05 May 2014

Liverpool exposes the myth of European entanglements

Well. I don't think any of us saw that coming. A Liverputian squad goes up 0-3, only to draw 3-3? What happened to that +50 goal-differential? What happened to that challenge for Prem title? They still have that +50, of course, courtesy of an epic ten-minute comeback from Palace. The title-challenge is all but dead, left to crumble to dust at Selhurst Park. The capitulation strands Liverpool at 81 points—vulnerable now to Man City, who are at 80 points (and have a game in hand) but also to Chelsea, who are at 79. If Chelsea had found some way to defeat Norwich, well, wouldn't that be a fine mess? It all makes for some fine entertainment from our position of relative stability even if fourth place ain't quite the prize we were hoping for. There's a bit of a lesson in the Liverputians' tale, though, one that we should take a moment to heed just as others are scoffing at that fourth place finish of ours.

First, though, the match. Liverpool had gone up 0-3 by the 55th minute thanks in no small part to Steven Gerrard's two assists. Game over, right? In fact, many watchers might have predicted another five- or six-goal explosion from the league's most-prolific offense. However, it wasn't to be, as Liverpool's offense stagnated, perhaps complacent in the idea that victory was at hand. Instead, Palace roared back to life to score three times in under ten minutes to level the score. Madness. The league's lowest-scoring side (tied, actually with Norwich) bags three goals? Three? They had 28 goals all season. Put another way, almost 11% of Crystal Palace's goals came on Monday (10.7% for the sticklers). On the other hand, it's not as if Palace hadn't already signaled the threat they could pose, having beaten Chelsea and Everton in recent weeks. Be that as it may, the real story here is how the result cripples Liverpool. Their fate now lies in the hands of Man City, who host Aston Villa and West Ham to close the season. Thus endeth, perhaps, Liverpool's assault on the top of the table. They may yet finish second, but this might only rub salt in the wounds. I don't mind the impact on one Luis Suarez, having made no secret of my disdain for the man, but I do regret the possibility that Steven Gerrard might have missed his last best chance at a title.

Enough of that, however. I'm not here to examine the ramifications of Liverpool's failure to defend. I'm here to explore what their apparent implosion suggests for us, now that we're into the Champions League for a 17th straight season (anyone who doesn't admit that for the achievement it represents is missing something). There were times when our position in the Prem looked shaky. It looked as if we might stumble so much as to allow Everton to finish in fourth. There was a time, however brief, when it was mathematically possible for Spurs or Man U to overtake us as well. There was even a time when some Gooners suggested that qualifying for European competition might not matter all that much. that maybe missing out on Champions League or Europa League play might actually benefit the club as it would clear the deck of a slate of difficult matches and allow us to focus exclusively on the Prem. Look at Liverpool, we've said to ourselves. With no such European commitments, they're free to beat up on wearier rivals who have to travel to Turkey or Germany or Russia. Where, after all, might we be without the two qualifiers against Fener, the six group-stage matches, or knockout-stage matches with Bayern? Fresher legs and fewer injuries might have seen us keep and claim just a few more points, no small consideration in a season when we might finish no more than five from the top of the table.

That was the script up until Monday when Liverpool watched Crystal Palace tear it to pieces (I supposed I should insert some kind of reference to beaks and talons and whatnot). Without claiming Liverpool's collapse as incontrovertible proof, it does suggest that freeing oneself from continental entanglements is not as rewarding as it may seem. Despite their less-cluttered schedule, Liverpool look to have failed in winning the Prem, the one competition on which they seemed to have truly focused since the season began. Be careful what you wish for, as the saying goes. If we had missed out on Champions League play, we might have been fresher and more-focused. As Liverpool are in the process of proving, though, that doesn't quite guarantee a Prem title. It's not the either-or proposition that some have made it. Our squad has shown that it can compete on both fronts. We came through the Champions League's most-difficult group and drew the defending champions, whom we put a bit of a scare into, all the while sitting atop the Prem for 128 days.

No, we won't end the season with a trophy to mark our achievements—but neither will Liverpool to mark theirs. We have an FA Cup final to look forward to, and beyond that, a summer of enticing some of the most-talented players in the world to join us as we again vie for glory in the Prem and Champions League. Take away the Champions League, and we might have had to say good-bye to any chance of signing players of the calibre we need. Thanks, Liverpool, for an entertaining season, one full of bluster and bravado but bereft, ultimately, of final product.