What's going on at Anfield? Liverpool was expected by many pundits -- ourselves included -- to be serious title contenders in the English Premier League this year.
Instead, its star-studded team finds itself embroiled in a tight four-way battle with Everton, Aston Villa and Manchester City for fourth place and the last Champions League qualifying spot.
On Monday, Everton travels to City, with Sven-Göran Eriksson's side knowing that a win will bring his team even with the Toffeemen. But it's on Liverpool that we're focusing.
Last weekend Barnsley -- England's 34th-best team and heralding from a small 72,000-population Yorkshire town -- arrived at Anfield for a fifth-round match in the FA Cup knockout competition. It was a game in which, to quote Barnsley's own Council, "People were expecting a rout and even the most ardent fan was hoping for a good day out and to keep the score down."
All was going as scripted when Liverpool took a lead in the 33rd minute, thanks to Dirk Kuyt. An hour later, the Reds had been humbled 2-1. Two key moments summarize the game: first, the quality of Martin Devaney's long-range, pinpoint cross that Steve Foster headed home for the Tykes' opening goal; the other, Xabi Alonso's role in Barnsley's second strike.
Alonso was half-hearted in his tackle on Brian Howard as the Barnsley captain advanced toward the edge of the box. Alonso hadn't done much wrong -- two defenders were blocking the direction of Howard's advance -- but the Spanish international was just somewhat lethargic. It was error enough as Howard shot and scored from the edge of the area before those defenders reached him.
It was at the last minute, and Liverpool was left shamed as Alonso knelt regretfully on the turf. Barnsley was rewarded by drawing a home matchup with Chelsea in the quarterfinals, while Rafa Benítez must have been dreading his next game, Tuesday's Champions League matchup with Inter Milan.
Talk in England was rife that a loss to Internazionale would spell the end of Benítez's reign, and with the Nerazzurri 11 points in first and still undefeated in Italy's Serie A, Team Limey wasn't betting against Benítez joining us in drinking games down at the welfare center. Yet the Italian side failed to live up to Barnsley's precedent, going down 2-0 to late goals by Kuyt and Steven Gerrard.
Perhaps Benítez got lucky when Marco Materazzi received a second yellow card after only 30 minutes, but it doesn't require Pinkerton's to work out that Rafa's European match record is better than his domestic one.
Why? The obvious answer is that he's Spanish, and learned his trade on the continent, where the soccer is less frenetic than in England. In fact, it's the only answer we can think of. Surely that goatee demonstrates a failure to understand or adopt English styles.
The second biggest FA Cup shock last weekend was Arsenal's capitulation to Manchester United. Arsène Wenger's men left Old Trafford with bruised egos after they dropped their trousers and took a 4-0 battering from their Premiership title rivals. Worse, the personification of mediocrity, Darren Fletcher, rubbed salt into Arsenal's gaping wounds by being good for once.
The man of the match, Nani, did plenty of harm as well. The Portuguese youngster broke the apparent "unwritten" rule in soccer with his one-man application for the London Zoo's seal enclosure. His showboating earned him a berating from his manager, and severely bruised legs from Mathieu Flamini's and William Gallas' acts of retribution.
Arsenal played with significantly more desire and purpose in its Champions League round of 16 match against AC Milan, but was again left frustrated in a scoreless draw. The Gunners dominated and should've won the game, out-shooting the defending champions 15-6 and with Emmanuel Adebayor smacking the crossbar with virtually the last touch of the game.
Much was made of the age gap between the two sides: Arsenal's starting 11 averages 25.5 years old and AC Milan's 29.9. The Rossoneri old-timers showed their years of European experience and ability to resolutely grind out results in the Champions League by fending off a barrage of attacks from the young scamps of North London. Arsenal is left in the second leg with the prospect of having to break down the wall of red-and-black at the San Siro if it is to progress to the next round.
Elswhere, in the buildup to his side's Champions League tilt against Lyon, Alex Ferguson tempted fate by hinting at a summer swoop for Lyon wunderkind Karim Benzema. Ferguson watched the French youngster with both admiration and annoyance as he put Lyon 1-0 ahead in the 54th minute. However, United is favored to progress to the quarterfinals after substitute Carlos Tévez scored a vital away goal in the 87th minute to finish the game 1-1.
In the UEFA Cup, Spurs knocked out Slavia Prague and, with a streak of wonder-goals, Everton thrashed SK Brann 8-1 on aggregate. Battling Bolton held on for a 0-0 draw in the Estadio Vicente Calderón to dispatch La Liga's fourth-place team, Atlético Madrid.
For Bolton fans, the match was sullied by heavy-handed and overzealous Spanish policing, which the English FA is now investigating. Team Limey wonders, will this be the year that criticism of the quality of the "other 16" teams in the EPL is finally crushed by a strong UEFA Cup showing?
Last time, we canvassed the views of the venerable Limey readership on the EPL's much-criticized plans for an international round of matches that would create a 39th game at selected cities across the world, an idea the English FA finally rejected on Thursday.
Of those who voiced their opinions, the majority (more than 80 percent) were against the idea, with two central themes to the opposition. First, too many games in an already congested fixture schedule, with Tom Gascich of Kansas City hoping for revolution amongst the EPL players: "Match No. 39? Are you kidding me? What a horrible idea for players who already play too many matches. I hope they revolt over this."
Second, the issue around how participants of each match would be decided through a random draw, with the top four teams seeded to avoid each other. Adam of Texas summarizes some of the contentious permutations that could result from the random draw (while at the same time devaluing Tottenham's first potential silverware for 10 years in Sunday's Carling Cup final):
"A drawn match will directly affect the standings for teams vying for Europe as well as those in the relegation zone. And could you imagine the press conference with a manager if his team loses the title due to this extra match. If the FA wants to sanction a match overseas, play the Carling Cup final overseas. It is a fairly worthless competition, but since it is for silverware, teams will at least turn out a full-strength squad."
John Evanchek brought tears to Team Limey's eyes with his homey and nostalgic view of today's corporate, multinational EPL. He would rather wait until he gets over to England to experience a game: "Home fans have songs, chants, rituals and history. Casual fans in a neutral site don't know [them] and it would take away from the whole experience."
With Arsenal out of the FA Cup, and all of the EPL teams with a chance of progressing in the Champions League, who do you think is on track for the most silverware this season? Send in your thoughts on that and any other banter to firstname.lastname@example.org.