FOOTBALL: No Michael, Just Taking It; PORTSMOUTH .1 (Berger 4) LIVERPOOL ....0 Former Red Berger Exposes Shortcomings as European Highs of Midweek Turn into Premiership Woes
Byline: IAN DOYLE
THEY may have been without their Michael,but Liverpool were simply taking it on Saturday.
How else must Reds supporters feel after watching the side which impressively despatchedOlimpijaLjubljanain midweek turn out a performance as abject and lifeless as the one which stank Fratton Park out a mere three days later?
Mid-October and with only nine games gone, GerardHoullier's side find themselves mid-table,already a massive 12 points behind leaders Arsenal with fans resigned to another trying campaign of underachievement and frustration.
Okay, so as the Reds boss insists, the players on Saturday may have been tired, they may have been jaded and the squad is obviously lacking a number of key injured personnel of which Michael Owen is the most prominent and most missed.
But this sorry defeat means Liverpool haven ow taken just 45 points from their last 35 league games since the commencement of their now infamous winless run of last season. The players can't have been tired for the majority of those games. They weren't injured for the majority of thosegames.
Assessing that statistic -14 games lost to only 12 won in that period -it isn't championship form,it's relegation material. And while nobody expects the Reds to be struggling at the wrong end of the table, using those figures as a guide, why should anyone back them to make any impact at the top?
``Good teams do not lose two in a row,'' is a favourite saying of Houllier's. In that case, what does that make a team which loses three Premiership games in succession? The Reds boss might point to unbeaten UEFA Cup ties during that spell, but since when has that earned league points? The reverse at Charlton could be dismissed as a blip. Losing at home to Arsenal was unfortunate but understandable. But the defeat against Harry Redknapp's recycled Premiership parts on Saturday was wholly inexcusable, a throwback to the dark days of last winter and the mind-numbing displays at Sunderland and Newcastle.
That St James' Park reverse on New Year's Day exerted massive pressure on Houllier at the time,and while there is always a knee jerk reaction following unsettling losses such as the one at the weekend, this latest setback is likely to provoke a similar response. Then, as now, the growing feeling is there can only be so long before drastic results require drasticmeasures.
It all makes for ugly reading for a manager who must be aware that Champions League qualification is the bare minimum which he must achieve this season -both for the financial reward and the incentive it hands Owen to sign anew contract. Despite Houllier's post-match protestations to the contrary, the championship is realistically now just a piped ream but fourth place remains an eminently attainable target. To achieve that,however, the Reds boss must first grapple with his team's crippling lack of consistency.
For a start,Houllier must determine the right time to give his side the freedom to attack and the right time to strangle the life out of opponents. The current style of play is undoubtedly easier on the eye,but there is a time and a place for it. Too many players on Saturday were given too much of a free role, which led at times to a confused muddle in midfield which an eager Portsmouth were quick to capitalise on and pressure a defence which was left worryingly exposed, particularly in the first half.
Igor Biscan had been assigned the holding role in midfield but looked ill at ease in the position after an impressive spell at centre-back from which he was usurped following the welcome return to fitness of Stephane Henchoz.
That said, if Owen had been available,Liverpool would not have lost the game. That is not to say the rest of the players would have performed any better, but in Owen the Reds have a true match winner and natural goalscorer. Without him, the goals a rehard to come by. …