There has to be a crisis near the start of every Premier League season, and among the many turbulent storylines running parallel with England’s hosting of the Rugby World Cup is the apparently crumbling edifice that is Liverpool.
It is in 13th place and has scored just four goals while compiling a 2-2-2 record that includes a 3-0 humiliation at Anfield inflicted by West Ham United and a 3-1 loss to the archest of archrivals, Manchester United, at Old Trafford. The critics are speculating, as they have been since June, that he’ll be the first Premier League manager this season to be booted, and two days ago Liverpool refuted reports that former AC Milan and Chelsea coach Carlo Ancelotti had been contacted about the position.
Last week, Japan stunned South Africa, 34-32, at Brighton in what is regarded as the biggest upset ever recorded in the Rugby World Cup. The major golf and tennis events staged in late August and September are covered extensively in the land of the Premier League. But thanks to the never-ending antics of Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, the surprising surges of Leicester City and West Ham, and the on-going soap opera that is Liverpool, there’s no shortage of football turmoil to be savored.
Much of that turmoil has swirled around the Merseyside giant, which despite winning 18 titles at the top level of the English League has not won a single crown since formation of the Premier League in 1991. Since the departure in June 2010 of former manager Rafael Benitez, architect of the club’s stunning comeback defeat of AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final, three successors have tried their luck. Current England manager Rod Hodgson was fired six months into the 2010-11 season, and after another year and a half former playing legend Kenny Dalglish departed.
To fill this void, Fenway Sports Group -- which owns the Boston Red Sox and had bought Liverpool in October, 2010 via a contentious ouster of former owners George N. Gillett Jr. and Tom Hicks -- selected Brandon Rodgers, who had all of four seasons of experience as a manager yet drew rave reviews at Swansea City, which he steered to promotion in his first season and managed to an 11th-place Premier League finish the following year.
The gamble on a promising, yet relatively untested manager looked like a brilliant move as the 2013-14 wound down with Liverpool atop the Premier League, but a pair of disastrous late-season results -- a 2-0 home loss to Chelsea and a 3-3 tie with Crystal Palace that Liverpool had led, 3-0 -- opened the door for eventual champion Manchester City. Liverpool finished second, a praiseworthy performance under different circumstances. But fans couldn’t forgive a stumbling Steven Gerrard back pass that sent Didier Drogba free to score in the 2-0 game, nor Rodgers’ inability to stave off embarrassment against Palace.
Still, that bitterly near-miss -- achieved with an all-time, top-flight record 101 goals scored -- prompted optimism that the 2014-15 season, Rodgers’ third in charge, would be a charmed one. Instead, despite a slew of acquisitions in the aftermath of Luis Suarez’s move to Barcelona, it dropped out of title contention early. Rodgers had apparently revived its fortunes by shifting to a three-man back line, which triggered a 13-match unbeaten streak, but a 2-1 home loss to Manchester United halted the momentum and it won just two of last eight games and wound up sixth.
So Rodgers and his players started this season on a short leash and so far that leash appears to be tighter than ever, in the wake of moves both strange and unproductive. A mercurial talent such as Daniel Sturridge dazzles at times and plows himself into anonymity during others. Mario Balotelli – cited as the most desperate of desperation moves -- played 16 games (scoring one goal) last season before going on loan to AC Milan. Two more of last season’s signings, defender Dejan Loveren and attacker Fabio Borini, are cited as further examples of Rodgers’ misjudgment.
One player who has flourished under Rodgers, forward Danny Ings, enabled his manager to evade another crushing disappointment Wednesday by converting a penalty kick by which Liverpool scraped past Carlisle United, 3-2, after struggling to a 1-1 tie in the Capital One (League) Cup. The triumph, though dramatic, was hollow for the home team: nearly all of the cheers and applause came down from those fans who’d traveled to support the plucky League Two team in blue.
An online petition was started four months ago on change.org, addressed to FSG co-founder John Henry and Tom Werner, to advocate Rodgers’ dismissal. A tense struggle to defeat a team that plays two divisions down and spends a tiny fraction of the Liverpool budget is sure to add names to that petition.