Sunday 25 February 2018

Rodgers awaking to Anfield false dawn

Liverpool 1
Aston Villa 3

Brendan Rodgers may have learnt the most crucial lesson of his first season as Liverpool manager on Saturday.

No matter how strong the temptation, never allow yourself to be infected by the chronic delusion that has plagued Anfield for too long. It is utterly debilitating.

Ahead of this sobering defeat – a comprehensive and deserved win for Paul Lambert's side – there was a hint Rodgers was falling into a familiar trap of presuming too much, too soon, hastily talking about this club in terms of the Premier League's top two places.

Anfield's history seduces, hypnotises and imparts an unjustified sense of entitlement in those who should know better, even when contemporary reality has nothing in common with the past.

Rodgers sounds like a rational, shrewd young coach when he embraces the truth of Liverpool's situation. A brief diversion to talk about the aim of bridging an 11-point gap to Manchester City – now 14 again – when the gulf is nearer several million miles, and pounds, is counter-productive.

It was as if, after an encouraging few weeks on Merseyside, the footballing gods empowered Aston Villa to issue a sobering reminder of how far this club still have to go.

Villa exposed the deficiencies with expert counter-attacking. Christian Benteke bullied and bewildered the Liverpool defence, scoring twice and creating the second goal for the equally impressive Andreas Weimann. The discussion about the out-of-favour Darren Bent, absent here through injury, should be over.

Lambert described Benteke as "brilliant". He added: "He can be anything he wants. He might not hit his peak until he is about 28, you never know. But he has been incredible for us. Everyone loves playing alongside him. His goals were outstanding."

There is a broader problem for Rodgers, which none of January's mooted transfer buys will resolve – as well as a striker, he needs another central midfielder. Not for the first time, there was a lack of intensity, malevolence, and downright aggression in the way Liverpool played in the centre of the park.

The midfield was timid, wilting whenever belligerent qualities were needed. Slow and uncombative, the weakness was demonstrated most clearly when Benteke waltzed unchallenged from the middle of Liverpool's half into the penalty area to score Villa's third after 50 minutes.

Lucas, only just back from injury, is a good player but he is absurdly overrated by some, as much as he was unfairly underrated by others a few years ago, while Joe Allen has endured a recent dip. Even at their best, the balance has not been right as Steven Gerrard tries to find his best role in a new system.

Talk of Anfield traditions too often neglects the legacy of Tommy Smith, Jimmy Case and Graeme Souness. They need a spiteful piece of work (on the pitch) who will earn his side the right to play and make sure the opponent cannot. Liverpool's cordial style sometimes gives the impression of docility.

Great if you are far superior to the opponent, but not when they are capable of taking advantage of the time and space you offer them.

Villa could have scored even more goals, while Liverpool's most encouraging moments were squandered. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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