THREE down, one to go. With every embarrassment, every false dawn, Liverpool must feel they have hit rock bottom. Defeat, at home, in the third round of the Cup to Championship opposition should be as low as it gets.
Liverpool's dip, though, has become an abyss. Rafael Benitez's side keep on falling.
After 90 deeply insipid minutes, Liverpool looked like they had, at least, narrowly squeezed through to the fourth round of one of just two competitions which offered hope for a trophy to salvage a miserable campaign, thanks to an own-goal from Ryan Bertrand.
An injury-time penalty -- won by Shane Long minutes after entering the fray as a substitute and converted by Gylfi Sigurdsson -- put paid to that.
Worse was to come in extra-time. Irish international Long deftly nodded home from five yards after sterling work on the right wing from Brynjar Gunnarsson, who provided the kind of magic the Liverpool fans must have hoped Alberto Aquilani would provide when he arrived in the summer for £20m.
In three and a half hours of football against Reading, Liverpool could not win. Worse still, they saw Fernando Torres trudge off after just half an hour with a hamstring strain.
The welcoming optimism which accompanied the unveiling of Maxi Rodriguez before the game -- after the Argentine completed his free transfer from Atletico Madrid, agreeing a three-and-a-half year contract -- seemed distant indeed by the end.
The statistics, as always, will bear out that Liverpool dominated. They enjoyed the lion's share of possession, of territory, as befits a team of their status. Benitez could claim, as he is wont to do in such circumstances, that Liverpool controlled the game. What they failed to do is control their opponents.
Whereas their illustrious hosts struggled to carve out a chance even as they pressed forward, misplacing passes, misjudging runs, Reading could, and should, have led by two by the interval. More, perhaps.
By the time Jamie Carragher misjudged Simon Church's cross to gift, seemingly, the opener to Grzegorz Rasiak, Church himself and Sigurdsson had already gone close.
Rasiak missed, handing the hosts a reprieve Liverpool, devout recidivists, seemed determined to throw away. Four minutes later, Jobi McAnuff's cross came within inches of Church's head.
Again, Liverpool had been the architects of their own destruction, allowing players on a fraction of their wages, with a fraction of their reputations, to ghost through at will. It took 39 minutes for Benitez's side to create a chance worthy of note, to offer an increasingly fraught Anfield a glimmer of promise.
Philipp Degen laid the ball off to Yossi Benayoun, who curled a right-footed shot just over.
As it was, Liverpool needed a huge slice of fortune and a brief emergence from his, and his team's, torpor from Gerrard to take an entirely unwarranted advantage into the break. The Liverpool captain swapped passes with David Ngog, Torres's replacement, and saw his shot, or cross, ricochet off Ryan Bertrand and past Adam Federici. Anfield, subdued, could barely muster a cheer. It was Gerrard's last -- and possibly first -- contribution, the England international replaced at half-time by the enigmatic Ryan Babel.
Benitez, having lost one talisman, was clearly not prepared to countenance losing a second. Deprived of the two players so often credited with lifting them out of the ordinary, Liverpool toiled. Still it was Brian McDermott's side, increasingly starved of the ball, who created the better chances. McAnuff skated past three challenges, switching feet to pick away through the hosts' defence, and found himself one on one with Diego Cavalieri.
His shot trickled wide. Church headed over after rising unmarked. Sigurdsson drew a fine save from the goalkeeper.
When Phil Dowd judged Benayoun to have tripped Long and Sigurdsson converted the spot-kick, Liverpool could feel harshly treated by the decision, not the outcome. Reading deserved it.
Liverpool toiled. Still it was Brian McDermott's side who created the better chances. McAnuff, Church and Sigurdsson all threatened to equalise before the spot-kick. It was no more than Reading deserved.
Likewise Long's header, after good work from Bryn Gunnarsson, to hand the guests the lead. Babel and Benayoun went close, but to no avail. Match-winner Long admitted he found the perfect time to break his goalscoring duck.
"It was a nice time to score, it's been a long time coming and it's a good win for the boys," said the Tipperary man. "Last time we were unlucky not to win it and I think we deserved it."
Long insisted there was no doubt about the validity of the spot-kick, when he was brought down by Benayoun.
"No, definitely not," he said. "He was unlucky, I came from the blind side and he caught my ankle." (© Daily Telegraph, London)