The moment that Robin van Persie eluded Jamie Carragher two minutes into injury-time and placed a brilliant finish past Pepe Reina to give Arsenal an undeserved 2-1 victory at Anfield last Saturday, Liverpool were finally put out of their misery.
Although unbeaten at home to that point, that late sucker punch had been in the post all season (although I fully expected it to come against one of the lesser teams) and it as good as confirmed what has been evident for some months – Liverpool won’t be playing Champions League football next season.
Ten points adrift of fourth-placed Arsenal with a game in hand (against Everton, of all teams), it is impossible to imagine the Reds dining at Europe’s top table next year and the reality is that although progress has been made from the Roy Hodgson era, mistakes in the transfer market mean there is still a huge amount of work to do before Liverpool can compete with the division’s best teams.
The defeat to the Gunners summed up Liverpool’s season: chances spurned, woodwork hit, penalty missed (seven in total this term) and an efficient opposition making the most of their few chances.
A chronic lack of goals has undermined Kenny Dalglish’s men all year and a tally of 30 goals in 26 games is pathetic for a team with European ambitions.
To put that into context, that is the same amount as Wolverhampton Wanderers, who lie in the relegation zone, and just five more than Van Persie has managed on his own. If only Liverpool had their own £35million striker.
The Reds have won only two of their last 10 Premier League matches and averaged just one goal a game in that period – bottom-six form and no mistake.
In fact, Liverpool lie five points behind Andy Carroll’s old team Newcastle United, who sit sixth, and will be pleased to have already secured European football next year thanks to their Carling Cup win as a top-six finish is far from guaranteed.
Next up for the Reds is Newcastle’s arch rivals Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, which has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for Liverpool.
This is perhaps why bwin make the Merseysiders 19/20 favourites to pick up three points, while Sunderland are priced up at 3/1 and the draw is at 9/4.
The first thing to say is you’re out of your mind if you are considering backing Liverpool at that price. The Reds have won only two of their last 10 Premier League matches and averaged just one goal a game in that period – bottom-six form and no mistake.
If this had been played a few weeks ago, I would have been all over that 3/1 about Sunderland as Martin O’Neill was in the middle of engineering such a massive improvement in performances and results after taking over from the hapless Steve Bruce in December.
Yet the last few weeks have seen a dip in both level of play and points gathered, a perfectly understandable relative ‘slump’ after the over-achievement of those early weeks.
Only Manchester United, Manchester City and, after the weekend, Fulham have taken more points than Sunderland since O’Neill took charge, so the improvement is there for all to see.
But in recent outings, the Black Cats struggled past Middlesbrough in the FA Cup, got mugged by Arsenal in the league, lost heavily at West Brom and lost their discipline at Newcastle last weekend, which could ultimately prove costly to future success.
Captain Lee Cattermole and top scorer Stephane Sessegnon were both sent off against the Magpies and are suspended for the visit of Liverpool, which is one of the reasons I’m leaning towards the draw at 9/4.
Liverpool’s record at Sunderland is another – the Reds have won seven of their ten Premier League trips to Wearside, their only defeat since 2002 being the infamous beach ball goal of 2009.
Add in the fact that Sunderland will no doubt have one eye on their huge FA Cup quarter-final against Everton the following weekend – they have a genuine chance of winning the trophy – and I think a stalemate at the Stadium of Light is the way to play at 9/4.
For correct score punters, 16 of the 21 Premier League matches between the sides have produced under 2.5 goals, so the 5/1 on a 1-1 draw could be worth a small interest.
Recommended bet: Sunderland and Liverpool to draw @ 9/4
Outside punt: Sunderland and Liverpool to draw 1-1 @ 5/1
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