Sunday, April 28, 2013

Appetite for (self-)destruction

Newcastle Utd 0 - 6 Liverpool

According to the Silver Fox in his post-match interview, we're in a relegation battle. No shit, Sherlock. After our worst home defeat since 1925 and a performance of quite staggering defensive ineptitude and (even more worryingly) spinelessness - quite probably the worst since this site started in 2004 - it would be ridiculous to claim that we're too good to go down. It's incredible that a core of players who finished fifth last campaign can have been supplemented with a clutch of established internationals and yet still find themselves in such serious peril - but no one came out of this encounter smelling of roses, or indeed anything other than manure.

On paper, Liverpool looked like relatively welcome opponents for our first home game since that disastrous derby. First and foremost, Luis Suarez would be missing, leading to hosts of pundits and media types pondering whether Liverpool would lack bite without him (chortle chortle) and Mark Lawrenson to tip us for victory. And then there was recent history: it was the Scousers whom we defeated in the Silver Fox's first game in charge, and last season the fixture was a joyous 2-0 cakewalk in which Pepe Reina was red-carded and we had the added bonus of laughing at Jose Enrique filling in between the sticks.

This time around, however, proved to be very different indeed, instead summoning up the spectre of the 5-1 battering we suffered in December 2008 in which heads went down and relegation started to look a distinct possibility. Fingers crossed this latest appalling pummelling doesn't foreshadow the same fate.

The side showed one change from the one that took to the field at the Hawthorns, the fit-again Mr T returning at the expense of the rather unlucky Goofy, last weekend's scorer. If the Silver Fox's intention was to stiffen up central midfield, the tactic failed horribly - time and again in the first half, Philippe Coutinho and others found acres of space to attack our back four, while Moussa Sissoko, shunted off to the flank, was as hopelessly ineffective as Spidermag.

That Liverpool didn't win their last away game, at Reading, by a similar scoreline was solely down to the performance of Royals 'keeper Alex McCarthy. Not that Rob Elliot, continuing to serve as understudy to the injured Tim Krul, could really be faulted for the astonishing carelessness with which the goals were conceded. He could perhaps have done slightly better for Daniel Agger's opener, after just three minutes, but in fairness his defence - and Massadio Haidara in particular - had left him painfully exposed.

By that point MYM had already had to slide a sizzling Glen Johnson cross behind for a corner with Daniel Sturridge lurking ominously, and the visitors didn't have to wait too long to double their lead. An upfield hoof by Reina was flicked to Coutinho by Sturridge, who span away from Haidara and accelerated into space. Found by the Brazilian's brilliantly deceptive outside-of-the-foot through-ball, he knocked the ball wide of Elliot for Jordan Henderson - oh yes, £15m Mackem superflop Jordan Henderson - to tuck home.

Haidara was having a nightmare, but at the other end did at least beat his man and whip in a cross that an unmarked Perchinho met with the proverbial 50 pence piece header. It could have got worse before the break, too, with the ever-dangerous Sturridge flagged narrowly offside. In the aftermath of the whistle, he tangled with Mathieu Debuchy, both players' names going into Andre Marriner's book.

That something drastic needed to be done at half-time was blindingly obvious - exactly what, though, remained to be seen. Sections of the St James' Park crowd had been chanting HBA's name as early as the 20th minute, and they got their wish with the Frenchman introduced for the second half in place of Spidermag. Goofy also came on, the Silver Fox signalling a serious shift of attacking intent, but the retention of Mr T at Perchinho's expense baffled - the Ivorian had been a liability throughout the first period, hapless in possession, wayward in tracking and tackling, and looking likely to have Marriner reaching for a red sooner rather than later.

Nevertheless, the substitutions (and the decision to move Dreamboat deeper) had the desired impact and for seven or eight minutes we looked a side transformed, with impetus and creative ability in the final third. And then HBA, driven backwards into his own half, cheaply surrendered possession to Coutinho, who advanced and picked out a perfect dinked pass for Sturridge to blast home. Six minutes later it really was all over. Under no pressure whatsoever and with MYM and Haidara making a complete hash of playing offside, Steven Gerrard was able to pick out Henderson, who squared for Sturridge to knock past Elliot's despairing dive.

The Silver Fox's response? Keep Big Lad - the one player who could have ruffled a few feathers - benched and instead bring on Vurnon Anita for Mr T. If this was an attempt at damage limitation, then the horse had very definitely already bolted - and, as if to underline that point, Liverpool scored two more. First, substitute Fabio Borini - an even bigger Kop flop than Henderson - was able to get his first league goal for the Reds with his second touch, a right-foot prod after Stewart Downing had deceived Haidara far too easily. And then Henderson curled in a free-kick that players on both sides dived to connect with but which found its way in at the far post untouched.

That free-kick was awarded for a stupid lunge on Coutinho by Debuchy - doubly stupid because it earned him a second yellow and a place in the stands for next weekend's increasingly vital clash at Upton Park. Thankfully, Liverpool decided enough was enough and, aside from a Coutinho shot that Elliot brilliantly tipped onto the bar, didn't threaten to worsen the humiliation and our goal difference.

If there was one tiny crumb of comfort, it was Spurs' last-minute equaliser at the DW Stadium. Prior to that, Wigan had looked set for three points courtesy of our dear friend Callum McManaman's drive. As it is, we remain just five points above them and praying for (this makes me shudder to contemplate) a Mackem win at Villa Park tomorrow night.

So how are our remaining fixtures looking? West Ham next weekend, when you just know that Fat Sam, Rocky and Kevin Nolan will be keen to kick us while we're down. QPR the weekend after that - the Hoops will almost certainly be relegated by that point, but 'Appy 'Arry and Loic £emy will no doubt relish the opportunity to inflict pain. And then the visit of Arsenal, who are very likely to need the points in their chase for a Champions League place. We've picked up one win away from home all season and now seem to have turned into total basket-cases at St James' Park. All of which means we're in extremely deep shit.

The Silver Fox's immediate task is to rebuild confidence - the players looked completely shot, and worryingly so given the fact that the West Brom display suggested they'd got the derby and subsequent fallout out of their systems. He then needs to impress on everyone the importance of those remaining games and demand a much improved workrate and commitment (at the very least). He also needs to give the defence (now the leakiest in the division) some urgent lessons in the offside trap - not just Papiss Cisse this time. When it comes to the matches themselves, he is now under huge pressure to get the tactics (and substitutions) spot on - though the players need to accept their responsibility and realise that the level of performance against Liverpool was disgraceful and cannot happen again. If it does, make no mistake - we'll be waving hello to the Championship.

A Liverpool fan's perspective: The Liverpool Offside

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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