David De Winter – Sports Writer
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. What if I had actually revised for my A-Levels instead of watching the 2006 World Cup? Would I have gone to a better university? Probably (thank God I didn’t). What if, on one of my desperate and all-to-frequent forays on to Tinder, I had swiped that borderline girl right instead of left? Would I finally have a match? Don’t be silly. What if Steven Gerrard hadn’t stumbled and let Demba Ba stroll through to score Chelsea’s opener last month? Would Liverpool have won the title? Two weeks ago, Liverpool were in pole position and all and sundry were crowning them Premier League champions. Yet two games later, they find themselves relying on an improbable run of results to end their 24-year wait for a league title. Is it fate, or is there something else to blame?
The ability to think under pressure is one of the most prized assets in sport. The essence of a world-class sportsman is the capability to make the correct decision at a crucial point in a match. Jonny Wilkinson is one such example; football-wise, Andrea Pirlo seemingly never makes a mistake – he always plays the right pass. When I was growing up, Steve Waugh was captain of an Australian team that never slipped up when the pressure was on. Liverpool, having never been in their situation before in the history of the Premier League, have seemingly choked. Manchester City on the other hand, having won the League in 2012, have that experience and know what it takes to be Champions. The key, I hear you all cry? Don’t crack under pressure.
The warning signs first surfaced ironically after Liverpool’s 3-2 victory over City in April. The players reacted as if they had won the League, the lottery and a night with Scarlett Johansson in one fell swoop (admittedly it was the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster so emotions were running high). City would never have celebrated like that so prematurely. Even after their comprehensive 4-0 victory over Aston Villa which leaves them with one hand on the trophy, they didn’t go overboard. They still know that they have to get the job done on Sunday.
The Anfield club’s second major error was this: if you can’t win the game, don’t lose it. One must commend Brendan Rodgers’ commitment to his attacking philosophy and it has reaped countless rewards this season, but Liverpool have been unbelievably naïve in their approach to their past two games against Chelsea and Crystal Palace. They were in a situation where seven points (two wins and a draw) would have sealed the title. Rodgers must have known Chelsea would come with a defensive set-up (the West London club needed a win to stay in the title hunt) but even so he went with a gung-ho attitude when he could afford to play for a draw. Chelsea’s organised defence was more than a match for the Reds’ much vaunted but unusually blunt attack and predictably, another Jose Mourinho tactical masterclass snatched victory for the Blues.
No bother. Liverpool need a victory against Crystal Palace to keep the pressure on City. All seems to be going to plan after 75 minutes; the Reds are cruising at 3-0 up. But what’s this? Philippe Coutinho emerges from the bench to replace Raheem Sterling in an effort to overcome Liverpool’s inferior goal-difference. There’s no thought of introducing experienced defender Daniel Agger to the fray to close out the game. Minutes later Palace have scored two goals and look like getting a third. Ah good. Rodgers has seen sense and is replacing striker Daniel Sturridge for….Victor Moses, an attacking winger, not renowned for his defensive solidity. No worries, Rodgers will probably get Liverpool to sit back, soak up Palace’s attacks and hit them on the break. What’s that? A long ball and Eagles have a three-on-two in the centre of Liverpool’s defence? Oh dear. Cue Palace equaliser and a capitulation of cataclysmic proportions.
In trying to rack up a cricket score, Liverpool threw the game and the title away with a naivety of staggering proportions. Their game management was inherently flawed because they failed to realise the situation they were in and play to it accordingly. There is no doubt that they have been the entertainers this season, but as Arsenal fans will testify, aesthetics does not equate to success. As a Liverpool fan I have been delighted, enchanted even at the football that has been played; how they have dominated teams such as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United from start to finish. But even Manchester United in their 1999 heyday would grind out a result when they had to. The question is with Gerrard a year older next season, United back to near their best and Chelsea to improve too, will Liverpool get a better opportunity in the near future?