The 3-0 defeat to Paris St-Germain in the Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final, first leg was bad enough; Saturday's 3-1 home loss to Manchester United was worse. It ended Liverpool's hopes for a first title since 1990 and, following Arsenal's subsequent home draw, has effectively settled the championship in the holders' favour. Even if Liverpool and Arsenal win every remaining game, United will only need five points from four matches, three of them at home, to secure their fourth title in five seasons.
It has been claimed that Liverpool are the best in the League and they will have lost the title rather than United won it. Not so. They may have played some of the prettiest football but, as Alex Ferguson, the United manager, kept repeating on Saturday, "you have to earn the right to be champions".
United have come good when it mattered, beating Arsenal and Liverpool home and away and dropping just 10 points out of 51 in the past four months. On Saturday their tactics, attitude and depth - missing four regulars - were all better than their rivals.
Liverpool, though possessing qualities, are one-paced, over-reliant on Robbie Fowler and unable to cope with their goalkeeper's loss of confidence. This was their heaviest defeat to United at Anfield since 1969 and, had Andy Cole not been so wasteful, it would have been humiliating.
What now for Liverpool? Roy Evans, their manager, was asked if it was just a question of cutting out the errors and doing some fine-tuning, or making a drastic overhaul. In the aftermath of defeat he restricted himself to saying: "We are always looking to improve the team." If the board backs him, however, the latter seems likely.
Priorities are a new partner for Fowler and a combative midfielder. They will not be easy to find, not in England at any rate. "Everybody would like a ball-winner," Evans said, "but he has got to be able to play. I wouldn't want someone who just spoiled." After Paul Ince, few candidates spring to mind.
The departure of Stan Collymore, possibly to Aston Villa, and Jamie Redknapp, a target for Newcastle, would finance the buying. Neil Ruddock, Mark Kennedy and Phil Babb may also be on their way.
It is not just the personnel under review, the system and approach may be re-thought, too. United's back four have a solidity and flexibility Liverpool's three defenders and wing-backs lack. In front of them the midfield is too predictable.
"We are still playing too many short balls," Evans said. "There were times when we should have played it longer, especially when Stan [Collymore] was on. I don't mean 70 yards, 30 yards is a long ball. We need more variation otherwise people can predict we will play in front of them. We need to put a doubt in their mind and turn them."
United knew Liverpool's method and, instead of playing their midfield four in a line, they made a diamond, with Roy Keane in front of the back four, Paul Scholes behind the front pair and David Beckham and Nicky Butt tucked in much more tightly than usual. With the Neville brothers blocking the wing-backs, Liverpool were continually forced to pass square or back before slinging in crosses which Gary Pallister dealt with easily.
Too often it seemed the buck was being passed along with the ball, which was not even passed that well, with Michael Thomas a particular culprit. The midfield do not take enough risks and attack the box too rarely. Steve McManaman was peripheral while the other players who do attack with the ball, Collymore and Patrik Berger, do not seem to have gelled.
United started the brighter though McManaman wasted a clear chance before, after 12 minutes, the visitors scored. A contested corner was taken by Beckham and Pallister got ahead of Mark Wright to thump a header in. John Barnes took advantage of sloppy marking to equalise with another header but, just before the interval, again Pallister met a Beckham corner with Wright ball-watching and David James in no-man's land.
It was no surprise, though James had saved well from Cole and Ronny Johnsen: he was a mistake waiting to happen. United preyed on the goalkeeper's fallibility - unusually, they had worked on set-pieces during the week. James' frailty induced nerves across the back three, all of whom were poor. Eventually he blundered again, flapping at Gary Neville's deep cross to allow Cole to score.
Cole should have had a fourth goal but Evans did not deserve that embarrassment even if his players did. The manager's future will also be under consideration and he needs to see his team produce a good performance in the second leg against Paris on Thursday. He also needs to show he can crack the whip.
Liverpool have now dropped 21 points at Anfield, their one-time fortress. Maybe it was the ridiculously early start, but it did not seem intimidating on Saturday. Or maybe it was the timing, in the week of the Hillsborough anniversary.
While there were a couple of minor incidents outside the ground there was also a scene to lift the heart and put even this game in perspective. At the base of the Hillsborough Memorial, draped over some of the two dozen floral tributes, was a Manchester United scarf.
n A concert at Anfield on 10 May - featuring the Lightning Seeds - is being held to raise funds for the campaign by families of victims of the Hillsborough disaster. Phone 0800 1388844 for tickets.
Goals: Pallister (12) 0-1; Barnes (18) 1-1; Pallister (42) 1-2; Cole (63) 1-3.
Liverpool (3-5-1-1): James; Kvarme, Wright, Harkness; McAteer (Collymore, 51), Redknapp, Barnes (Berger, 68), Thomas, Bjornebye; McManaman; Fowler. Substitutes not used: Jones, Matteo, Warner (gk).
Manchester United (4-1-3-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Pallister, P Neville; Keane; Beckham, Scholes (McClair, 81), Butt; Cole, Cantona. Substitutes not used: Irwin, Poborsky, Solskjaer, Van der Gouw (gk).
Referee: G Poll (Tring).
Bookings: Manchester United G Neville, Pallister.
Man of the match: Pallister. Attendance: 40,892.Reuse content