FORGET the free lunch; this was a dog’s dinner of a performance.
Liverpool’s rollercoaster campaign lurched to an embarrassing low as they crashed out of the FA Cup at the hands of Oldham Athletic yesterday.
Brendan Rodgers won’t have to put his hand in his pocket to fund another squad meal out any time soon after his players served up a display which, for the 2,700-strong travelling Kop, was difficult to stomach.
It was the first time Liverpool had been knocked out of the competition by a club two divisions below them since Bolton 20 years ago.
When Rodgers spoke about making history, this wasn’t what he had in mind.
Worryingly, this wasn’t even a giant-killing tale of the underdog triumphing courtesy of a miraculous rearguard effort.
The fact is Liverpool could have no complaints as they got exactly what they deserved at Boundary Park.
A late rally almost forced a replay but by then the Latics should have been out of sight and were worthy winners.
For far too long desire and character weren’t even on the menu as the Reds allowed themselves to be bullied by a side battling against relegation from League One.
Considering the FA Cup was Liverpool’s best hope of silverware this season, the lack of intensity was baffling.
Defensively, they were shambolic as they failed miserably to deal with the physical presence of two-goal Latics frontman Matt Smith.
An alarming lack of composure throughout the side was epitomised by Brad Jones’s catalogue of errors. In the space of 90 minutes the Aussie keeper undid so much of his good work this term in establishing himself as a worthy deputy to Pepe Reina.
But Jones wasn’t the only one who let himself down. There was mediocrity in all departments with even Daniel Sturridge’s standards nose-diving after such a bright start to his Anfield career.
Some will point an accusing finger in the direction of Rodgers, who made half a dozen changes to the side which had thrashed Norwich 5-0 eight days earlier.
Shuffling his pack was understandable considering Liverpool face Premier League trips to Arsenal and Manchester City over the coming week.
The Reds’ line up still included nine full internationals and should have been good enough to get the job done.
But Rodgers will surely rue his decision to put so much faith in youth.
Luis Suarez and Martin Skrtel were the only outfield players aged over 23 who started – and it showed.
It took the introduction of skipper Steven Gerrard and Stewart Downing early in the second half to finally breathe some life into them. But from 3-1 down there was no way back.
The manager bemoaned his squad’s lack of experience after the recent setback at Old Trafford and the business done in this transfer window has so far done nothing to rectify that.
Owners Fenway Sports Group want to build for the future but there’s no doubt Liverpool are in need of more steel for the present.
The reality is the Reds look ill-equipped to deal with physical battles.
They rolled over at Stoke on Boxing Day and this was like watching a painful repeat.
Oldham’s game plan was clear – get in Liverpool’s faces and rough them up. Their feisty approach was rewarded inside three minutes.
Youssouf M’Changama crossed from the left and Smith climbed above Sebastian Coates to power a header goalwards.
Skrtel attempted to hack clear but could only help it over the line.
Sloppy in possession, Liverpool persisted in giving away a string of needless free-kicks.
Jones recovered from one of his own blunders to deny Robbie Simpson, whose reckless challenge earned him a booking, before Jose Baxter slammed a 20-yarder narrowly wide.
The Reds had barely got out of their own half but in the 17th minute they restored parity.
Suarez, who was handed the captain’s armband, latched on to Fabio Borini’s pass and inadvertently played a one-two with Oldham defender Cliff Byrne before firing past Dean Bouzanis.
With Suarez playing just behind a three-pronged attack of Borini, Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, Liverpool had an abundance of firepower.
Briefly, they threatened to make it count.
Suarez was offside when he turned in Jordan Henderson’s free-kick and then Sterling forced a low save from Bouzanis.
But momentum wasn’t maintained because Liverpool looked so frail at the back.
It was only Coates’ second start since early November and it showed.
The Uruguayan defender looked a bag of nerves and Skrtel saved his blushes with one vital tackle on Smith.
Simple high balls into the box caused panic and Jones had to turn Smith’s header over the bar.
On the stroke of half-time Oldham were back in front. Liverpool complained bitterly about a blatant foul on Sturridge, missed by referee Lee Probert which allowed the hosts to counter.
But there were no excuses for what followed.
Reece Wabara’s cross was carelessly fumbled by Jones and Lee Croft squared for Smith to convert.
The ineffective Borini should have halved the deficit straight after the break but the Italian blazed over from eight yards.
It was a costly miss as in the 48th minute the Latics grabbed a third. Substitute Carl Winchester got the better of Sterling and delivered to the back post where Jack Robinson and Borini were caught ball watching.
Wabara soared above them to send a looping header in off the woodwork.
It was the first time Liverpool had conceded three goals in an FA Cup tie against a team from outside the top two divisions since a 3-3 draw with Scunthorpe in 1956.
Gerrard and Downing replaced Borini and Wisdom, and the improvement was instant but after Gerrard’s shot was blocked, Sturridge lashed over.
However, it was never one-way traffic with Baxter and Simpson missing glorious chances to put Liverpool out of their misery.
With 10 minutes to go there was a ray of hope.
Downing’s corner was only cleared as far as Joe Allen who opened his account for the Reds as his deflected volley nestled in the corner.
Gerrard led the fight for an equaliser but his 30-yard piledriver came back off the bar late on as Oldham survived.
As the delirious home fans invaded the pitch at the final whistle, Liverpool’s misery was complete.
There will be no Wembley trip this season.
Not even close.
The Cups which brought so much joy last term have this term yielded only heartache.