In the waning minutes of the last night’s match at Anfield, Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard took a moment to look skyward. Eyes closed and body worn, Gerrard was probably wishing that at that very moment Liverpool’s European magic would wash over him one more time so he could pull his team-mates out of a hole the size of the the River Mersey and back into their quarter-final tie with Chelsea. But it wasn’t meant to be.
On a night where Chelsea couldn’t miss, the once confident Liverpool looked completely out of synch on the one stage that has truly felt like home over the last couple of years. The usual cagey matches between the two sides was turned into a shootout that looked more like a training ground practice session at times — the match featured multiple missed opportunities from both sides (Drogba missing pointblank on two occasions) and some horrendous possessions/marking from Liverpool — than a Champions League quarter-final.
In a match where possession was so critical, Liverpool (shockingly) found it quite easy to hold on to the ball, finishing the match at a very respectable 59 percent. But as in most matches, you have to look a bit deeper to see that the quality possessions were far and few. Numerous times supporters watched as Fabio Aurelio and Lucas — amongst others — were pushed off the ball without a fight. For a match that had so much pressure riding on the first leg, too many players seemed to shirk at the prospects of putting Chelsea to the sword after an early Fernando Torres goal.
As the game progressed and Chelsea scored their third goal, it became extremely apparent that whilst Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres may be the two most recognised players on the Liverpool squad, neither of them is the most important. I’ll let you digest that sentence for a moment.
Sure, Gerrard has pulled out some of the most important and improbable goals any of us have ever seen in our lifetime, but when the skipper has pulled up with the occasional knock, Liverpool have found a way to carry-on without him. The same could be said for Fernando Torres who’s been our for week’s at a time. Both players are indispensable to the club, yet Rafa always finds a way to plug the hole in their absence.
The same could be said for the rest of the squad sans one position — and that one position happens to be the biggest cog to Rafa Benitez’s squad. A once outlandish thought has now become official: Javier Mascherano is Liverpool’s most important player.
Ask most Liverpool supporters who they’d expect to be the captain after Gerrard and the answer would almost certainly be Jamie Carragher. But ask them who they’d choose after Carra and the answer seems to without a doubt be Mascherano.
A look at Mascherano’s past anitcs on the pitch paints a picture of a crazed player who would do anything for his club. He’s gone after refs, stood up for his team-mates on multiple occasions, and has played the role of Rafa’s pitbull perfectly. But whilst he’s done all these things over the years, the one thing he’s done better than anyone — including Gerrard — is keep the squad together as one cohesive unit.
It’s no surprise that the holding midfielder position is one of the most important roles in Rafa’s formation. Mascherano not only has to help thwart attacks from the opposition, he also has to make sure that he gives the midfield enough confidence to push up and know that they’re covered in the process. His sense of his position on the pitch and work rate are rivaled by only Chelsea’s Michael Essien. It’s no surprise Real Madrid were tracking him for a role in their squad next season.
Looking at Liverpool last night it was apparent that they missed Mascherano more than any other player. Lucas is a servicable replacement for Mascherano, but in a big match atmosphere the Brazilian still has a long way to go before he gains the killer instinct. Whilst Liverpool’s lack of quality possessions and crisp passing could be placed on the whole squad, it was very clear that they missed the Mascherano glue that seems to keep them together. They didn’t boss the pitch as they had previously against Aston Villa, Manchester United and Real Madrid, pushing players off the ball and controlling the possession with pinpoint passing. They missed all of those things against Chelsea.
There’s a reason Anfield sings his name out to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. Whilst the lad may be one player, when he’s on the pitch he plays with the grit and determination of an entire army. Liverpool supporters love him for that, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.