Wigan debacle leaves plenty of questions which must be answered

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Liverpool 1-2 Wigan
Suarez; Maloney (pen), Caldwell
Premier League; Saturday, 24th March 2012

Whatever happened to the days of disappointment at the prospect of only a fourth place finish?!

Defeat at Anfield on Saturday – Liverpool’s fifth in their last six league fixtures – combined with other results, leaves the Reds, realistically, chasing a seventh place finish this season, at best. It could yet get worse.

With Europa League qualification secured, Champions League football now out of reach and an FA Cup semi-final a remaining distraction, there is telling evidence that Liverpool’s Premier League interest for this season is fading fast.

That said, a defeat at home to Wigan Athletic – a side who were propping up the rest of the Premier League at kick-off – can never be considered acceptable. In achieving what had previously eluded them, by winning at Anfield for the first time in their history, Wigan marked a new low point in what has been a season of unparalleled frustration at Anfield.

The week had started positively, after a victory over Everton and progression in the FA Cup with another against Stoke City seemed to have reignited a faltering season. For 80 minutes at Loftus road that positivity seemed well-founded; only for the Reds to somehow grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. Though, the disbelief and anger which defined the fallout following the capitulation at QPR has been replaced by dejection at the utter lack of performance against Wigan.

The most discerning point of all was the fact the Liverpool looked so incapable and unlikely of fighting their way back into the match once Gary Caldwell had regained the lead for the relegation-threatened visitors.

Liverpool dominated the early stages but rarely looked likely to cause Ali Al Habsi any great concern. Stewart Downing with the only chance of note; shooting across the face of goal having been played in behind the Wigan defence.

But Dalglish and his players were stunned out of their slumber midway through the first half, as Wigan took the lead. It was against the run of play but, that aside, Liverpool could have few complaints. Victor Moses challenged for a ball in the six-yard box, Martin Skrtel caught him with a high boot, referee Lee Mason adjudged it dangerous and pointed to the penalty spot, and – despite a lengthy delay – Shaun Maloney beat Pepe Reina low to his right.

Liverpool may have a terrible record from the spot themselves this season but when was the last time that an opposition player failed to beat Reina from the penalty spot?

That goal did inspire a reaction of sorts from the Reds. Recognising the urgency of the situation, Liverpool went in search of an equaliser. The introduction of Andy Carroll, at the expense of the non-existent Jordan Henderson, added a much-needed extra man to the Liverpool attack. Although why Carroll did not start the match alongside Luis Suarez remained a mystery.

The leveller came early in the second-half. The two most likely players to rescue a dreadfully out-of-sorts Liverpool were Suarez and Steven Gerrard and it was that pair who combined for Suarez to slot the ball into the corner of the net.

But the respite from the nightmare was a brief one for the Anfield faithful. Once Caldwell had kept his composure to beat Reina from close range, following some poor Liverpool defending from a Wigan set-piece, the game looked up and there was no sign of a second revival.

From there on both the Anfield crowd and – of more concern – the players themselves seemed to almost accept defeat, condemned to the fact that they were not going to be able to turn this one around.

Dalglish, bemusingly, opted to introduce Jonjo Shelvey in place of Downing. Cutting off any potential supply line to Carroll and leaving Liverpool narrow in midfield and glaringly short of options on the flanks. And, with the Reds short of options from the bench, 17-year-old, Raheem Sterling, was granted his debut. An encouraging 10 minute cameo from the diminutive winger, though hardly the kind of situation in which you would wish to introduce a promising young talent.

Dalglish’s declaration, post-match, attributing such a lacklustre performance to tiredness may have held some weight. This was a third game in six days and the squad is currently afflicted by injuries to six or seven first team players.

Yet, Kenny’s latest excuse will not hold much water with the Liverpool fans. After all any Liverpool team should still have more than enough for Wigan Athletic and tiredness also fails to explain the lack of desire and cohesion haven fallen 2-1 behind.

The manager continued with his policy of never openly condemning any Liverpool performance post-match – baring that one occasion following defeat to Bolton Wanderers. This is either a pre-meditated stance, taken with the intention of defending his players, and his own, misgivings in public but confronting them in private. Or, alternatively, it is a case of denial.

There may have been cause for comfort in performance, or negating factors, in previous Anfield disappointments this season, but this was simply an embarrassment, in terms of both result and performance. As well as one which leaves the Reds with an abysmal record of just 5 wins from 15 home league games to date.

The cup form may be providing fans with some comfort; but is that simply papering over some large faults in the foundations of this ‘work in progress’? If Dalglish and co are to prove otherwise they will need to begin by arresting an alarming slide in league form, which is beginning to bring in to question any progress which this team has apparently made to date.

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