Friday, March 18, 2011

It's rebuild, rebuild, rebuild for King Kenny if Europe is to fear Liverpool once again

Liverpool's defeat to Sporting Braga showed again how massive is the task awaiting Kenny Dalglish if he is the man chosen to restore the Anfield club to the elite of English, let alone European, football. It was a performance over 180 minutes almost entirely devoid of creativity and attacking initiative, and for fans it bore a miserable comparison to glorious European nights in the club's recent history, such as the 5-0 aggregate defeat of Real Madrid in the Champions League first knockout round in 2009 and the 3-0 aggregate win over Inter at the same stage of the competition in 2008. Over two legs against Braga, Liverpool failed to score and, despite their defensive solidity - aside from a mistake by Sotirios Kyrgiakos to concede a penalty in the first leg - they could not use it as a basis to go forward.

For fans the summer rejuvenation they hope for cannot come soon enough. With Dirk Kuyt usually deployed on the right of midfield, David Ngog has been Liverpool's second main striker since his arrival in July 2008. Both Dalglish and Roy Hodgson before him have preferred the youthful promise of Ngog on the bench to the tepid goal threat offered by Milan Jovanovic. Ngog is worth every bit of the £1.5m Rafael Benitez paid to bring him from Paris St Germain, and not a penny more. Even for a non-English striker, the fee was incredibly cheap, and that has showed. Apart from one goal against Arsenal this season and a strike against Manchester United in October 2009, he has not scored against the current top six in 18 appearances. He found his level in the early rounds of the Europa League, when he contributed three goals against Rabotnicki and two against Steaua Bucharest, plus a goal against Unirea last season.

But Liverpool have failed to support their strikers – the team's lack of width and ability to dribble the ball in from wide positions or send inviting crosses into the box was again evident against Braga. With Kuyt offering tenacity rather than natural width on the right, managers have for the past five seasons sought a genuine winger to play on either flank. Yossi Benayoun, Joe Cole, Jermaine Pennant, Albert Riera, Maxi Rodriguez, Harry Kewell, Luis Garcia, Mark Gonzales were all bought in part to fill the void on the wings. None has been an outstanding success. The disappointment that is Cole is an increasingly painful subject for Liverpool fans. The once engaging midfielder received a warm welcome on Merseyside when he arrived last summer, but while once he could delight with the ball at his feet, now he tends to evoke groans of despair as another opponent nicks the ball from him. Liverpool are beginning to realise, in the shape of Cole and Jovanovic, that a player on a free does not necessarily mean a bargain.

For Liverpool's Premier League rivals, the full-backs are as potent a threat as the wide midfielders. Chelsea can turn to Ashley Cole, Yuri Zirkov and Jose Bosingwa, Arsenal have Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy and Keiran Gibbs, United have Patrice Evra and the Da Silva brothers. In this area Liverpool, too, have real hope. Martin Kelly has shown great promise this season against both top opponents and mediocre sides which Liverpool have had trouble in breaking down. They also have Glen Johnson, a quality full-back – as he has proved while deputising on the left this season despite his preferred position being on the right - although the Englishman is still too prone to losing possession when rampaging down the wing and creating unnecessary danger as a result. But left-back remains an unresolved problem in the long term for Dalglish.

Steven Gerrard's best season in a Liverpool shirt came in 2008-09 when he scored 24 goals and his increasingly frequent absences through injury have been felt this season. Raul Meireles is proving himself to be a crowd favourite and scorer of vital goals, but Liverpool still need more creativity – and goals – from central midfield. Lucas Leiva has as many doubters as he has admirers at Anfield. He has been a metronomic presence at Liverpool's heart for four seasons, making well over 30 appearances in each of them. Seldom injured, he is a tidy and reliable option. But in his 160 appearances for the club in all competitions, he has scored only six goals. Many fans would like to see Alberto Aquilani return from his loan spell at Juventus or Charlie Adam arrive from Blackpool to take Lucas's place or play alongside him in games when Liverpool must attack. It would certainly pose a more formidable midfield pairing than Lucas and Christian Poulsen, or Lucas and Jay Spearing.

As a local player and a loyal fan, many supporters are desperate to see Spearing succeed and take the mantle of red talisman when Gerrard eventually relinquishes it. But despite being energetic and a tough tackler, the 22-year-old's passing and ball retention are not on a par with his peers: Jack Rodwell (aged 20) at Everton, Jack Wilshere (19) at Arsenal or Josh McEachran (18) at Chelsea. In Jonjo Shelvey (19) Liverpool have a more likely replacement for Gerrard. The arrival from Charlton is a charismatic midfielder and English football is likely to see more of him next season.

Liverpool fans dream of the potential arrivals this summer – names such as Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Alexis Sanchez and Sergio Canales have been touted and dismissed in equal measure - but even marquee signings will not conceal for long the problem that must have been apparent to Dalglish even from his cruise ship in Dubai – the mediocrity which permeates his first-team squad. This is evident in the impact Liverpool's loaned out players are having. Apart from Nathan Eccleston, who has scored twice and made 11 appearances since joining Charlton on loan in January, and Aquilani, who has been a regular fixture for Juventus this season, the loanees are showing little evidence of progress: Emiliano Insua, (Galatasary, eight starts) and Philipp Degen (Stuggart, four starts). Daniel Ayala (20) is making an impression at Derby County and Stephen Darby has made a creditable 14 starts for League One Notts County, but at 22 he needs to be making the step up to the Premier League soon. Compared to Wilshere's impressive spell at Bolton Wanderers last season, and the goalscoring contributions since January made by Daniel Sturridge at Bolton and Carlos Vela at West Brom, it appears Liverpool's young players are still some way off making a first-team contribution.

And how many of Liverpool's first-team squad would get into another top six side? Andy Carroll would be a welcome addition to any of them, Spurs would appreciate Gerrard's power and versatility in midfield, Sir Alex Ferguson must secretly applaud Kuyt's tireless legs, while United and Arsenal's admiration for Pepe Reina is well known. As for the others, not even on the bench. Liverpool fans must now trust that Dalglish and Damien Comolli spend whatever funds are available to them this summer on players who can make the club challenge for honours once again. If fans wish for one thing from John W Henry in the next transfer window it is for pure Chippendale, rather than any more dead wood on inflated salaries at Anfield.