SPORTS

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April 13, 2004

Liverpool's unseen luck

Keen followers of Gerard Houllier's post-match analyses will be no strangers to the Liverpool manager's frequent cursing of the Reds' luck, or their alleged lack of it. But has the very same Lady Luck that served them so loyally in 2001 really deserted them, or has she simply donned a disguise so cunning that even they fail to recognize her?

It is difficult not to sympathize with Houllier when you watch Liverpool play. Their new, pseudo-adventurous style of play, imposed after a disastrous start to the campaign, frequently yields many gilt-edged chances for the strikers and midfielders to bury, but so often they fail to do so. Sometimes, as in the case of an Emile Heskey one-on-one, it is intrinsic lack of quality. Yet so often one finds a combination of strangely poor form by their strikers and even stranger superb form by their adversaries, responsible for draws and reverses. Injuries have also taken their toll, with Milan Baros and Dietmar Hamaan both notable long-term absentees, along with the terminal sick-note pair, Michael Owen and Chris Kirkland. And the manager's claims of consistently unfavorable refereeing do not seem far-fetched, leaving the purest of statisticians questioning the "swings and roundabouts."

So yes, on the pitch which Liverpool occupies every Saturday afternoon, their luck has been down. But before Houllier starts wondering how many ladders he walked under during the summer, he should acknowledge what has arguably been a compensatory slice of luck delivered on all the other pitches on a Saturday afternoon—the declining requirements for finishing fourth in the league.

Ever since Liverpool broke their own record for successive winless league matches last season, their targets have painfully shrunk from qualifying as league champions to qualifying for the Champions League. Luckily for the Reds, so too have the necessary standards. For the last eight seasons or so, the team finishing fourth has amassed somewhere in the region of 67 points, and has usually been pushed by the team in fifth. Liverpool currently occupies that very same, very coveted, fourth spot but with a meager total of 49 points. Of the remaining five fixtures, one is away to a resurgent Manchester United and another is at home to league rival Newcastle. Do not expect a season total of 64.

It is worth noting further indirect evidence of these declining standards in the form of sustained challenges for fourth spot by Charlton, Fulham, Birmingham, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, let alone those of Liverpool and Newcastle. Even Southampton and Bolton could secure it with a late charge, and more surprising is that about four unbeaten matches turned Tottenham from relegation strugglers to European hopefuls.

Whatever the reason for this jaw-dropping regression, it is one that is out of Liverpool's hands, and thus they must consider themselves lucky. There is little doubt that much of the criticism directed at Houllier this season has been successfully repelled because they have played so poorly yet remain within reach of fourth. A few seasons ago, Liverpool's weekly horror shows would have all but guaranteed a Gallic guillotining for their equally Gallic leader.

Next weekend, when Owen misses his fiftieth penalty for Liverpool and you promise yourself never to ask Houllier for his tips on lottery numbers, don't feel sorry for Liverpool—feel sorry for a Europe staring down the barrel of a Champions League involving Real Madrid at St. Andrews. If the Reds fail to qualify for Europe's premier competition, do not expect more than one Gerard at Liverpool next season as their would-be adversaries cast envious gazes at the captain. But will there even be a Gerard? Not even Lady Luck could prevent le chop