If injuries were a thing of make-believe, Liverpool would have won the Premier League last season; would still be in this season’s title race and would still be in a good position to qualify from their current Champions League group. Rafa Benitez would be a hero instead of having his job on the line.
But back to reality. The reality in which injuries have robbed Liverpool of key players and of a league crown. The reality in which injuries have left Liverpool miles adrift in this season’s title race and on the brink of exit from this season’s Champions League into the lowly Europa League. The reality in which Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s leading lights, have spent too much time in the treatment room and not enough time in the dressing room.
Though it is true that Rafa Benitez has not added enough strength in depth to his Liverpool squad, and though it is true that Liverpool rely heavily on the presence of Gerrard and Torres on the pitch, it cannot be denied that injuries to their two key players robbed Liverpool of a first league title in 19 years last season. The same has already happened in this campaign.
It was no coincidence that in the last three months of last season, when Gerrard and Torres spent more time than any other stage of the season on the pitch together, that Liverpool began to embark on a consistent run of dominant displays, sparking hope of another title challenge this campaign.
Gerrard and Torres’ presence on the pitch alone scares the opposition. When Torres was substituted against Fulham a few weeks ago, Bobby Zamora admitted afterwards that Fulham’s confidence rose significantly, inspiring them to go on and win.
Working in tandem, the pair can reck havoc on opposition defences, combining to devastating effect. Just look at Liverpool’s equaliser in last season’s FA Cup fourth-round clash with Everton, when Gerrard laid the ball off to Torres before running onto the striker’s exquisite, perfectly-weighted back-heel which ripped open Everton’s defence. Gerrard finished with aplomb.
Liverpool appear to lack leadership without the pair, and particularly without inspirational skipper Gerrard, who rallies the troops when things are down. His contribution to Istanbul 2005 and Cardiff 2006 best sum up his importance to Liverpool, who simply would not have won those finals without him.
It is easy to criticise Benitez for failing to have adequate replacements in his squad, and it is certainly true if the likes of Craig Bellamy, Peter Crouch and Xabi Alonso had been retained then the problem would not be as great, but nobody could have foreseen such lengthy, frequent injuries for Gerrard and Torres, not even the master of detail that Benitez is.
At least it could have been two less vital players. If Manchester United had lost Ronaldo and Rooney for large periods of last season, and if the pair had only started together in around a third of United’s league games, they may well have not lifted the Premier League in May.
Gerrard and Torres’ injuries have worryingly continued this season, something which Liverpool’s medical staff have to take a serious look at. If they need an operation, they need an operation: there is no point in sacrificing long-term benefits just for a quick short-term gain. When Gerrard started Liverpool’s home Champions League tie with Lyon this season after injury, he hobbled back off after 30 minutes, clearly not ready. Though not as an important player, the same happened to Albert Riera against Birmingham on Monday night.
Liverpool’s medical staff clearly need to improve on this record, as Liverpool’s league record will continue to look bleak without the two leading lights of Gerrard and Torres.