by Kristian Walsh
Sometimes, something is so obvious it needs to be stated: Stewart Downing is not Gareth Bale. Nobody would argue otherwise, not even Downing himself. That, in part, is his problem. Downing receives the ball, Bale finds it; Downing waits for his moment, Bale provides them. The cocktail of confidence and ability is a balance Downing is yet to strike fully, properly, consistently.
But Jermain Defoe is not Luis Suarez; Kyle Walker is not Glen Johnson. Very few players in the world, over the past decade, are Steven Gerrard. This is the construct of football, this is how it works. This is not some virtual, utopian world where one side possesses the best 22 players in the world, no matter how hard some very rich men try.
That Downing is not at the level of Bale should be acceptable, but it isn't. It should not disparage Downing, but it does. Utopia is constantly sought in football, yet this is a game far more dystopian than most.
Since returning to the Liverpool side in December, Downing has improved. For some, his status has been upgraded: No longer is he an expensive flop who embodies the financial anarchy under Damien Comolli, Kenny Dalglish, and whoever else blame sets its scattergun sights upon. Instead, he is now a competent wide player who has found that something, anything, required to feature for Liverpool. A competent wide player worth nowhere near the 20 million pounds paid, granted, but such stricture should not fall solely on him.
His performance against Wigan last Saturday felt like his moment, though it was typically understated. If he was to leave tomorrow, Wigan would be upon the chronicle cover. This is a player who has been assigned as an attacking dupe, a patsy, the distracting puff of a magician's smoke. After months of carrying out thankless tasks, he seized his chance for a thank you all of his own. Less than two minutes in, he produced a run all-too-rare in his Liverpool career. It was intelligent, gutsy. It was goal-scoring, too. Rare indeed.
Suarez and Philippe Coutinho were the headline act at the DW Stadium, their names sung to garish pop songs throughout, the perfect distortion to the dour Lancastrian night beyond the stadium exit door. But Downing had started the party long before and kept it going, keeping his position on the right while those to his left slalomed through blue and white statues.
But the issue remains: He is not Bale. With Tottenham visiting Anfield on Sunday, the reminder could not be less well-timed. Downing is improving; he is beginning to resemble a player capable of adding to a squad that finishes in the top six. But he is not Bale.
He is not that six foot-plus footballing machine, with shoulders six foot wide and a left foot that could have brought down the Berlin wall. He is not Bale, who has scored 34 goals in the past two seasons and combines natural talent with unerring confidence. Downing is quietly becoming a good option for Liverpool, but he would not elicit interest from any top club in England, let alone world football.
How things can change. In 2008, Downing was impressing for Middlesbrough. Tottenham asked the north east side to name their price. The reply of 15 million pounds and Bale in exchange is one that does not stand up to the test of time. It is hard to know what is more disbelieving: Middlesbrough's chutzpah or Tottenham's contemplation.
But five years ago, Bale was not Downing. Bale held an inexplicable hoodoo over his club, failing to be on the winning side in 24 Premier League games. Those powerful strides, so synonymous with the Welshman, used to be meagre surrenders of the ball, a routine relinquishment by a player not fulfilling his potential. The marching dragon of the present was just a small scapegoat from the valleys. Downing was anything but -- he was the local boy doing good, safeguarding the future of England's left side.
This is not necessarily to launch a defence of Downing, though the shield becomes more steadfast with each passing game. This is not even to apotheosize Bale, for he has already become a deity to hyperbole.
This simply a cautionary tale of how rapidly things spin in the whirlwind of football. The narrative is never written for long. That includes Downing and Bale of 2013.
Liverpool should remember that. A few decent performances does not make Downing irreplaceable, but nor is it necessarily a brief expedition away from deadening mediocrity. For Bale, the story is far from written; there is plenty of ink left in the quill. The upward trajectory of his performances since the arrival of Andre Villas-Boas in the summer, aided by shifting central and roaming free, will no doubt continue -- but he can be stopped, certainly for 90 minutes, certainly on Sunday.
It is not a notion to be limited to just those two players, either. That is not to suggest every player should be persevered with in the face of brow-furrowing incompetence. But there is clearly value in not overhyping or underappreciating players. In this season alone, the revolving door of favour has swung viciously at Anfield. In to favour came Downing, Jordan Henderson and Jose Enrique, a trio previously consigned to the Dalglish/Commoli waste land; out flew Fabio Borini, Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling to take their places, for it is a space that always must be occupied, a rats' alley where the dead men lost their bones.
Brendan Rodgers will have been tempted to scrawl 'stop Bale' upon the Melwood whiteboard in the lead-up the game. So long as it isn't permanent marker. Nothing is ever permanent.
Though Bale is the main reason they currently rest third in the league, he is not the only reason. Much like Liverpool, all talk of one man teams should cease. This game is about more than Bale or Suarez. It isn't about the recent histories of the two clubs, seemingly intertwined at every turn and transfer window; it isn't about the promises that were kept, broken and never uttered to the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey, Villas-Boas and Rodgers, all of whom could have been wearing a different shade of kit if things concluded differently.
Sunday will rest upon 22 players -- 26 if all the substitutes are used -- and two men sitting in the dugout. With this game the only one to feature those realistically in the chase for European football, a victory for Liverpool would put them sixth, just two points behind Arsenal. A chance to put pressure on those above them. A chance, but nothing more, particularly given their season so far.
If Downing's contribution is similar to his recent efforts, Liverpool won't care that he isn't Bale. Nor should they regardless, because that's how this world works. Dystopia striving for utopia. Just ask Downing; the closer he helps Liverpool to European football, the closer he edges towards the exit door for good.
Maybe he's a bit more like Bale than anyone gives him credit for.http://espnfc.com/blog/_/name/liverpool/id/730?cc=5739