18 August 2004 – 2045 BST 25 May 2005
(Click here for Part II)
We’re the greatest team in Europe and we’re off to Istanbul!
The capacity of football fans for self-delusion is one of the wonders of the modern world. The ball drops to the opposition’s top striker six yards out, sphincters expand in preparation for the inevitable, only for him to spoon it over the bar. This is greeted by a hurricane of derision from those who only moments – fractions of moments – earlier were poised to soil their drawers. A player joins from the forces of evil (anyone not Liverpool), where heretofore he was regarded as a complete scumbag. Now he is a legend. Then he rejoins the forces of evil and becomes a scumbag again. Given the logic of football, it makes perfect sense. But it’s hardly rational.
With that in mind, the delirium surrounding our drama-drenched progress through the Champions League smacks of complete denial. Okay, the lines above are merely a terrace chant and not to be taken too seriously, but the carnival atmosphere at Anfield for the final game of the domestic season against Aston Villa was completely unjustified by the quality of what was on the pitch. A 37-point deficit on Chelsea represents a thunderous denunciation of Rafael Benitez’s first season in charge. Greatest team in Europe? We’re not even the greatest team in Liverpool.
Make no mistake, the manager must carry the can for the wretched league performance, two points worse than what we accumulated last season. Spare me the talk of being in transition. Over £20 million winged it’s way over to Spain, and for what? Only four players – the imperious Carragher, Riise, Finnan and Garcia – will look back on 2004/5 with a sense of personal satisfaction, the latter pair more because not much was expected of them rather than their manifest brilliance. Alonso looks like he could be the business, but the idea that he merely needs a run in the team to unleash his full potential is undermined somewhat by him making 24 league appearances this season – bet you that comes as a surprise. The rest of them have ranged from the inconsistent to the downright horrendous. Watching Stephen Warnock flail around against Villa like someone who had had their bootlaces tied together was demoralising, further evidence that the Academy is not only not producing any more Owens or Fowlers, but is struggling to even generate the odd Harkness or Thompson. If the disgraceful performances away to Birmingham and Newcastle represent the Rafa-lution, then let’s dispense with this particular caudillo and bring back the anciens regime.
And yet – you didn’t think that was going to be unremittingly pessimistic, did you? – the performances in Europe do generate a flicker of hope for the future. Those who belittle our progress through to the European Cup final – man, does it feel good to say that – are blithely ignoring the quality of that progression. Once again we have the tedious claptrap about luck despite that fact that we’ve thoroughly deserved to win each and every tie. There’s no denying we’ve flown very close to the sun on at least three occasions. The statistical probability of surviving all those brushes with the away goals rule is not great. Against Olympiakos, Juventus and Chelsea, we’ve been one poxy deflection away from having glorious victory turned into shattering defeat. But in each of those ties, we have been the superior outfit over the two legs, imposing our will on the game with impressive gusto. Had the aforementioned deflection occurred in either of those games, which was the only way either of those teams was going to score, it would have been an absolute travesty. It wasn’t luck that got us through, more an absence of bad luck.
So how do we explain the tub-thumping performances in Europe compared to the triangle-tinkling failures in the domestic game? There are superficial explanations that appeal to the unimaginative mind, such as Hyypia playing in Europe while Pellegrino plays in Premiership, or the input of the crowd in the European game. The crowd did not make a difference against Olympiakos or Juve, both games being more a case of the Kop reacting to the remarkable aggression displayed on the field rather than the other way around, so we can discount that as being a significant factor.
(The exception was the Chelsea game. It was flattering in the aftermath of the match to see people with no interest in football commenting on the wall of noise that blasted from the Kop that night. There were few people in the country who weren’t aware that something unusual took place that night, not least the stunned Chelsea fans whose gobsmacked visages testified to the hair-drying on which they were on the receiving end. That was us, that was.)
The only thing that can account for the different performances is the triumph of tactics that took place in each of our European ties. Even Fabio Capello admitted he had been outwitted by Benitez – if anyone comments on Juventus’ erroneously-disallowed goal, remind them that they played out the last ten minutes happy with a 2-1 deficit against a team that had been dead on their collective feet since half-time, so certain were they that they’d obliterate Liverpool in Turin, and that it serves them right – and this was true of every tie after the demented frenzy that was Olympiakos. To outwit three superior teams, each time using a different gameplan, is one coincidence too many to be a coincidence. The spectacle of the Special Man putting Robert Huth up front, then blaming the injuries to two players (let us refrain from listing Liverpool’s butchers bill) and the officials (the ref should have sent Cech off even after awarding the goal) for the defeat was most gratifying.
Whatever happens in Istanbul in the European Cup final (there’s that warm glow again), this is not a good Liverpool team. The Houllier experience, après El-Hadji Diouf, has taught me to follow my gut and not to be swayed by appeals to “give him time”. Apart from Garcia, and he only sporadically, none of Benitez’s signings has pulled up trees. Neither Cisse, Baros or Morientes look like they’ll give us the 20+ goals a season that even Andy Johnson could provide – and before you scoff at the amount of penalties he’s scored, a ruthless penalty taker is not to be sniffed at given our record from twelve yards. Xabi Alonso will be an Anfield great if he fulfils his potential, but the same was said once upon a time of Jamie Redknapp. Steven Gerrard will never be happy while we’re not winning championships, his inflated reputation pulling at everything else like a black hole of despair. The deadwood loitering around the club is worse than a Scandinavian forest in the 1980’s, Everton finished ahead of us, the increasingly shambolic ground move permeates everything like a rich but hated relative, Everton finished ahead of us, Chelsea look like they’re going to hoover up everything for years to come, Everton finished ahead of us . . .
But the European Cup! Oh my . . .
(Click here for Part II)