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.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Well, it's just you and me now buddy

At some point after Brazil started turning the screws on the U.S. in the first half of their friendly this week, my eye turned to Lucas at every opportunity. How would he handle a low-pressure friendly against the U.S.? Would he do anything well?

Lucas did fine. A sustained period of effective play that got lost in the unavoidable, eyeball-grabbing force that is Neymar's hair. Seeing Lucas succeed at even an innocuous level is important because Liverpool fans need some active signs of, well, goodness - on the pitch - to back up the general late summer happy fun vibes everyone has been feeling. For example, just as soon as I looked at my checking account balance to decide if I could absorb the ultimate impulse buy that would be a David Amoo home kit from the official team site, I read a blurb on Twitter that Fabregas and Van Persie still might be available for Arsenal come Sunday. Wenger hasn't decided yet.

Jumpin' Jehosaphat! F*$!in' Arsenal! Almost forgot about them. I'd been busy reading the same Kenny Huang press release re-worded 19 different ways by 19 different media outlets, trying to parse some useful bit of information or subtext that would mean a billion pounds or more firehose stream of cash is available to buy players. You mean these guys actually have to go out and play the matches to find out if they're any good?

Which brings me back to Lucas. There's a reason I declared 2010 would be the year I quit smoking and/or support Lucas. Conquering two monumental demons like that in one pass around the sun is challenging. Maybe it could be done on one of those Saturn or Uranus trips around the sun, but on Earth, no way. As soon as I finish this post, and another cup of coffee, I'm stepping out onto the balcony and sucking straight through a heater like Ponce de Leon stashed the Fountain of Youth at the end of that filter.

But I'm a man of my word, so it's you and me Lucas. We're in this for 2010. The thing is, he's actually a nice player of a certain type. He provides a lot of side balls and short passes, taking care, usually, to maintain possession. He likes to venture up to the edge of the final third and just kind of observe from there. Makes himself available to the more forward players in case they're getting pressed and need to go back with the ball. He has a knack for falling over in the area 25-40 yards away from goal in just the right kind of way that it looks like he was fouled, so the referee will award Liverpool a free kick.

There are things to like about Lucas. Sure, I'm being a tad silly in my description of his positive attributes, but the last thing you want to do on the eve of the new season is to break down what Lucas does for Liverpool with all the seriousness of the Kennedy war room during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We're having fun in the 2010-11 season, and the obscenity-laced tirades can come later, if ever. Lucas is where it's at. He's going to feature in that Liverpool midfield. This is what the fans have to go with - against Arsenal, against Blackpool, against Trabzonspor, against whatever plucky, Magic-of-the-Cup lower-league side they get drawn against.

Good lord, they're actually going to play these games, aren't they? It seemed for a while there everyone would just spend a bunch of time talking about Joe Cole being really good/not as good as anyone thinks - and, again, combing through contradictory press releases from the Far East and Canada to see if anyone has any real money to buy the club. Well, if they're going to play, might as well see what's in 'em. Lucas, get on out there buddy. I got your back. Unless you really mess up and ... no, no. That's the wrong approach. I'll take the risk and say I belong to Lucas. Last season was for self-loathing. This season is for Lucas and Liverpool. Let's have some fun.