With its surprising loss to Crystal Palace over the weekend, the death knell has all but sounded for Rafa Benitez's Liverpool squad and its qualification aspirations for next season's Champions League. At this point, barring a huge choke by Everton, it's hard to see Liverpool finishing in the top four slots of the Premiership. The irony, of course, is that Liverpool's erratic form in its domestic league has contrasted sharply with the team's storybook progress in this year's Champions League. Despite these struggles, the biggest dilemma for Benitez right now remains what to do with his iconic captain Steven Gerrard.
It's been a strange season for Liverpool whose Jekyll and Hyde form has frustrated Benitez and fans alike. The team's progress has been of secondary status this season to the will he stay or will he go furor surrounding Gerrard. Gerrard remains a public object of affection for both Chelsea and Real Madrid. He's already spurned Jose Mourinho once before, but if Liverpool fails to qualify for next year's Champions League, he'll be more than likely suiting up at Stamford Bridge next season.
This has not been one of Gerrard's finer seasons. He's mixed momentous game-winning performances with a fair number of forgettable games. Compared to the last couple of seasons where Gerrard practically carried the team on his shoulders, he's been less than his usual self.
The problem is that Liverpool's over-reliance on him in recent seasons seems to have dampened his opinion of his own teammates. He appears guilty of lost focus this season as he struggles with the decision of whether he should leave his boyhood team.
Call it post-Houllier stress disorder if you will. Gerrard has made various public proclamations of his desire to move to a team that would challenge for more titles. He was also recently guilty of dismissing Liverpool's chances of advancing in Europe. In a radio interview before the team's matchup with Bayer Leverkusen, Gerrard said, "Let's be realistic, there are some fantastic teams left in the Champions League. We are just going to try to stay in as long as possible but we realize that maybe it is not our year this year." It's not really the type of confidence instilling statement that one wishes to hear from its captain and rightfully received a sharp rebuke from his manager.
The irony is that Gerrard is now surrounded with more talent in the current Liverpool team than in recent seasons past. Despite losing Michael Owen, Benitez has arguably strengthened the squad. He's added world-class talents such as Xabi Alonso and Fernando Morientes and another signing, Luis Garcia, is emerging as a potential match-winner in any game. Alonso in particular has been exceptional and arguably Liverpool's best midfielder his season. His presence in fact may well make Steven Gerrard expendable.
With this infusion of talent, Liverpool has proved they can win without Gerrard. The team's two biggest victories in Europe against Leverkusen and Juventus came with Gerrard on the bench. As Alonso recently said, "I feel that our performance against Juventus without Steven Gerrard proved once and for all that we are not a one man team. No team can depend on only one player to help them win trophies and we are no different, even though Stevie is one of the best players in the world."
The question is should Liverpool sell him? There's no doubt that the team could use the cash. Recent investment bids from foreign investors have fallen short and assuming it fails to win the Champions League this year, the team is likely to miss out on the Champions League monetary windfall next season. A package such as Chelsea's rumored offer ($54 million and a player such as Damien Duff or Scott Parker) could prove mightily tempting.
On the flip side, keeping Gerrard would mean fielding one of the best central midfield partnerships in the world at club level. It's a partnership that is still a work-in-progress due to the midseason injury that Alonso suffered, but in their brief run together, the pair has already shown real potential. It's a dynamic of such potential that any club would be foolish to give up on it.
Having said this, the key for Benitez will be to assess Gerrard's commitment level to the club this summer. Another bout of wavering focus from him next season will serve neither Liverpool nor Gerrard himself well. The team has been far too distracted by his transfer status this season. Gerrard has stated his intent to assess his options at the end of the season, but unless he's happy and 100% committed, Benitez has no option but to sell him.
With the MLS season newly underway, here are some initial observations:
With its 'revenge' win over D.C. United on Saturday, the New England Revolution is starting to look like the cream of the East, and its offense is looking unstoppable. Last year's MLS Rookie of the Year Clint Dempsey seems to have taken his game to a higher level. If he keeps this form up, Bruce Arena may want to consider employing a fast-break attacking troika for the national team of Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan up front with Dempsey in the attacking midfield role.
As for D.C. United, the defending champions have been struggling so far. Ryan Nelsen has yet to be adequately replaced in defense, and the team's horrendously congested early season schedule has not helped matters. Compounding the situation is Alecko Eskandarian's poor early form. Eskandarian seems to be suffering a hangover from his heroics in last season's playoffs. For the team to get back on track, it needs Eskandarian back on song. At his best, Eskandarian is reminiscent in some ways of ex-Scottish great Kenny Dalglish in his ability to hold the ball up with his back to goal, score and create for others.
