Monday, August 23, 2010

The Phantom Menace

In trying to process the state of Liverpool Football Club during the game against City ("live" on DVR two hours after it ended), I could only think of one feeling similar to what I experienced while seeing Adam Johnson, James Milner and Carlos Tevez stretch and tear the Reds apart: the realization about 10-15 minutes into seeing The Phantom Menace during a midnight screening that I was watching an unrecoverable disaster. "Oh my god, this is going to be terrible."

And that's what it was. When ESPN flashed the possession stats just before halftime – 63 percent to 37 percent, in favor of City – the awfulness was made even more unavoidable. Again, the proceedings in Manchester reminded me of The Phantom Menace. That movie taught us how The Force is actually just a blood-borne illness with some amazingly beneficial symptoms. Likewise, something sick inside my body convinced me turning off the TV, even after City's third, would be tantamount to a betrayal on par with whatever it was they had Hayden Christensen do in the last of the new movies. I forget exactly because I watched those things out of some silly generational obligation. It was horrible.

So the match played out on the DVR. No fast-forwarding of even a second. But other than a flurry that saw Gerrard hit the post and Joe Hart make a terrific reflex save of a close-range Torres blast, there was nothing from Liverpool to take my mind off that first Phantom Menace-inspired moment, which was the bewildering realization that something I'd been so convinced would be fun and positive was going to be spirit-crushing, negative and often pathetic. But it's more than that because the accompanying feeling wasn't one of surprise. Watching the action unfold supplied all the evidence to prove my expectations were misguided, but the weight of that evidence also made the feelings of dread about this season take effect retroactively. As if I should've been seriously worried three weeks ago about Liverpool's chances for a Top 4 redemption in 2010-11. I believe cazart is the term for the sensation that came over me.

How will they sustain an effort that earns them a finish above two of City, Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and United? Forgive me, Villa fans, for excluding you from that list. You will each be allowed to hurl one rotten piece of fruit at me in a public square if Liverpool's trip to St. James Park ends worse than yours. Besides, revenge-seeking Villa fans are the least of any Liverpool supporter's problems right now. This isn't a few years ago, when Liverpool could manage being miles behind the title contenders but still stroll into fourth or third place without much difficulty. Monday gave Liverpool a trip to City, a side larded with the world's finest collection of players who were just free-range enough to leave whatever club it was where they made their name. This is a team that was whipped senseless in the opening week, saved only by their decidedly nonostentatious keeper. Whatever City's talent is capable of, first that team must be assembled. Right now, Mancini has merely taken all the parts out of the box – and yet, Liverpool looked like bystanders to the proceedings.

Of course, I'll concede the absence of Joe Cole, and the distractions and deleterious effects to team effectiveness caused by Mascherano's last-minute refusal to play mean Monday's performance leaves room for improvement. It's still a team coming together, with new players figuring out how to work best with each other. Hodgson played 4-4-2, which I doubt made the players feel reborn in the football life force (and, among other unfortunate lessons learned in hindsight, played a role in keeping Nigel De Jong from having to make even one disgusting late challenge). Liverpool will play better against quality opponents this year, and all cannot be judged from the performance at City.

But Monday's game was a status check on Liverpool's progress and seriousness as a team. In the opening week, Liverpool and Arsenal treated the match like an inconveniently timed friendly whose outcome just happened to also have league points at stake. The City match, whether it's still August or whatever qualifier you want to put on it, was a legitimate early measure of Liverpool's chances of returning to the Champions League. And that's the minimum goal. The longer a team stays out of that competition, the further they get from returning. The club can't afford to miss out again, particularly with the fiasco in slow motion happening on the ownership front.

Against City, Liverpool looked further from the Champions League places than they were at the end of last season. Only in spring, it was easier to handle as a supporter because a few months had been spent coming to terms with the drop in status. Here, for 2010-11, a flurry of positive news hiked fan ambitions. Joe Cole was a free, yes, but he was a name and a player supporters had seen play well in the past. It was good news. Roy Hodgson struck the perfect tone with all of his public statements – straightforward, honest and refreshing. Gerrard and Torres decided to stay. It was an uptick in fan emotions. There were many reasons this new, updated edition to the Liverpool story would launch fans into a fun season loaded with moments sure to create new memories for a lifetime. Adam Johnson did his best Jake Lloyd impression last night to crush that rosy worldview. Whatever improvements come as Liverpool moves on, the City match showed supporters the limits of what should be hoped for this season. It's never fun to realize that so early in the story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think all hope is lost for Liverpool. Not every goaltender Joe Hart--the attack around the 60th minute comes up goal 9/10 times. Add that goal, take away the sloppy penalty that led to Tevez's PK and it's 2-1. If Joe Cole is in there, we could have been looking at 2-2.

Top four still seems like a tall order for Liverpool, but Wigan they ain't.