With six fixtures left in the 2008-2009 season, Liverpool were fired up. It seemed like they could handle almost any onslaught with one of their own. They were like a heavyweight prize fighter. Few games demonstrated that as plainly as the April 21, 2009 match against Arsenal. A thrilling, and ultimately deflating, match.
Arsenal fielded a squad that included Fabregas, Nasri, Bendtner and Arshavin. Putting aside that only the first two of that list continue to play with the ability (not always demonstrated) to lead a blistering attack, that was a pretty hot group at the time.
Liverpool were no slouches either. Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun were firing on all cylinders. Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano combined to create one of the finest defensive/offensive pivots in a time when global soccer has been graced with several stellar examples of that component of free-flowing play.
Liverpool sat first in the table before and after the game (though Man United had games in hand), but after that 4-4 result, a slug-fest in which Arshavin managed to score four (including one wonderstrike from outside the box and another unbelievable finish after a nearly full-field sprint), it was pretty clear that the luck had run out, and sure enough, a second-place finish awaited.
And so we come to last Sunday’s match at Anfield against Chelsea. Predictably, Mourinho started the head-games early with talk of fielding a weakened team in order to focus his resources on the Champions League return league against Atletico. Ultimately, it’s hard to say the team he fielded was “weak,” even if it featured several players who won’t see time on the pitch Wednesday. And, also predictably, the game plan was to play back, play slow, waste time, break up the fluidity of Liverpool’s attack, and close down spaces in the box tightly to avoid the very pacey line-splitting incisive passes that have characterized the Suarez/Sturridge/Sterling juggernaut. And unfortunately for those of us who thought this year might actually be the one Liverpool again lifted the trophy, Chelsea executed its plan to perfection.
Liverpool controlled the play for long stretches, hovering around the box, winning a dozen corners, losing and regaining the ball rapidly, but ultimately failing to create the kind of threat necessary to crack the Chelsea nut.
In some ways Steven Gerrard’s horribly unfortunate slip — coming as it did late in injury time that was only added on because of Chelsea’s absurd time-wasting antics — could not have been worse. True, Liverpool maintained its composure in the second half, dominated play, and seemed likely to put one in the net if only because of all the pressure they were putting on the Kop end.
But, to this very interested observer, it seemed that Gerrard became the focal point in the attack. He roamed the attacking third, foregoing the more defensive pivot/anchor role he has executed with such aplomb all year, seeming to take shot after shot. His teammates seemed determined to get the ball to him, perhaps hoping that by feeding him the ball he would vindicate his first half error. The result was an attack that was camped in the attacking third, narrowly focused in the middle of the pitch with ten Blues behind the ball. There was no space for the speed and passing play Liverpool has fed on this season, and when they did try to spread play to the wings, already in the final third, there was no space to run, spread the defense and cross to an awaiting Red.
Gerrard has led this team with such passion, consistency, skill and calm that perhaps it was inevitable that he would not be able to pull off yet another 4-star performance on what should go down as one of the overall best seasons of his career. But what a shame that it came in this game, this late in the season. Time will tell, but it seems that slip by Stevie G. could be the equivalent of the four-goal Arshavin performance five years ago.
Regardless of what happens in run-in, Liverpool deserve tremendous credit for a truly spectacular season, one that far-surpassed the hopes of most fans that the Reds would finally get themselves back to Champions League football. That goal has been met, but so has the rebirth of belief that this team deserves to be ranked among the best.
And this season isn’t over yet: call me crazy, but I fully expect this season to come down to the last goal. And wouldn’t it be something if it’s no. 8 who scores it!