Thursday, January 31, 2008

City, Liverpool Exposed for What They Are

Yesterday's action proved especially telling for two sides, Manchester City and Liverpool. Both teams came into this season with high expectations; Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez stated repeatedly that winning the Premiership was his side's main goal and obviously he wanted the deep Champions League run that has become the Reds' trademark. Manchester City didn't have the same expectations as Liverpool but with a new, successful manager and significant turnover from the 2006-2007 squad, City fans had to have been thinking along the lines of a place in Europe.

To be fair, City have had the least disappointing season of the two teams so far and there is still just over a third of the schedule remaining. However, with the way City started the year (three consecutive wins--including a win over fierce rivals Man U--, seven wins in their first ten league games, and three straight victories in the Carling Cup), fans have to be a bit nonplussed with the way City is going right now. The Blues have won just three times in their last 14 games in all competitions; one of those wins was in the FA Cup and another was against Newcastle.

City are the soccer version of bipolar as they boast a 9-3-0 record at home but only a 2-5-5 mark away from Eastlands. Yesterday's 1-1 draw against Derby, who are looking like the worst team in Premiership history, was a clear representation of City's problems. The equation is simple: If you can't win away from home, you won't challenge for anything significant. City were actually down 1-0 and it took a goal from a youngster, Daniel Sturridge, to equalize. Where was Elano? Where was Stephen Ireland? If your big name players don't perform on a consistent basis, again, you won't challenge for anything.

After yesterday's games, City sit in 6th place in the Premiership but that's looking tenuous. Liverpool (and I'll get to them in a bit) are only a point behind but have a game in hand and a much, much better goal differential. Blackburn is in 8th place and they're only a strong run away from passing City as they're just three points behind, and Portsmouth will make that strong run after they get the players who are currently taking part in the African Cup of Nations back in mid-February. Suddenly, City's 6th place spot and UEFA Cup berth could vanish and they could be looking at anywhere between 8th-10th. With the way they started the year, that would have to be viewed as a disappointment.

The true definition of disappointment, though, is Liverpool. I don't want to get into much detail about the Reds as I've already done that in the past week or so (and taken heat for it; was I wrong? No.) and there's no need to restate the obvious. Yesterday's game against West Ham was a microcosm of the entire season for Liverpool. More often than not, the Reds will have the clear advantage in amount of possession (the most useless stat in soccer), a high shot total but with few of those on goal, and more corners than their opponent. Yet on the scoreline, which is the only thing that matters, Liverpool tends to come up short. I don't care how long have you the ball; you can pass it around all game long and it wouldn't mean anything to me. It's all about what you do when you have the ball and in Liverpool's case, it's a whole lot of nothing.

Having said everything I have about Liverpool, I stand behind the prediction I made a couple weeks ago that they'll still finish in 4th place. But is that good enough? I'm sorry, I don't think just scraping by the other teams in the hunt for the last Champions League spot can be viewed as a success. It would be a step backwards from Liverpool's performance last season at a time when all the clubs around them are getting better, not worse.

City and Liverpool are two different cases of disappointment. Liverpool had title hopes and will be fortunate to finish in fourth place, while City had legitimate European hopes with the way they started out and may not get there. If you're a Liverpool fan, I'm not sure how you could possibly look at this season in a positive light and although you still can if you root for City, you have to think about what could have been.

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