How Unlucky Can One Team Be?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on January 2, 2005, 12:31:49 PM

It always sounds a bit tame when a manager finds excuses 末 blaming referees and bad luck with injuries. But there has to come a point where you look at what's happened, and it becomes fair to say things have gone against you to a quite ludicrous degree; do you laugh, or do you cry? Staying sane would appear to be the challenge. To his great credit, Rafael Benitez has avoided making excuses (and thus not given the players a chance to feel sorry for themselves) 末 but he has rightly pointed out the problems he has had to contend with. He doesn't labour points about referee's mistakes, or absent players, but he does acknowledge them.

You can start with the litany of injuries. Perhaps you can argue that more could be done about muscle strains (in some cases this is possibly true, although a perfectly fine and a thoroughly-stretched muscle isn't immune to sudden damage; witness the awkward fall of Michael Owen at home to Arsenal last season, and the over-extension of his calf muscle).

Three broken limbs in three-and-a-half months must be some kind of record. It is also worth pointing out that the most serious 末 a terrible leg break 末 was to the club's record signing, Djibril Cisse, and a 」14m investment was removed from the equation in October. This came after the club's best player (and, of course, talisman), Steven Gerrard, broke a metatarsal bone in an innocuous-looking incident at Old Trafford.

The latest injury 末 Frank Lampard's late and clumsy tackle on Xabi Alonso 末 resulted in a broken ankle for the player who would perhaps have run Gerrard closest for Liverpool Player of the Year (and still might, if his healing is as quick as his thinking). With four months of the season left, Rick Parry must be double-checking all the players' insurance policies, and inviting any willing Witch Doctors to Anfield to remove any curses and hexes bestowed upon the club.

You have to have sympathy for Benitez. How can any manager be expected to deliver consistency in these circumstances? The task he faced this summer was hard enough without the slings and arrows of outrageous bad fortune.

On top of those three fractures (to go with two early during 2003/04), there have been a series of muscle problems: hamstring trouble for Baros and Luis Garcia, causing both to miss a succession of games, and Harry Kewell has been in and out of the side all season with lingering calf and groin injuries. Josemi has missed games from a stomach-turning clash of heads, and now has another injury. Kirkland's back started causing him trouble again, not long after he'd looked to have made the goalkeeper's position his own (albeit far from convincingly). Within a day of his arrival in England, Antonio Nunez fell awkwardly and damaged his knee, which delayed his debut by almost four months. Vladimir Smicer has missed the entire season so far, and will miss a fair bit more of it. Igor Biscan, in the best form of his Liverpool career, fell into the advertising hoardings at White Hart Lane and hasn't been seen since.

Nearly all of this season's injuries have befallen Liverpool's best players, or the 'lesser' players when they were in their best personal form. Benitez has had his hands tied in trying to pick a side, all season long.

And now onto refereeing (and their purblind assistants). All teams experience bad decisions, and bad luck. But it's the level this season which makes it so remarkable.

Let's start with the old clich馘 adage: "Decisions even themselves out over the course of a season".

Clearly this is rubbish, as it assumes that there is some fairness at work; unfortunately, the Law of Averages doesn't have to apply, and life just isn't fair. If you flip a coin, and it's heads, the Law of Averages suggests the next flip will be tails. But the next coin flip has no memory of the preceding one; it starts again with a 50-50 chance (in other words, it doesn't say to itself "I landed heads last time, better land tails this time because the Law of Averages says so"). The previous flip has no bearing on the subsequent flip. Quite conceivably you could flip ten coins in a row and they all land on heads. (As a test, I just flipped a coin five times and got heads each time; the sixth was tails).

The difference with football is that during any single match, the referee has a 'memory' of the decisions. He knows that if he's given an unpopular decision (and refs know when they are wrong, they just rarely admit it), he can always 'even it up' later with a generous award. Had another handball occurred in the Chelsea box, you can bet Mike Riley would have been looking to give us a penalty. The officials like to think they treat every decision on its individual merits, but we all know that was has gone before colours their judgement.

The problem we are facing that it's different referees giving us bad decisions; so again there is no 'memory'. Unless we are once again assigned the linesman who wrongly chalked off Luis Garcia's goal at the Reebok (or his one at the Riverside, for that matter), or the referee from the Monaco game who laughably ignored Saviola's blatant handball, then we will have little chance of receiving a redistribution of fairness.

