Regular readers of this column will know that my relationship with the actuality of Liverpool playing matches is not a pleasant one, to say the least. Almost every game reduces me to a gibbering wreck. I’ve sometimes wondered whether I could make a few quid out of this. Get an empty paint tin, sit on it for the duration of the match with my trousers around my ankles, and market the thick brown liquid that is produced as ‘Organic PaintTM.’ Hippies and IRA hunger strikers would truly appreciate some ‘Organic PaintTM‘ on their walls. As you can see, I’ve already copyrighted the concept, so if I see it on sale in your local B&Q, you’ll be hearing from my solicitors.
As we enter this crucial phase in our season, with four bowel-loosening games in only eleven days, you would think the production of ‘Orga-‘ (all right, all right, we’ve had enough of that particular image! – Chris Mc/James) would go into overdrive. And you’d be half right. The games against the two Cities, Manchester and Birmingham, will have me nervously chewing a fingernail (amongst other things) for their entire length. So much will be at stake, yet the substantive rewards will be minimal. We simply can’t afford to lose either. We’ll be a laughing stock – deservedly – if we do.
You may have noticed that I’ve omitted the Roma game from the equation. That’s because I simply can’t wait for Thursday night. The excitement levels have being building ever since we drew them and while we may have winced at the difficulty of the draw at first, I doubt if there has been one of us who hasn’t been drooling at the thought of locking swords with Batistuta, Totti, Delvecchio et al.
I would go as far as to say that this is the most exciting night involving Liverpool FC since we last won the European Cup. Okay, we’ve won a good few trophies in the meantime – although not too many recently – and there was that dramatic/traumatic night in 1989 against Arsenal which topped just about everything in terms of excitement, but those were domestic trophies, and that was against the masters of jetlag-like football that are Arsenal.
Roy Evans once said that Anfield without European football was like a banquet without wine. And the vintage we’ve being drinking since our return to Europe is vin trés ordinaire. There have been only two occasions when the Reds produced a truly stellar performance in Europe since 1992. The first was that year against Auxerre when we came from 2-0 after the first leg, and against Valencia two years ago when we stunned them with two late goals. Other than that, it’s been a case of struggling against utter dross like SK Brann or humiliation to a shower of French wastrels.
When I think of the manner of a number of our departures from Europe, I get genuinely angry. Remember Brondby? We needed to win at Anfield, yet we played as if a draw would do and they caught us with a sucker punch. And what about those revoltingly spineless performances in France against Paris Saint-Germain and Strasbourg? The recent legacy of European football has been one of abject underachievement.
And to be honest, it hasn’t been great this year either. For a while we trashed Olympiakos around the park in Athens, which was fun. Other than that we’ve struggled. We certainly haven’t done much to suggest we’re going to go all the way. But who cares? Because we’re going to be playing Roma. This isn’t a sad bunch of journeymen or honest Scandinavian cloggers. This is Roma. The Eternal City. Venue of two of our European Cup victories, the first of which was probably our finest ever hour (I remember it well.) The whole tie just oozes sex appeal. A half-decent result in Rome and we can anticipate an unforgettable Anfield night, with 40,000 people baying for blood, a boiling cauldron of colour and noise. Whatever happens, it should demonstrate what makes supporting Liverpool worthwhile.
The Sunday Times devoted two pages to the match this week, relegating the supposedly more significant Champions League games to the status of also-rans. The relentless advance of group stages has diluted the passion of that once-great trophy. Now people have to turn to the UEFA Cup if they want to see the pulsating drama of knockout football before the quarterfinals of the Champions League. So what are UEFA going to do? They’re going to introduce group stages to the UEFA Cup!
When can we expect to see an end to the prostitution of the European competitions? The answer is, we can’t. As members of the G14, Liverpool are no doubt foremost among the movers to clone the goose that lays the golden eggs. Sure, each goose lays fewer eggs as fans switch off in droves at the thought of watching Liverpool play Rapid Bucharest in a meaningless group game. But there will be more geese, and that means more gold.
Treasure this match. We may not ever see its like again.