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Keeping Hope Alive

Pepe Reina versus West Brom

Hope can be a curious, slippery, manic depressive sort of thing at times, and over the past few days there has understandably been talk of accepting reality and adjusting those at times painful hopes and dreams accordingly. European competition seems out of reach, with the team having looked unimpressive in defeat against Roy Hodgson's West Bromwich Albion. Pepe Reina's departure seems a near certainty in the circumstances. The reality that Steven Gerrard's only getting older and more injury prone, and that Daniel Agger may never truly be healthy, is beginning to sink in. And the prospect of the first season without continental play in over a decade, with the resultant difficulty attracting top level players over the summer to boost an exceptionally thin squad, looms.

The players, though, still talk of hope:

We have still got a bit of catching up to do on Tottenham. They only drew and if we had won we would have closed the gap on them.

There have been plenty of times this season when we thought European qualification had gone. Wigan at home, West Ham away. But then you get a couple of good results after those and you think it's back on. With this defeat it looks as if we are even further away now, but you never know--a couple of good results and we could be back in it.

Or so said Jamie Carragher, a man whose re-embrace of the long-ball has done the club no favours after a brief reprise following Dalglish's appointment, a short and hope filled month when all involved seemed to buy into the need for pass and move football and keeping the game on the ground.

Still, though his passing tendencies may at times be misjudged, his words are not inaccurate. Over the entire season, the club and its fans and supporters have seemed to at times bounce directly from fears of relegation to hopes and dreams of Champions League action. Even focusing on just the most recent weeks provides a fine example of this bipolar roller-coaster, with a flying win against Manchester United that fueled hopes of both moving up the table and of helping to keep United from another title providing the high point. Yet that glowing victory was itself bookended by a pair of dull and, quite frankly, dire performances against Braga in the Europa League that reminded everybody just how thin the squad was--and how far it still had to go if it was to ever return to the kind of flowing, dominating football seen in Europe only a few seasons past, let alone the heights of the Liverpool Groove that marked Dalglish's first stint as manager.

That second match against Braga that saw Liverpool drop out of Europe certainly felt like the end. Felt as though, for the latest and last time, any realistic hopes for future European competition were well and truly dead. And yet the very next match, an at times attractive victory over Sunderland, saw eyes turn to the table, where Tottenham didn't seem nearly so far away in fifth as they had only a day earlier. Moreover, Tottenham was still concerned with this season's Champions League and had a tough quarter-final against Real Madrid looming, something that could put Liverpool in an even better position to nab fifth as Spurs were at a stage where there could be little choice but to focus most of their energies on Europe.

But then, of course, Liverpool lost to West Bromwich Albion. And not just any West Bromwich Albion: Roy Hodgson's West Bromwich Albion. And they looked horrible in doing so. And it threw away any gain that could have been made in the table when Tottenham slipped up and drew against Wigan.

The players, though, still talk of hope, with Jay Spearing chipping in alongside Carragher:

We will never give up the fight for Europe and there are still plenty of points to play for.

With Tottenham only drawing it was a great opportunity to close the gap but it was a massive disappointment for ourselves...

We were disappointed with our performance on Saturday but we need a big response against Manchester City.

It's hard not to wonder if a player or Spearing's talents--no matter his local heart--is as much as anything an indictment of just where this Liverpool side stands, especially when compared to those filling similar squad roles on the side he's soon set to face. Still, if the team can find a way to pull together with a strong performance against an at times similarly uneven football club, then there's no reason to think fans might not turn to the table afterwards. And it's not unreasonable to think they might find cause for just a little bit of hope, and a dream or two of what if.

Whether those rekindled hopes would be a good thing should events conspire to allow them, or whether it would be just another false dawn to be snatched away, is another question. Because Liverpool is almost certainly out of Europe, and they likely have been ever since the combination of Arsenal choking on the Carling Cup and the players themselves choking on Portuguese opposition put the nails in the coffin. Just about everybody has been aware of it on some level, and talk of accepting that reality has come up before this latest setback.

But hope can be a curious, slippery, manic depressive sort of thing. And with the right set of results there's still room for hope to hurt everybody all over again. Or to finally come through in the clutch and provide an unlikely and upbeat end to the season. Because it's easy to say you accept the season is over, but it's been said before and it didn't stop people from finding hope all over again when a few results went Liverpool's way. Just as it won't stop hope from creeping back into the frame should results fall the right way next weekend.

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