When the greatest prizes slip out of reach, the scramble for lesser glories becomes all the more intense. It is a peculiar side-effect of Chelsea’s domination of the Premiership this season that it has reinvigorated the FA Cup, and nowhere will that extra bite be felt more keenly than at Anfield oin Saturday as Liverpool host Manchester United.
This is not merely about reaching the sixth round, though; this is also about a history of Lancashire rivalry, and the sense that the curves of the two clubs are about to cross. Not since 1991 have Liverpool finished above United in the table, but although United hold a three-point advantage at the moment, it would be no great surprise were Liverpool to overhaul them by May.
Yet that United would still be leading Liverpool at all seemed unlikely a month ago. As the old masters have dug in desperately, though, so Rafa Benitez’s side have shown a marked reluctance for revolution. The neuroses deposited by the Gerard Houllier era have yet to be entirely expunged. When they met in the Premiership a month ago, Liverpool led United by a point, having won 11 of their previous 12 league games. They dominated, failed to find a winner, lost to a last-minute header from Rio Ferdinand, and, evidently shaken, took a single point from their next three league games.
There are two issues at work here: one is their inability to finish games off, the other a seeming lack of conviction. To speak of a lack of belief in the European champions sounds almost perverse, but their best performances in the Champions League – away to Bayer Leverkusen, in the second halves of the home group game against Olympiakos and the final against AC Milan – have come when the game seemed lost and the had nothing to lose.
This season, when they have carried expectation into meetings with top opposition, they have repeatedly disappointed. Their success against Chelsea in last season’s Champions league semi-final had many believing they had worked out Jose Mourinho’s side but, although they held them twice to goalless draws in Europe this season, they have twice been convincingly beaten in the league. That aside, Liverpool have taken one point from two games with United, shared the points with Tottenham, and needed an 87th-minute winner on Tuesday to see off an Arsenal side who are going downhill so fast they might have picked up a medal in Turin.
Liverpool dominated that game completely but that, in a sense, is the point: they simply don’t score enough goals even when they are utterly in control of games. No Liverpool striker, extraordinarily, has scored this year. After the victory over Arsenal, Benitez spoke of what a confidence boost it was to follow up a win against Wigan with a win against Arsenal; a truly rampant Liverpool, surely, would simply brush each aside. It became fashionable just before Christmas to nod wisely and talk about Peter Crouch’s overall contribution, but just as some of the criticism he received was absurd, so has been some of the praise. “I have improved in every aspect of my game,” Crouch said, “and I have to give the manager credit for that.” His scoring record, though, remains troublesome and after no goals in eight games his head is back above the parapet.
Crouch is one of those players better in the concept than the actuality, and it might yet work if only he had somebody alongside him to feed off his flicks and knockdowns. Benitez clearly does not trust Djibril Cisse, while Fernando Morientes continues to frustrate. The signing of Robbie Fowler – at 30 widely regarded as a has-been – smacks of desperation, and the suggestion that he is the next best thing – emotionally at least – to Michael Owen, whom Liverpool probably should have signed in the summer, is not as mischievous as it may at first sound.
Fowler is cup-tied and will not play today, and with Luis Garcia unlikely to start as he continues his rehabilitation from a knee injury, Morientes is likely to start again. He insisted this week that, if he scored, he would not follow the example set by Gary Neville in January’s league meeting by celebrating provocatively in front of the opposing fans; as Liverpool fans might be thinking, chance would be a fine thing.