Monday, April 06, 2009

Title Race Down The Wire

Fulham 0
Liverpool 1 (Benayoun 90+1)

Going down the wire seems a good expression of this season’s English Premiership title race but it’s more of an understatement after this weekend’s round of fixtures. Scintillating, fascinating and exhilarating. Those were the words epitomising 2 separate fixtures of the 2 closest title rivals.

Like a classic tug-of-war fashion, nobody seems to be giving up and when pressure seemingly gets on one side, they overcame and lived to fight another day. The battles were won but the outcome of the war is still a mystery.

And any slip-ups now surely will tip the scale. It’s either Man Utd or Liverpool, with Chelsea having an outside chance of sneaking it when nobody’s even talking about Guus Hiddink and his under-performing team.

United were set to face the team that were downed 5-0 by Liverpool last week while the Reds visited Craven Cottage to face the team that helped them a great favor last week after their shock 2-0 win over United.

That was the fascinating factor. In football, when adrenaline pumps and pressure gets on, form goes out the window and statistics doesn’t add up at all.

Villa, who were in dire form of late, visited Old Trafford to face a wounded giant. The humiliating defeat by Liverpool would surely give people the impression that United would have it easy at home as well.

But John Carew begged to defer. But sadly, despite some colossus effort, Villa still went down 3-2 with new kid on the block, Frederico Macheda scoring the winner in the 92nd minute of the game. Mark of the champions? Definitely.

Despite being outplayed at times and losing several key players, United managed to bounce back and avoid an embarrassing 3 games losing streak. The game was played at break-neck pace and it was end to end.

They were also playing after being put under intense pressure by Liverpool, one of those rare occasions where the ball was in Liverpool’s court and they managed to deliver it out. It is not, of course, without some minor hiccups.

Oh, I meant the crossbar and the post.

The last 2 games at Craven Cottage offered a comparison between the 2 title rivals and it’s fairly obvious to us that Liverpool have built up this newfound resilience in them which doesn’t last them to the 70th minute or the 80th minute but right to the end.

When United came and were outplayed, the fragility of their character was apparent. The heavy defeat by Liverpool did the damage and the players lost the plot. Paul Scholes thought he was in the beach of northern France playing beach volleyball while Wayne Rooney thought the corner flag at Craven Cottage had ‘punch me’ written on it.

Despite scoring 2 against Villa last night, the ‘best-player-in-the-world-tm’ showed that he’s the player you’ll want in better days but not on those dark and gloomy ones. A lack of determination and ‘get-stuck-in’ attitude meant that he was more of a liability.

In contrast, Liverpool lived true to the ‘it’s not over till it’s over’ motto made famous by Rocky Balboa. Despite severe frustrations and the seemingly familiar feeling of ‘it’s just not our day’, they fought on and found their deserved glory.

It came in the 91st minute, the 11th time Liverpool found the net beyond the 90th minute, a sign of character and resilience. This time, it was Yossi Benayoun who popped up with the beauty.

The Israeli captain infuriated the Reds camp last week after agreeing to travel for the international games and unsurprisingly, came back with a plaster and some medication for his foot.

The players came back from the international break giving Rafa Benitez some selection problems (not saying that it doesn’t affect Sir Alex but he should blame the red cards instead) but he still was able to field a pretty strong line up.

Eyes were lit up the moment they saw Andrea Dosenna on the left flank. Gerrard and Torres, the golden partnership, was reformed again.

Yet they were not able to put the ball in the net and with Dosenna’s headed balls more attracted to the goal frame and Gerrard’s lacklustre performance, it was probably meant to be yet another bad day at office.
We’ve seen Liverpool done it over the past few seasons when they were put in the driving seat to apply pressure on their rivals but fail to capitalize. This time round, Benayoun decided enough is enough and put an end to this mental blockage and misconception.

The away end of Craven Cottage was bouncing and singing “we’re gonna win the league” and were in raptures. So did Old Trafford 24 hours later. Such emotions and such excitement. With 7 games to go, the margin of error is getting thinner and the neck to neck race will really give fans of both sides the edge of the seat experience.

How many times have we, Liverpool fans, felt this way? Seldom. But finally we’re in it so I say let’s enjoy it. Whether we falter at the end or gain glory, I must say the team has moved on to another level with Rafa Benitez and what we’re going to achieve this season will be a perfect platform for the Reds next season.