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Friday, Aug. 28, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Liverpool already facing uphill battle


LONDON — Is Liverpool's season over before it has barely begun?

Christopher Davies

It may seem ridiculous to write off a team's chances of winning the Premier League after just three games, but history is a powerful opponent and the record books show it takes 90 points to be champions.

Unless we are in for a freak season, that means any potential title-winners can lose only 24 points and already Liverpool has dropped six points — or one quarter of its "allocation." It lost only two games in all of last season.

Matches against the other big four clubs inevitably mean some losses, though last season Liverpool dropped only four points to Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. If that was repeated this season it would mean the Reds would only be able to drop 10 points in 29 games against the rest of the Premier League, a very tough task.

There are lies, damn lies and statistics, but two defeats in three matches, not least the unexpected 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa on Monday night, leaves Liverpool little room for error. After three games last season, eventual runnerup Liverpool had seven points.

The standard set by the Premier League's traditional four heavyweights is so high there is no room for a bad run. Anything less than a win at Bolton on Saturday would mean Liverpool having to almost remain unbeaten for the remainder of 2009-10.

It was unusual for manager Rafa Benitez to single out Steven Gerrard for criticism after his captain's rash 75th-minute tackle on Nigel Reo-Coker that allowed Ashley Young to make it 3-1 from the penalty spot.

The suspicion is that Benitez has never enjoyed the close professional relationship Sir Alex Ferguson had with Roy Keane, Arsene Wenger had with Patrick Viera and then Thierry Henry, and Jose Mourinho had with John Terry.

The rapport between manager and captain can be crucial, but there has always appeared to be a distance between Benitez and Gerrard.

For all Fernando Torres' brilliance, the Spain international became sidetracked into the pointless bickering with officials and the opposition against Villa that saw Benitez rebuke him publicly after similar petulance in the loss at Tottenham.

Like all great forwards, Torres will be the recipient of heavy challenges, too many of them unfair, but it comes with the territory. He goes to the ground too easily and expects a free kick for just about every tackle but he must learn to live with the school of hard knocks.

The £30 million sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid has left a hole in midfield, and Benitez needs the Spaniard's replacement, Alberto Aqualani from Roma, to be fit as soon as possible.

Worryingly, all five of the goals conceded by Liverpool this season have come from set pieces, including a free kick, a corner and a penalty in the Reds' first home defeat in two years by Villa.

Benitez would not get the majority vote among the Anfield faithful when he insisted the team does not need any more height in his back four, nor does he need to change his much debated system of zonal marking.

"Eighty-six points [last season's final total] prove that it is a good system," he said. "To concede only 10 goals last season from set pieces also proves it is a good system. Obviously we can always improve and we will try to improve."

The sooner the better or else 2009-10 will be a write-off.

* * * * *

AROUND 30 million people watch football in England each year with 2,000 arrests, which amounts to 0.006 percent. Football is generally a safe house.

The increased use of CCTV, all-seat stadia and improved stewarding has seen a massive improvement in crowd behavior since the dark days of the 1970s and 80s, but the dreadful scenes at Tuesday's League Cup tie between West Ham United and Millwall were a sharp reminder that the English authorities can never be complacent about hooliganism.

Hundreds of fans fought before, during and after the match. A 44-year-old man is stable in hospital after being stabbed in the chest. Police said 13 people were arrested.

The rivalry between the two clubs is bitter and the trouble was no real surprise. Whether thugs who support other clubs or just enjoy a punch-up became involved in a planned London yobs' fight night remains to be seen, but the inevitable Football Association investigation was launched while sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe said: "We have made great progress in tackling hooliganism in this country and will not tolerate a return to the dark days of the 80s. I completely back the F.A.'s call for any person identified as involved to be banned for life."

Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the F.A. needed to take "strong measures" to prevent a repeat. He said: "We have greatly toughened the law, toughened the way in which the police and stewards work. I am determined to ensure what happened at Upton Park was an aberration — but we look to the F.A. to take very strong measures to ensure this kind of thing doesn't happen again."

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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