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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
Liverpool fans must be feeling numb by now. There's only so much bad news you can take before you end up rocking backwards and forwards in the corner of the room, dribbling on your shoes and the weekend defeat to Barnsley was the final straw for most long-suffering Reds. Never has there been such a dramatic gulf between pre-season expectations and mid-season realisations.

When this campaign began, Liverpool fans were under the impression that a title challenge was on the menu and most pundits agreed with them. After all, they'd just been runners-up in Europe, they had one of the hottest strikers in the world and Rafa Benitez was settled into the hotseat with a carefully assembled squad of players. Off the pitch they had new, generous owners with the club's best interests at heart and there was a stadium in the pipeline that would rival the opulence of The Emirates.

Now, as the business end of the season approaches, Liverpool fans find themselves cut adrift from the title race, locked in a vicious dog-fight just to finish fourth, eliminated from both domestic cups and facing one of the best teams in Europe for a place in the last eight of the Champions League. Defeat to Inter Milan will almost certainly mean the end of Benitez's reign, leaving Liverpool firmly in the grip of the Gruesome Twosome, shackled with more debts than a Third World nation and facing a future that would have to improve markedly if you wanted to call it, 'uncertain'.

This forthcoming clash with Inter Milan then, is make-or-break for Benitez. Victory is the only outcome that can be considered, but sadly that's easier said than done. Roberto Mancini's side are running away with domestic affairs, so much so that they were able to rest Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the weekend. What can he do at Anfield, if Barnsley's Brian Howard has already lit the way? If even Luke Steele can keep the score down, then surely Liverpool will have no chance against Julio Cesar?

I wouldn't be so sure, actually. First things first, Liverpool should have beaten Barnsley by five or six goals. They didn't and they've been punished for it, but no-one should read too deeply into it. It's the FA Cup, it was a weakened team and these things do tend to happen. They were far worse against Luton Town at Kenilworth Road in the Third Round and if they had repeated that performance, but beaten Barnslet 1-0, I'd be more concerned.

Secondly, their strongest line-up didn't do too badly at all at Stamford Bridge. I realise that I might be the only person who managed to stay awake throughout that game, and I have to thank the girls who make the coffee at Chelsea for that, but Liverpool could, and perhaps should, have won that day. Martin Skrtel was immense and if Peter Crouch had taken his chances, it would have been very different. I know it sounds crazy after this weekend, but I still maintain that there is a decent team somewhere in all that mediocrity.

But finally, and most importantly, Liverpool always seem to save their best for Europe. It's a ridiculous situation, I've written many times about the folly of dismissing the home front in pursuit of foreign policy, but it does seem to work for Benitez. A disastrous first season was rescued by a European Cup win, built on narrow Anfield victories and boring Italian teams into submission. Last year's underwhelming haul of just 68 points was masked by yet another trip to the Final.

Benitez may not have managed to create a heart-poundingly, vivacious team of footballing cavaliers who can set the imagination alight, but by God, he can bore the pants off any team that can. When the big names return, when the crowd are in full voice and when backs are against the wall, you can always count on Liverpool to dig their heels in and force out a result that no-one thought possible. This football club is not down and out just yet and, who knows? Maybe a boring, gritty 1-0 win could be the touchpaper that finally ignites their season.