On a positive note, Freddy Adu looks better this season. He's bulked up and seems to have strengthened his ability to avoid being bumped off the ball and his work-rate on defense has improved. Even so, given his age, it's best that his minutes remain restricted while he physically matures and continues to work on his game. There are too many sad stories in world soccer of teen prodigies (Wayne Harrison and Nii Lamptey for example) who were played far too much, far too soon, leading to inevitable injuries and a downward spiral.
With yet another defensive debacle on display Saturday night against the Galaxy, Chivas USA looks to be in for a long season. The team's commitment to flair and playing attacking soccer is commendable and something that MLS needs. However, the problem is that the team's roster is simply not capable of playing effectively in the traditional Chivas style.
The offense isn't dangerous enough to compensate for the team's lackluster and shoddy defense. Aside from Thiago Martins, the team lacks any kind of a scorer and Matt Taylor has been nothing short of disappointing. This is a team that needs a major infusion of talent - an infusion that was supposed to have come from its parent team but never did. With attendance levels for Chivas games generally below expectations, one has to wonder how long it will be before Chivas USA fans tune out the team.
Speaking of offense though, here's the interesting stat of the week - Richard Mulrooney scored his second goal of the season in FC Dallas's 3-0 win over Real Salt Lake. Coming into this season, Mulrooney had scored only four goals in 163 games and he had never had more than one goal in any of his six previous professional seasons. Looks like the Dallas coaches are living up to their preseason promise to get him more involved on the offensive end of things.
What's up with MLS scheduling? Each year, the league continues to make scheduling decisions that are perplexing to say the least. Take for instance this year's opener - the much promoted Chivas USA debut. The only problem was that the game occurred at the same time that Chivas' parent team Guadalajara was playing in Mexico, thereby robbing the U.S. version of Chivas of a hefty chunk of its support.
Then there's the curious case of scheduling the heavily marketed 'Super Clasico' clash between Chivas USA and the L.A. Galaxy on the same day as the annual NFL draft. Having a key game slated to run live following the notoriously slow NFL showpiece is a recipe for disaster. As it was, the draft overran (no surprises there) and the game had to be shown on tape delay.
Another example is D.C. United having to play 4 games in a span of 10 days while playing its CONCACAF Champions League games with Mexican team Pumas. The squad was so worn out from this fixture congestion that coach Peter Nowak was forced to field a depleted lineup for a key Friday night game against Columbus. One would think that MLS would want to give its reigning champion the best possible conditions when taking on the CONCACAF cream of the crop - would it really be that difficult to schedule D.C. United for a bye week during this period?
Equally strange was the MLS start date - strategically planned to coincide with baseball's opening weekend and the NCAA Final Four championship. Again, how hard could it have been to move up the schedule either one week or back a week?
This past Sunday saw a couple of goalkeepers in the English Premiership, Tim Howard and Antti Niemi, make some horrendous errors for their club teams. In the past, there's no doubt that Howard's been unfairly singled out for criticism by the English media. Despite far more egregious errors, comedy keeper Roy Carroll has definitely gotten the light end of the stick compared to Howard. However, there's no doubting Howard's culpability in the game against Newcastle where his poor clearance led directly to Newcastle's first goal.
As for Niemi, he had a shocker of a game against Portsmouth being directly responsible for two goals. It was probably his worst ever game for Southampton. This is not becoming of a keeper touted by many prior to the season as arguably the Premiership's best. Particularly shocking was when Niemi sprinted out of his area to clear the ball but missed it, allowing Portsmouth striker Lomana LuaLua to chip into an empty net from 20 metres.
The current dearth of capable goalkeepers in the Premiership is surprising when you consider that on a whole, EPL squads have more top to bottom talent than ever before - yet many still struggle to field a competent goalkeeper. Examples of top clubs that clearly lack a capable netminder are Liverpool and Arsenal, both of whom would be several points to the good if not for erratic performances by their goalkeepers.
Luckily, a solution exists by the name of Carlos Kameni, the Cameroon keeper currently plying his trade at Espanyol. Kameni first came to fame as the baby-faced 16 year-old shot stopper for Cameroon's surprise Olympic gold medal in 2000. Since that time however, he disappeared off the charts, inexplicably struggling to find a spot in Le Havre's starting lineup. Last summer Espanyol were one of the few clubs (along with English League Championship team Wolves) that showed any interest and eventually snapped him up for the bargain basement price of approximately $1 million.
Only an injury to Espanyol's expected starter Erwin Lemmens gave him the opportunity to start this season, and he's more than made the most of it. Kameni's brilliant form (he's saved six penalties this season) has been one of the keys to Espanyol's strong showing. His contract has a reported buyout clause of approximately $11 million in his contract and is a steal at that price. Given his youth and displays this season, Arsene Wenger would do well to knock on his door. It's amazing how fortunes swing in soccer.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org