in some of Liverpool’s biggest games as a captain.

But this time, Gerrard was going to miss.

It was inevitable, really.

It was in the way Luis Suarez had bought the penalty from Jonas Olsson after fairly minor contact.

It was in the way that Stewart Downing had disappeared, head down and eyes on the grass, the longer the game had gone on.

It might not have been the script Gerrard was used to, or that he wanted. But it was a familiar scene that played out on Merseyside on Monday night.

Liverpool fans had once again paid full price for a repeat showing, and some left the theatre before the reel had finished, choosing to distance themselves from the horror on show. They will not be missed, even by those who had considered departing themselves.

Most pushed through until the referee at long last drew the whistle to his lips and brought an end to yet another disappointing night at Anfield. Many yelled insults at the players, angered and hurt by what they had endured, not just on the night in question, but over the last 10 years of dedicated fandom. Others sat numb, unable to process or form an appropriate reaction to another setback.

West Brom’s first goal seemed predictable. The second a mere formality. The final score an embarrassment.

It had been an evening of promise. Liverpool, coming off the back of two fantastic performances against top opposition, would be up for it. West Brom, who had not won since December, would be dispatched.

Even after 20 minutes, when Jonjo Shelvey had seen a goal ruled out for offside and Liverpool had cut through the Baggies defence several times without scoring, a win seemed likely.

By the hour mark however, enough shots and passes had gone astray to suggest that this was “one of those nights.”

Had the linesman failed to spot Jonjo Shelvey so lackadaisical in an offside position and permitted him the goal, it’s conceivable that the reds would have raced to a 3 or 4 goal win not dissimilar to those they have already notched against Norwich, Sunderland, Wigan and QPR this season.

Had Steven Gerrard been given the opportunity to take that penalty within the first half an hour of the game, he probably would have scored it.

Instead his shot and West Brom’s place in the top half of the table was saved by Ben Foster, the latest in a long line of goalkeeper’s to show their best form at Anfield.

Other manager’s will have been watching Steve Clarke’s side, who were content to soak up an unimaginative and unconfident Liverpool series of attacks until the late minutes, when Gareth McAuley headed in from a corner. It was Albion’s second shot of the game.

Clarke may seem like a manager that got lucky against a typically profligate Liverpool but the Scot should invite doubters to look at his resume.

It was him that worked closely with many of these players last season and he will have known the best way to shake up the fragile minds of the Liverpool ranks.

Even Gerrard, the heroic leader in the tale, was susceptible to the mental weakness that grips his side as soon as things start to go against them. It is all-encompassing, not just confined to the oft-picked upon likes of Stewart Downing, but in fact a deep psychological malaise.

This is a team so full of “confidence players” that it has become a confidence team.

After all, a team with the creative talents of Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard, two of the best players in the world, joined by a respectable supporting cast of Jordan Henderson, Downing and Glen Johnson, should be able to break down a side with the defensive frailties of West Bromwich Albion.

They could not, however. Not because they weren’t good enough, but because they weren’t headstrong enough.

It’s the same reason they started playing well against Manchester United at 2-0 down, with the pressure off.

Even in arguably their two greatest performances of the season, last week against Manchester City and Arsenal, the mental fragility was clear as day, a huge weakness in an otherwise excellent football team.

Liverpool are more scared of reaching the champions league than not reaching it, to the point where the team seem to fold pathetically in every game that matters towards reaching qualification.

Few teams can play the ball around quite as efficiently and attractively then Liverpool when they have a 1 or 2 goal lead against a team lower than them in the table, but the fact that they haven’t beaten a single top ten side tells its own story.


Follow me on twitter @matt_volpi for more.

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