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Liverpool 0, Sparta Praha 0: A Return to the Doldrums

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N'Gog v. Prague

When even Ray Hudson's most notable moment comes right off the top when he laments that Dani Pacheco isn't the starting lineup before going on to say that N'Gog--who he appears to think plays in Pacheco's most likely position--will need to go out and prove himself, you know you're in for a match lacking in chameleon eyes and the soaring superhuman goals of a winged pegasus. Or something. Which is mostly to say things were bloody boring in the chilly drizzle of Prague for those Liverpool supporters who braved the inflated ticket prices and made the journey.

Compared to that, watching it on Five or GolTV--and trying to figure out quite how N'Gog has more to prove than Pacheco--or some shaky stream and wondering at the two hours you just lost hardly seems the end of the world, even if in retrospect it would have made a wonderfully rewarding block of time to take a nap in. At least the thirty minutes before the match provided some fun as everybody wondered if the reported team sheet best leant itself to setting up with three or four at the back before the match began and things appeared to sort themselves out as four at the back of a 4-2-3-1.

If you want to be exceptionally generous it was the sort of cagey, business-like European road match Ed talked about in the lead up. If you want to be somewhat less kind it was the sort of dull European match that made the fall's group stage unforgivably tedious as first nothing happened. And then more of nothing happened.

With Fabio Aurelio appearing to pick up a minor knock, Joe Cole came on 36 minutes into the match and provided a moment of life in an otherwise unwatchable first half. It was a first ten seconds on the pitch that encapsulated all the promise of Joe Cole, not to mention the promise of things starting to suddenly take a turn for the lively and interesting. Unfortunately that appeared to be it for both the player and for Liverpool in the opening period, and with his energies spent he might as well have not been on the pitch from about fifteen seconds after his introduction on.

Similarly, the doldrums of the second half found themselves momentarily punctured by a beautiful looping pass from Lucas and a resulting outside of the foot attempt from Johnson after 65 minutes had been played. It might have signaled the first signs of the game opening up, but after a brief bit of end to end play things settled back to dull routine, broken only by the fans throwing smoke bombs on the pitch in an attempt to entertain themselves as the players proved hardly inclined to do so. Late on, the rather odd substitution of Skrtel for N'Gog saw four natural center backs on the pitch as Liverpool tried to switch to three at the back, with Wilson and Johnson pushing on, but the last ten or so minutes still largely played out as the previous eighty had--dull, lifeless, and as though both sides were perfectly happy with the draw.

Digging deep for anything positive to take from such a lifeless display there was the case of Jamie Carragher, oddly situated on the left--perhaps, as he is one of Liverpool's most two footed players, there was a desire to have the left sided center back be comfortable with his left foot in the absence of Daniel Agger. As against Chelsea, he again showed a much greater willingness to keep it on the pitch, including frequently playing through central midfielders Lucas and Aurelio--and then Lucas and Meireles after Aurelio went off. Even his hoofs were toned back to shorter and more seemingly thoughtful chips, as Rosco pointed out in the comments of the game day thread.

On the other hand, though, less encouraging was the completely ineffective David N'Gog, who with his more limited chances and dipping form appears as though he might be the only player who misses Roy Hodgson. There was also a generally invisible Maxi Rodrigues to frustrate, not to mention that Cole hardly made a solid case for himself moving forward, and before he was injured Aurelio appeared set on firing Hollywood balls around the pitch and losing possession frequently in the process. Danny Wilson, meanwhile, though he wasn't caught out at the back, might as well have been a third center back after all for all the times he crossed the half-way line.

One can talk about cagey European nights all they want, but coming off the back of a performance against Wigan that might have been the least energetic seen under Dalglish, today's dull run-out against Sparta Praha managed only to take that bar down a few more notches. If it's simply a case of tied legs and multiple substitutions to work around important injured players like Agger and Gerrard, then no league match on the weekend before next week's return leg should be the cure to Liverpool's needs. Less encouraging would be the possibility that after a stretch that saw the squad reinvigorated by the departure of Roy Hodgson we're now seeing them come back down to earth a little bit. Hopefully it's far more the former than the latter: Hopefully this was simply a business-like away match in Europe with important players missing and other key players tired, and next Thursday's match will see a return to the sort of football everybody was just starting to get used to under Kenny Dalglish.