Liverpool's backs are squarely against the wall
Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
There are a number of reasons why a team may come up short in its bid to win a title. Injuries and inconsistency are usually near the top of that list, but Liverpool may have discovered a new one in Saturday's 1-0 loss to Sunderland...a beach ball.
Yes, that's right, a big red beach ball.
The ball was thrown onto the field in the opening minutes of the match at the Stadium of Light, and it came to rest right at the top of the six-yard box in front of goalkeeper Pepe Reina's net.
Apparently, the ball was not spotted by referee Mike Jones, and when Sunderland charged down the field on a counter-attack, Darren Bent fired a shot that hit the beach ball and flew past a bewildered Reina, accounting for the lone goal of the match.
Referee Jones allowed the goal to stand, even though, according to the rule book, a free kick should have been given because the ball struck an "outside agent".
Because of his error, Jones has been demoted to officiating a lower-league match this coming weekend, although Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez took the high road after the game.
Liverpool last won a
league title in 1990.
"These things can happen in a lot of games," Benitez said after the match. "It's a bad situation for us that the (beach) ball was in the middle and was influential, but again I will say we didn't play well - that's the main thing for me."
The beach ball will no doubt be the main talking point concerning the match, but Benitez is right to be concerned with how his team played.
The goal came just four minutes into the match, giving the Reds plenty of time to bounce back from the bizarre incident.
However, they responded poorly and didn't deserve to take three points from Sunderland, who created the better of the chances and - beach ball or not - rightfully won the game.
It didn't help that Benitez was without his two best players, captain Steven Gerrard and leading-scorer Fernando Torres, who both missed the game because of groin injuries suffered on international duty, but champions are still supposed to grind out wins under trying circumstances, and Liverpool was unable to do that.
Struggling to stay in the title race has been a problem for Liverpool in recent years, with the team's last league title coming in 1990.
Liverpool is one of the most prestigious clubs in England, yet every passing year without a title only makes the rumblings grow louder at Anfield.
The club has had plenty of success in European competition during that span, but their lack of domestic dominance is starting to catch up with them.
Liverpool has won the league a record 18 times in its proud history, but with 11 league championships since 1990, Manchester United has caught them, and is threatening to move right on by with a fourth successive crown this season.
The club lost only twice in the league all of last season, but with four losses in their first nine games this year, the title has already started to slip away.
Despite his team's struggles, Benitez has remained confident that they are very much alive in the title picture, and he feels that this season may produce more losses for the top teams, which will help his side climb back into the race.
"In a normal season teams at the top would be winning every game and it would be a long distance to the top now, but Chelsea have lost two games and I think we'll see a lot of top teams lose games.
"Losing four games is bad, but crucial? That depends on the next few games. If we can win two or three games in a row we can be at the top of the table. It's a question of keeping our confidence, working hard and trying to do better."
It is hard to call a game in October a must-win, but that may be what Liverpool is facing when leaders Manchester United visit Anfield on Sunday.
United is seven points clear of Liverpool already, and if they win at Anfield, they would open up a nearly insurmountable 10-point gap, which could effectively dash any serious title aspirations held by Liverpool.
This is indeed a crucial stretch for the club, which will play Manchester City, Everton and Arsenal in its next six matches following United.
A good run of results could vault the team right back near the top, a few more losses could bury them.
But let's just hope that the beach balls stay at home.