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Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010

PREMIER REPORT

League Cup reveals reality on Merseyside


LONDON — Only the most blinkered and biased of Everton and Liverpool fans would have believed their team could win the Premier League this season.

Christopher Davies

Yet only the most pessimistic, glass-half-empty followers could have thought the might of Merseyside would be humiliated by Brentford and Northampton, respectively, in the League Cup.

Everton was beaten by a side 17th in League One and Liverpool by a team 69 places below it near the foot of League Two. It is a long time since the city's big two have been in such dire straits and optimism is in as short supply as victories.

David Moyes has worked a footballing miracle to keep Everton competitive on a shoestring budget in comparison to its competitors in recent seasons, but the suspicion is the magic wand is running out of stardust.

After ending last season with only two defeats in its final 24 Premier League games, hopes were high for another decent campaign, but Everton has already lost three in five and is one off the foot of the table. It is one of only three English League sides — the others are West Ham at the bottom of the Premier League and Portsmouth who prop up the Championship — yet to pick up full points from a game.

It is Everton's worst start in 15 years, and the gamble of bringing in striker Jason Beckford has so far failed to pay dividends.

Yakubu is still finding his shooting boots, and Louis Saha's injury problems seem never-ending, but having only made a handful of appearances at Championship level the former Leeds United striker has yet to bridge the gap in class.

Liverpool had never lost to a club from English football's fourth tier in the League Cup, an ignominious piece of history for Roy Hodgson, who was brought in to steady the ship after Rafa Benitez's departure.

While not quite alongside the Titanic, Liverpool is sinking fast and the defeat by Northampton was the five-time European champions' biggest humiliation since losing to non-league Worcester City back in 1959 in the F.A. Cup.

Hodgson has not been helped by the civil war in the board room, but the side beaten by Northampton contained a number of full internationals while fringe players always say they are good enough for the first team. They had their chance and blew it, ditto Everton.

It is a sign of the times when the League Cup represents realistically these fallen giants' only hope of success this season. Both managers paid the penalty "literally as their sides lost in shootouts" of playing too weak a weakened team.

Hodgson apologized to Liverpool supporters "who expected us to win but it was not to be." He added that he had selected a team he believed would beat Northampton, a remarkable statement for a Liverpool manager.

Liverpool plays Sunderland on Saturday at Anfield, a game it would normally be expected to win. With Fernando Torres a pale shadow of the striker that terrorized defenses last year and confidence low, the match represents a huge test of character for players and manager.

Everton travels to Fulham, which is unbeaten in the league this season. Unlike Liverpool, Everton has generally played well without reward, but that cuts no ice with captain Phil Neville.

Said Neville: "We must forget all that rubbish, realize where we are because it's time to stand up and be counted."

* * * * *

ARSENE WENGER had to watch Arsenal's League Cup tie at Tottenham from the stands, the result of a misconduct charge for words (not complimentary) directed at fourth official Martin Atkinson at Sunderland last weekend.

The Football Association's punishment certainly affected Arsenal and its manager because the Gunners only won 4-1. The F.A.'s disciplinary system is the equivalent of the naughty step and its touchline ban is a non-punishment, little more than a token gesture.

Wenger was in touch with his bench by mobile phone, making the F.A.'s so-called ban a farce.

If it really wanted to stop the ugly sight of managers harassing the fourth official, it could adopt the UEFA punishment where a manager is banned from having contact with the players upon arriving at the stadium until the final whistle, effectively preventing him from doing his match day job.

Interestingly, Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and others refrain from giving the fourth official an earful during Champions League games, nor do they rip into the referee after the game as they do so often domestically. This is because they know UEFA will come down on them like a ton of bricks, but the F.A. is too much in the pocket of the Premier League and the League Managers' Association to make their punishment fit the crime.

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


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