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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
It's two wins from two for Liverpool in the Premier League and European qualification has been secured, but has success ever been this abject? If the sign of a champion is the ability to win when you play badly, then Liverpool should have the title wrapped up by Christmas, because I don't think they've been quite this poor since the darkest days of the Souness era.

When Gerard Houllier was finally shoe-horned out of the hot-seat in 2004, he left a disjointed team with no width and with strikers forced to play in midfield. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss. For reasons known only to himself, Rafa Benitez has taken these blueprints for failure and followed them to the letter. I like Dirk Kuyt. He's a good striker with the work ethic of a shirehorse. He is not, however, an out-and-out right-midfielder. A child could tell you this.

The most irritating aspect of Liverpool's current plight, and don't let those streaky wins fool you, this really is a plight, is that they were so close to actually getting somewhere last season. Benitez's 4-2-3-1 was an inspired use of resources, freeing up Steven Gerrard and allowing hm to forge a compelling and rewarding partnership with Fernando Torres. As England fans will tell you, there's little point in telling Gerrard where to play because he never listens, so releasing him from defensive duties and putting two midfielders in behind him was a master-stroke. Even Kuyt looked good at inside-right, harrying the left-back and then pushing up as an auxilary striker. The future looked bright.

When Benitez paid that David Villa-sized fee for Robbie Keane this summer, I voiced my doubts here. Yes, he's a good striker, but is he really twice the value of Peter Crouch, who was forced out of Anfield through a lack of first team opportunities? Where would he play? Surely Benitez wasn't going to return to that narrow 4-4-2 that had damned Liverpool to mediocrity for years? Oh.

This is the Spaniard's fifth season in charge and, by anyone's standards, he's long overdue a title challenge. Drifting out of the race at Christmas and enjoying a bit of a run in Europe is not an option, but even that looks doubtful at the moment. On the opening day of the campaign they were made to look ordinary by Sunderland and were rescued by a moment of class from Torres. They were deservedly losing at home to Middlesbrough when a deflected Jamie Carragher strike set them up for this season's customary Gerrard injury-time blast and in midweek, they were taken through 147 minutes of stalemate and almost humiliated by Belgians. Belgians!

Last season, Benitez was saved from the sack by the mobilisation of the Red Army through the streets of Merseyside. The Gruesome Twosome were forced to back down because the people had spoken but this extraordinary good fortune cannot last forever. If Liverpool carry on playing this badly, if their very obvious weaknesses are exploited this weekend by Aston Villa, then next time, those supporters might just decide to stay quiet.