Liverpool v Spurs: Reds floundering in bleak midwinter
HOW Liverpool would love to return to 4pm on Sunday August 16 2009, as they stood in the tunnel at White Hart Lane and prepared to kick off their season against Tottenham. Secretly Rafael Benitez would probably like to wind the clock back...
PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEW
Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur, Sunday 4pm
By Ben Pearce
HOW Liverpool would love to return to 4pm on Sunday August 16 2009, as they stood in the tunnel at White Hart Lane and prepared to kick off their season against Tottenham.
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Secretly Rafael Benitez would probably like to wind the clock back to the start of the summer, before he had to replace Xabi Alonso with Alberto Aquilani, decided that the club only needed one senior striker and adjudged that 21-year-old Emiliano Insua would suffice at left-back.
Unfortunately for Liverpool they are stuck in the present, and their miserable winter of discontent.
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The Reds lost just two Premier League games in 2008/09, so when they were defeated 2-1 at the Lane in their opening fixture it was seen as an inconvenient, early hiccup, and Tottenham won all the plaudits for another giant-killing victory in N17.
Now, Spurs' players and fans rarely refer to their win - it turns out that everyone beats Liverpool, who have lost 11 of their 29 matches in all competitions.
At their lowest point, Benitez's boys lost six games out of seven, derailing their Champions League challenge as well as their domestic hopes - and that was before the 2-0 defeat against bottom side Portsmouth in December.
Amusingly, Liverpool's 2-0 home win over 10-man Wolves was hailed as the shoots of recovery, a rose-tinted view which was flatteringly reinforced by a lucky last-minute win at Villa Park.
However, Saturday's 1-1 draw at Reading in the FA Cup served as a sharp reminder that Liverpool are flounding on all fronts.
The biggest concern is the Premier League, as Spurs, Manchester City and Villa lick their lips at the sight of the vacant fourth place.
Liverpool fans are enduring recurring nightmares of what may happen if they fail to qualify for the Champions League - an apocalyptic scenario which may test the loyalty of Fernando Torres and possibly even Steven Gerrard, while the financial implications would surely hamper Benitez's spending power, and therefore his ability to lead a turnaround.
It all makes Sunday's match against Tottenham rather important, particularly when a third straight league defeat again Spurs would open up a seven-point gap to fourth place.
Benitez will therefore be distraught to be missing both Glen Johnson and Javier Mascherano to knee injuries.
Mascherano's absence has finally forced Benitez to hand �20m summer signing Aquilani his first three starts, with limited effect. And, although he replaced Johnson with 21-year-old Stephen Darby against Reading at the weekend, the boss is likely to move Jamie Carragher outside from centre-back for this vital match.
Ham&High Sport verdict: Liverpool look vulnerable at full-back on both sides. Carragher will be out of position and Insua has been a liability all season.
Both could struggle against the movement of Niko Kranjcar and Luka Modric, and Carragher will need plenty of support from the hard-working Dirk Kuyt when Gareth Bale crosses the half-way line.
Aquilani and Lucas Leiva are likely to sit deep in the midfield, so Liverpool will be relying on a front four of Gerrard, Torres, Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun for goals.
Spurs have choked badly at Stamford Bridge, the Emirates and Old Trafford this season, but if they can rise to the occasion at Anfield they should get at least a point.