x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Poor conversion rate costs net gains for Liverpool

Liverpool's failure to turn chances into goals against lowly teams means they will miss the Champions League.

Liverpool’s misfiring striker Luis Suarez, right, watches another shot fly wide against Blackburn Rovers at Anfield on Monday.
Liverpool’s misfiring striker Luis Suarez, right, watches another shot fly wide against Blackburn Rovers at Anfield on Monday.

"I think somebody was going to suffer," said Sir Alex Ferguson. And someone duly did, Manchester United winning their last two games 5-0.

This is how football often works: fail to convert a host of opportunities and, sooner or later, the floodgates open against someone else.

Except at Anfield, where they remain resolutely locked. As Blackburn Rovers became the fourth relegation candidates to leave Merseyside with a point, two trends continued: visiting goalkeepers invariably excel against Liverpool, with Mark Bunn's injury-time save from Andy Carroll meaning he joins Radek Cerny, Joe Hart, John Ruddy, Michel Vorm and David de Gea among their many nemeses; and Kenny Dalglish's side creating, but failing to take, chances.

But if shot-stoppers' displays of ability and agility could be dismissed as unfortunate coincidence, Liverpool's profligacy cannot. In their last four draws at Anfield, which have resulted in an aggregate score of 3-3, they have had 98 attempts at goal to opponents' 36.

Even two of their three home wins this season, against Wolves and Queens Park Rangers, were by one-goal margins, inadequate reflections of their domination. They have hit the woodwork an implausible 17 times, an indication they are almost prolific.

But the use of terms like "almost" and "if only" is giving way to recognition of the number of points dropped in games Liverpool should have won. The notion that there would only be a problem were chances not being made is being rendered outdated by the facts.

They have only mustered fewer goals after 18 games of a league season twice since the First World War and are being outscored by Bolton and Blackburn, the two teams at the foot of the division.

Yet this is a side with one of the division's most feared forwards. However, Luis Suarez's gifts extend from torturing defenders to tormenting his own support. The Uruguayan's mazy running means he makes many of his opportunities. His irrepressible streak means he keeps on coming back for more.

Yet he carries on missing. Four shots in the opening 20 minutes against Blackburn brought no breakthrough, just as he spurned five in the first half against QPR.

Suarez eventually supplied the winner that day, but it is his sole goal in 11 league games. Playing in the eye of a storm, since being adjudged guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra, his performance level has dipped in the last two draws, against Wigan and Blackburn.

Others are not compensating. Carroll's record of five goals in 28 games is a meagre return for a £35 million (Dh201m) investment. But for terrific saves, the 22 year old would have had injury-time winners against both Manchester City and Blackburn, but the fact remains that he doesn't and that the most expensive Englishman of all time is frequently on the bench.

Dirk Kuyt supplied 13 league goals from either the right wing or the attack last season but is yet to open his account for the current campaign, and with Steven Gerrard often injured and Maxi Rodriguez and Craig Bellamy underused, none of the midfielders or wingers have managed more than two. This is a collective failure to be clinical.

It extends to recruitment. When Rodriguez exhibits more of a predatory streak than the strikers, and when he is only granted four league starts, it is proof of a flaw in the forward line. There is a vacancy for a predator. Instead, the club's record buy is a lumbering target man.

An extensive remodelling job has restored the Liverpool ethos of pass-and-move so a side that was woefully uncreative under Roy Hodgson and at the end of Rafa Benitez's reign has more coherence and class, but less penetration than in the days when Gerrard and Fernando Torres could turn a half-chance into a lead. Now the wastefulness of hitting the woodwork, missing penalties and goalkeeping brilliance has given the team a new identity.

Dalglish has argued his side are doing 90 per cent of their job well, but the other 10 per cent is famously the hardest part. The manager also said Liverpool lack belief in front of goal, but this is a Catch-22 dilemma; without goals, how will belief come?

As he ponders the answer, it leaves Liverpool looking a paradox. A side managed by a deadly striker in his day have the lowest chance-conversion rate (eight per cent) in the Premier League. As it stands, an inability to finish will cost them Champions League football next season.

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Managers can sometimes sound paranoid when they insist their side are not getting the rub of the green from referees. Every now and again, however, they have a point.

Wigan Athletic's Roberto Martinez was understandably annoyed that Phil Dowd dismissed Conor Sammon at Old Trafford on Monday for what was deemed an elbow, but was not; even Michael Carrick, the other man involved in the incident, branded it "harsh".

Last season, in contrast, Wayne Rooney did elbow Wigan's James McCarthy in the opening minutes of their game at the DW Stadium, escaped punishment and went on to score in Manchester United's 4-0 victory. Sammon's ban should be rescinded, but much of the damage is already done.

sports@thenational.ae