Put simply, the key decisions at the key moments during key games have gone against us. I am not bemoaning the offside goal when we were already well-beaten (having said that, only Boro have beaten Liverpool by more than a single-goal margin this season), or decisions when we were cruising at 3-0. We had a lucky decision in the League Cup at home to Boro, but that was hardly a key game this season; and Hamann could have been sent off against Norwich. Beyond that, very little has gone our way. (Yes, we've scored some deflected goals, but conceded some too; to my mind, a deflected goal is credit to the player for shooting in the first place).

While I don't think we were especially lucky during the Treble season of 2000/01, as plenty of things didn't go our way, the one thing that does stand out is that the key decisions at the key moments during key games went our way. Benitez hasn't had the luck Houllier enjoyed of a defender making a goal-line save with his hand at 0-0 and getting away with it. Against Roma at Anfield, the referee 末 as did Mike Riley yesterday 末 put his whistle to his lips, but in that case he changed his mind and awarded the Italians only a corner. Benitez has yet to have the luxury of the opposition striker blatantly handling the ball for no apparent reason (as did Patrick Kluivert, inexplicably, when Barcelona lost the Uefa Cup semi-final at Anfield), and the award of the penalty deciding the outcome of the match.

Instead, Benitez has seen opposition defenders punch balls away from almost certain goals (first Muzzy Izzet for Birmingham, and now Tiago of Chelsea) and the referees bottle giving us a decision; perhaps fearing accusations of being influenced by the Kop's cries. When the opposition handled in the other box, as did Javier Saviola in Monaco, it still goes against us; the ref says he saw Saviola move his hand to control the ball before scoring, but it was 'ball-to-hand'.

The tone was set on the first game of the season: Gerrard clearly hauled down by his shirt at Spurs, and nothing given. It wasn't even debatable; the Spurs full-back walked away from the situation with the letters 'ERRARD' and the number 8 clasped in his hand. This season one has been left with the feeling that if Hannibal Lecter were in the opposition defence, and he mutilated and the ate one of our players (with a nice chianti) the referee would look across at his linesman and then wave play on. (Afterwards saying "I felt he clearly played the ball before eating the man").

These are the decisions that have cost us points this season, or at the very least made things much harder for us:

1) White Hart Lane: Gerrard's clear penalty claim waved away.
 
2) Graz at Anfied: their midfielder is booked twice and doesnt get sent off, and comes close to scoring a crucial goal minutes later.

3) Bolton away: perfectly good goal by Luis Garcia chalked off for offside.

4) Man United away: their first goal comes from a free-kick that should have been our throw in; their second comes from a corner that should have been our goalkick.

5) Millwall away: Kevin Muscatt grabs Baros around the throat and puts his forehead into Milan's face; despite other outrageous fouls, Muscatt not sent off.

6) Blackburn away: Blackburn's second goal is clearly, clearly, clearly offside; just the three players ahead of our defence.

7) Birmingham at home: Muzzy Izzet escapes conceding a penalty and being sent off for saving the ball on the line with his hand. (A week later he repeats the crime, and a penalty is awarded, and he is sent off).

8 ) Palace at Anfield: two penalties are rightly awarded for fouls on Baros; a third 末 equally clear 末 isn't awarded.

9) Boro away: Luis Garcia scores a goal by perfectly beating the offside trap, for a goal that should have made the game 1-1. Unfortunately, the linesman gets it wrong and we end up losing 2-0.

10) Monaco away: Saviola scores after controlling the ball with his hand. (Diminutive Argentinians and their hands, eh?).

11) Aston Villa away: the home team equalize from a free-kick where Gavin McCannblatantly dives (and subsequently apologizes to Jamie Carragher).
 
12) Newcastle at home: Newcastle take the lead with the most offside goal in football since 1888. Kluivert is 120 yards offside.

13) Chelsea at home: Tiago punches the ball away from Nunez as the Spaniard is all set to head in from close range. (Nunez, following his header at West Brom, must wonder when he'll ever score with the opposition punching the ball all the time).

(Any I've missed 末 I'm sure there have been plenty more fouls on Baros in the box 末 feel free to let me know).

While the best teams make their own good fortune to a large degree, even Jose Mourinho admits that Champions need luck on their side, too. While we're not Championship-class yet, we could be much higher up the table if we'd had the 'rub of the green'.

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2004

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