By David Lynch
Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester United on Sunday afternoon provided a somewhat depressing microcosm of the club’s season so far.
Things started off in typically disappointing fashion, as a toothless Reds were dominated for the first 45 minutes at Old Trafford and found themselves one goal down thanks to Robin van Persie’s deft flick beyond Pepe Reina.
However, the manner in which the Spaniard subsequently managed to keep out Shinji Kagawa with seconds of the first period remaining provided that most damaging of emotions: hope.
Whilst this might have been temporarily extinguished as Patrice Evra - or Nemanja Vidic, as it eventually transpired - doubled United’s lead early in the second half, the visitors were able to take the rather unusual step of changing things at the top end of the pitch.
Daniel Sturridge and Fabio Borini entered the fray - one at half-time and another 17 minutes later - in an attempt to salvage a result from what appeared a certain defeat. That they came so close to doing so will perhaps have left a bitter taste in the mouth of the travelling support, but these are the green shoots which manager Brendan Rodgers must cling to in defeat.
Arguably, against a side who have defended poorly this season despite their status as league leaders, Liverpool had needed this extra attacking punch from the get go. Borini’s inability to start due to a lack of match fitness as he returns from a foot injury is, of course, an unavoidable piece of misfortune, but that Sturridge is in the same boat after arriving in January is criminal.
To underline their complete subordination to the Red Devils in the first half, Liverpool mustered just one shot on goal, and even that did not hit the target. In the second, the introduction of Borini and Sturridge resulted in 12 further attempts, with three of those bringing a save out of the underworked David de Gea.
But, much like Sturridge’s move to the club, it proved all too late. The former Chelsea man may have sparked a revival in terms of performance with his follow-in goal, but the visitors had given themselves too much to do with half an hour remaining.
In fact, Liverpool’s vast improvement in the second half paid tribute to another recurring theme of their season; the manager’s failure to get his starting line-up correct. This was not the first occasion that the Northern Irishman has shown a knack for changing a game with his substitutions, but he would perhaps make things easier by not causing the problems he is forced to solve in the first place.
The 39-year-old is a young boss who is clearly learning on the job; a situation which is far from ideal for a club with such lofty aspirations. That said, his changes hinted at taking such errors on board, and the Merseyside outfit will certainly need him to learn quickly if things are to change for the better.
The manner in which Sir Alex Ferguson - a manager infinitely more decorated and with 32 years on his counterpart - strangled the life out of the game spoke volumes. United’s superior experience on the pitch also told against an opposition whose average age was an entire year lower.
Of course, Liverpool fans who have waited 20 years for a league title do not want to be told about the importance of patience as they wait for their squad to mature and hope for a long-awaited challenge to their bitter rivals’ dominance. But, in reality, this is a campaign which effectively ended when the club’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, failed to provide a replacement for Andy Carroll back on August 31.
There is an opportunity for salvation in the remaining 16 games, clearly, but Liverpool’s season must continue to mirror their performance at Old Trafford by improving immeasurably in the second half.
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