Following Thursday night's difficult loss to Manchester City, many Liverpool fans found themselves either praising the effort involved in giving City their toughest test yet at home or blaming referee Lee Mason and his linesmen for a series of highly dubious calls. For some, including Brendan Rodgers, there was time to do a bit of both, as the manager followed talk of his pride in Liverpool's effort by slamming the officials. It was a sentiment that, while perhaps not entirely misguided, managed to miss that for all the good in their performance, any blame for Thursday's loss has is on Liverpool.
"I was surprised to see that the referee came from Greater Manchester," said Rodgers in his post-match interview on Thursday, with the manager's failure to hide his disappointment over a series of decisions the replays confirmed were poor meaning he is now under investigation by the FA for publicly questioning the referee's integrity and suggesting bias. "If it was City versus Liverpool at Anfield I don't think we would get a referee from the Wirral. It was a horrendous performance from all the officials [and] hopefully we won't have a Greater Manchester referee with Liverpool-Manchester games in future.
It was understandable why Rodgers would be upset by the officiating, and given replays do tend to support his view that the referee and his linesmen got the big decisions wrong on more than one occasion in City's favour, it isn't a given the manager will be punished even if that still seems the most likely outcome—even when they're in the wrong, the FA aren't especially known for taking public criticism well. However, for Rodgers to suggest the failings of the officials are the reason Liverpool ended the night with zero points is to overlook that Liverpool should still have taken something home with them from the Etihad regardless of those errors.
Suarez may have been barged over on the edge of City's penalty area late on in the match in a collision that could easily have given Liverpool a chance to equalise from the penalty spot, and Raheem Sterling being flagged for offside in the first half may go down as the worst call of the season by a linesman in the top flight, but Liverpool can only look to themselves for failing to gain a result. Their efforts may have been commendable, and the visitors likely shaded the run of play, but for all that it might be nice to be able to blame the officials for the loss, it's a game they should still have won—or, at the very least, drawn.
Rodgers "Very Proud"
Despite our niggling annoyance and justifiable irritation at no longer sitting atop the Premier League, Brendan Rodgers, as is his wont, has words of encouragement to lift our spirits.
Simon Mignolet flapping at Alvaro Negredo's shot towards the end of the first half made for what was inarguably the worst goal Liverpool's keeper has conceded since arriving over the summer. It was the kind of goalkeeping howler fans had hoped the arrival of Mignolet meant was now a thing of the past. Meanwhile at the other end of the pitch, Glen Johnson, Philippe Coutinho, and Raheem Sterling missed the three best chances of the night that didn't end in the back of one of the goals. Sterling's in particular was unfortunate, the kind of chance from just a few yards out and with the keeper out of position that looks harder to miss than to score from.
Of course, it shouldn't be overlooked that Sterling and Coutinho had far more positives to take away from Thursday evening than the negatives of their goals that should have been, and Mignolet has almost single-handedly earned Liverpool more than enough points this season to be forgiven the odd mistake. The positives are surely there, both in a midfield trio that once again was able to go toe to toe with one of the league's best and in a young but promising squad that can only get better. Plus there's always the fact that three points earned somewhat unexpectedly at Tottenham made a result at City less urgent than it might have been for Liverpool's top four hopes.
Still, for all the positives, and for all the suggestions that Liverpool should have taken points from the game, in the end it was Liverpool who lost the match for themselves by missing their chances and making mistakes at the back rather than because of a handful of poor decisions by the officials. Perhaps, when one looks closely at those mistakes, it's even a touch misguided to suggest Liverpool deserved a result. Certain aspects of their play certainly did. It would be hard to argue Liverpool's midfield didn't deserve some kind of result, playing City's at least even on the whole. And Luis Suarez, despite not registering a goal, was again a world class presence leading the attack.
The defence, though, was shaky at times. Glen Johnson was as indecisive as he's ever been in a Liverpool shirt on the ball and managed to make the out of favour Aly Cissokho appear the stronger fullback. Martin Skrtel, despite a handful of phenomenal recoveries, continues to be fortunate to have not been penelised on a set piece. Mamadou Sakho had a ten minute stretch in the second half that was perhaps the worst by a Liverpool defender this season. In attack, meanwhile, for all their solid play in the midfield areas, Sterling and Coutinho reminded why neither youngster is yet considered a major goal threat.
Coutinho and Sterling will get better with age; Sakho and Skrtel were largely competent aside from a worrying spell and set pieces respectively; and Glen Johnson has in the past been prone to a mid-season lull, one that he has always rebounded strongly from. Still, it offers something of a reality check for where this overachieving Liverpool squad are. It's a good squad, one that can appear great when everybody plays to their maximum, but it isn't yet a great squad—and against City, focusing instead on the parts that weren't so great leaves the loss looking just as deserved as it can appear unjust when one chooses to focus on the positives of midfield play and Suarez' brilliance.
It wasn't the referee's fault, and it wasn't the linesman's fault. In the end it was only Liverpool's fault that they didn't take something away from the Etihad. That isn't the end of the world, and on last night's efforts it still very much appears a squad capable of making a strong challenge for the top four. Nascent hopes that this squad might have suddenly turned into something more than that, though, may have to once again be packaged away for the future. And even if that future appears brighter than it has in some time, it's still hard not to be a touch disappointed.