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Saturday, Oct. 29, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Contrast in Liverpool's performance an ongoing mystery


LONDON -- There are many unanswered questions in the world.

Christopher Davies

Why do we abbreviate number "No." when there is no "o" in number?

What did cured ham really have?

A third is -- how the heck did Liverpool win the Champions League last May?

Being champion of Europe does not necessarily make a side the best team in Europe, but five months after lifting UEFA's most prestigious club crown Liverpool would not even come into the equation.

While it is still managing to produce the goods in Europe -- Liverpool is joint top of Champions League Group G along with Chelsea after drawing at home with the English champion and winning on the road at Real Betis and Anderlecht -- its form in domestic football is as puzzling as it is embarrassing.

The Reds looked more chumps than champs as they crashed out of the Carling Cup in the first attempt, Championship side Crystal Palace beating them 2-1.

A Liverpool team packed with internationals including Steven Gerrard, Sami Hyypia, Harry Kewell, Dietmar Hamann, Peter Crouch and Fernando Morientes, was eventually outplayed by a Palace side which thoroughly deserved its victory over the European champion.

Two wins and five goals in eight Premiership games sees Liverpool in 13th position -- four points off the relegation zone and 18 points behind Premiership leader Chelsea -- with a growing belief among fans that Liverpool's foreign legion is only interested in raising its game for Europe.

Liverpool's record in English competitions for 2005 is: P31, W11, D7, L13, F28, A35.

At the moment there are more questions than answers at Anfield, with manager Rafael Benitez unable or unwilling to give direct responses.

Why is there such a marked contrast between Liverpool's European and domestic form?

In Europe, Benitez appears confident of his strongest lineup and his most effective tactics, but at home he is forever switching his team selections which only adds to the uncertainty which currently pervades Anfield.

Benitez's reaction to last Saturday's defeat was as significant as it was worrying.

"We all know we have to change the attitude," he said after yet another away day post-Europe slump at Craven Cottage. "The performance was bad in terms of the aggressiveness of the players."

That is as serious an indictment of his players as possible.

Supporters will excuse the odd technical deficiency and they can live with defeat if they are convinced the players have given every drop of blood, sweat and tears to the cause.

For £30,000 a week that is the minimum the paying spectator can expect in return for his money.

Benitez has six offensive players in his squad costing almost £40 million, but apart from Djibril Cisse the rest have dreadful scoring records.

While injuries have hampered the pair, Harry Kewell has not scored in the league in 10 months, likewise Florent Sinama-Pongolle.

Fernando Morientes has failed to net since April, while Peter Crouch has yet to open his goal account for Liverpool in 11 attempts since his £7 summer transfer from Southampton.

Inevitably, Liverpool supporters are asking why the club allowed Michael Owen to return to English football from Real Madrid with Newcastle for £16 million, instead of rejoining his former club, the player's preferred destination.

Despite claiming he wanted Owen back, Benitez, who appeared happy to let the England striker go to Real in 2004, watched him slip through the net in the close season.

The official reason was Liverpool did not feel it could pay double to bring Owen back to Anfield a year after his departure, though, most believe it is because the England striker does not fit Benitez's favored 4-5-1 lone striker system.

The 201-cm Crouch does but has yet to score and while he can claim with justification the service he has received has been minimal going on non-existent, he has yet to threaten defenses as he did last season with relegated Southampton.

When you have the tallest outfield player in the Premiership, the team tends to revert to route one football and the balance of the side has been upset by Crouch's arrival, with Benitez seemingly uncertain of how best to deploy him.

With the Spanish title, UEFA Cup and Champions League on his CV, Benitez's pedigree is unquestioned, yet the players he has brought to Anfield -- a manager is often judged by his dealings in the transfer market -- have not been altogether successful.

He has signed Luis Garcia, Xabi Alonso, Jose Reina (all successes), Fernando Morientes, Peter Crouch, Josemi, Bolo Zenden, Mohamed Sissoko, Scott Carson (the jury still out on these six) for around £45 million; while Antonio Nunez, who has already left the club, was a makeweight in the Owen deal.

Owen and last season's top scorer Milan Baros also have departed, while another striker Anthony Le Tallec is on loan at Sunderland.

The good news was that Steven Gerrard turned down the chance to join Chelsea and signed a new contract to stay at Anfield following the Champions League triumph over AC Milan, though, should the Reds continue to slump the captain will predictably be linked with a move.

"There's got to be a big reaction to this," said Gerrard ahead of Saturday's match against West Ham. "We've all got to play for the shirt and start showing how much it means to play for this club."

In other words, the players must show the passion toward Liverpool the people who pay their wages do.

MANY YEARS and vodkas ago, I sat next to George Best on a flight back from Florida where he was playing for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

He was having problems with Angie, his first wife and said to me: "Have a look at this. You're an expert with words. What do you think?"

Flattered that the finest domestic footballer I have ever seen should regard me as an expert, I looked at the piece of paper on which was a handwritten poem to Angie.

I would not betray Best's confidence -- suffice to say it was touching and not the sort of act one would associate with a man whose later life has been dependent on alcohol.

I declare a bias. I like George Best and have lived dreading what most consider to be the inevitable headline.

As a player he did things even my wildest dreams did not permit and behind the excesses of drink there remains, I am convinced, a nice guy.

Best, 59, will not get the sympathy vote as he fights for his life in the intensive care unit of the Cromwell Hospital, London.

Three years ago he had a liver transplant which gave him, in his mind, a license to drink.

Alcoholism is a disease and it says more about those who treat it with disdain or flippancy than it does about the victim.

Despite the stories surrounding his love life, Best was as happy sharing the company of fellow football lovers picking a team to represent Earth against the moon.

Best, of course, would be the first name on this correspondent's Earth XI team sheet and let's hope he hangs around on the planet for further selection.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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