Liverpool in trouble as Real Madrid hunt their main man Sterling
Two incidents involving Raheem Sterling this week highlight how perilously fragile Liverpool really are.
There was the farce against Middlesbrough and the force of Real Madrid.
The only difference between the two is the League Cup penalty shoot-out eventually ended, but the Spanish side will not stop.
Real neither retreat nor surrender in their pursuit of a transfer target. If they want Sterling, they will sign him.
And if the Liverpool winger heads for the exit at the end of the season, manager Brendan Rodgers might as well join him.
Luis Suarez was untouchable, but Sterling is fast becoming irreplaceable.
He is the velvet curtain covering the mere mortals fiddling around behind the scenes, the Band-Aid keeping Rodgers' facade in place.
It's messy across the Mersey right now, the river surrounded by lands looking increasingly lost.
Tomorrow's Merseyside Derby is mired in mediocrity. The so-called Champions League chasers are 11th and 14th, respectively, with the Reds just a point above the soft-centred Toffees.
After their 3-0 loss at Swansea, Everton are fighting off a crisis of confidence that has infected even Tim Howard.
But Liverpool are no less brittle. Sterling's appearance against Middlesbrough was an indictment of Rodgers' squad imbalance.
With the cup-tie on a knife-edge, Liverpool's only consistent performer couldn't be sacrificed. He was a victim of his own reliability.
Sterling pushed his wiry frame through 122 minutes and the mentally draining agony of that punishing penalty shoot-out.
Rodgers clearly wanted to withdraw Sterling ahead of the Merseyside Derby; a contest that suddenly has a "must not lose' tag stamped across it.
But the winger endured. He drove himself on for more than two hours to mask the deficiencies of others.
If Liverpool's newcomers continue to drift to the periphery of proceedings, the club's owners will become increasingly wary of handing over the chequebook a second time in January.
Rodgers has already had a fistful of dollars. He'll soon be calling for a few dollars more. And yet his signings look a little like cowboys.
Adam Lallana's industry cannot be faulted, but he still hasn't found the inspiration that earned his £25-million ($52m) move from Southampton.
Rickie Lambert's efforts against Boro did enough to convince Rodgers that the hometown hero belongs on the bench.
But the biggest concern remains Lazar Markovic. Playing out on the right, he was somewhere between insipid and invisible. Still only 20, the Serbian perhaps needs time to settle, but he's struggling to justify his £20m fee.
With a rotating back four that continues to play as if the defenders were introduced to each other during the warm up, the Reds' reliance upon Sterling is alarming.
Liverpool's previous campaign rested almost entirely upon the fortunes of one individual and Rodgers admitted then that both Suarez and the season was a one-off.
And yet, just five games in, Liverpool's campaign has more than a whiff of deja vu with a lone ranger riding in to save the day; the same storyline repeated on our screens every week like an old TV serial.
Sterling booms or Liverpool bust.
Mario Balotelli isn't looking like the Messiah on his second coming to the Premier League.
Daniel Sturridge is on his way back, but Philippe Coutinho finds himself dazed and confused in a fog of inconsistency, while Steven Gerrard gamely tries to hold back both Father Time and the rising tide of negative public opinion.
That leaves Boy Wonder playing the Man of Steel. If Leighton Baines finds enough kryptonite to keep the kid in check, then Liverpool could be left in a bit of a Merseyside muddle.
Against Middlesbrough, a vicious cycle perpetuated itself. The more Sterling revealed himself to be Liverpool's only real source of creativity and invention, the more he was called upon to be creative and inventive.
Teammates withdrew. Sterling took charge. He's still only 19. This is a common Premier League tale that has only one ending.
The Reds are inadvertently grooming him for Real Madrid.
Sterling's colleagues must step up in the derby to lighten his load and remind the winger of the club's collective strengths.
Suarez got tired of the one-man band routine in the end and now dances to a different tune in Spain. If Liverpool do not improve, Sterling will follow suit.
Unlike Rodgers in the last transfer window, Real Madrid always get the right man.