Picture it: Norway, c. 1990. A young John Arne Riise is bulldozing his way through teams on his own and lashing shots in from thirty to forty metres away, generally being the type of all-action type so beloved of a rugged Scandinavian people. His mentor, Lars Hardaxe (NB name may be made up) takes John Arne aside. “John Arne,” he says solicitously, “you’re going to a star. But take some advice. Work on your right foot. A time will come when you might need to use it in an emergency, maybe to clear the ball in the last minute of a big match. Trust me, you need it for more than just standing on”.
Suffice to say after Tuesday night, it seems John Arne did not take Lars’ advice.
It could have been worse. The consensus when discussing the own goal was that it wasn’t as damaging as it might have been. Swap Riise slashing Malouda’s cross into his own net for Jerzy Dudek or Jamie Carragher making contact with Eidur Gudjohnsen’s shot in the 2005 semi-final . . . now that would have been calamitous. As it is, we still have the second leg to come, and while the goal does give Chelsea the advantage – there’s no point in pretending otherwise, you’d rather be ahead at the start of a game than behind – away goals can lull teams into a false sense of confidence. Liverpool’s advantage against Arsenal lasted all of twelve minutes, and we were lucky that it lasted that long. Score one goal at Stamford Bridge and watch the temperatures rise to sauna-like levels as Chelsea suddenly see that they need to score just to take it to the lottery of penalties, a ‘lottery’ where teams mystifyingly choose their best players to take the early penalties rather than picking them from a Scrabble bag.
So it’s not all bad, the biggest irritation being the manner in which our serene progress at Anfield since the debacle against Barnsley was so abruptly knocked off course. In fact we’d been doing rather well overall since then, dropping only five points and those to the heavy hitters of Man Utd and Arsenal (more on that later). So much so that my opinion, unimportant as it is, has changed back to where it was before the Fulham game.
The first Fulham game at Anfield, that is. Never has my attitude to a Liverpool manager undergone such an epiphany as it did at half time that day. Faced with a team of assorted dross, most of them purchased because the manager had seen a bit of them in his previous gig as manager of crack Premier League standard outfit Northern Ireland, the Reds were inept to an unreal degree. With the scores level at half time, and no sign that Liverpool were going to change it, I snapped. Honestly, had I been the owner of the club, I would have frogmarched Rafa into the boardroom at the final whistle and demanded to know how such a woeful performance was part of the plan. Even the salvation on the day that came in the form of bringing Fernando Torres off the bench only served to emphasis Rafa’s cluelessness. You don’t need to be a European Cup and La Liga winning manager to be able to conjure up results with him in your team. Pausing only for Rafa to either come up with some corporate bull about long term vision and synergies or tell me not to worry my little head about such matters, I would have told him the same thing whatever he said: either win the European Cup and / or the League title in 2007/8, or he would be fired. After four years and countless players passing through the Shankly Gates, the only thing that could represent progress would be winning those trophies. Take it or leave it.
Nothing happened in the subsequent few months to suggest that progress was being made. Okay, Torres would start to flex his not inconsiderable muscles, and Rafa deserved praise for a) taking a chance on him, and b) nurturing his development. But the other strikers weren’t so much being outshone as having their feathers fall off from the heat. Kuyt was ruthlessly exposed as a one trick pony, easily sussed out in the medium term by Premier League defences; Voronin turned out very quickly to be, well, a free transfer; and no partnership was being forged with Crouch, the one player other than Torres who seemed to know where the goal was. The other parts of the field looked okay, but ‘okay’ isn’t good enough. Liverpool could not field B players like Darren Fletcher and Mikael Silvestre and still thrive, and there can be no greater indictment of Rafa’s squad than that.
It goes without saying that the nadir was reached against Barnsley. Rafa would have been forgiven for thinking things couldn’t get any worse, and he would have been quite wrong. Defeat against Inter would surely have been the end, if not immediately then in the summer. Given that was the last chance saloon, the manner in which the Reds flung them head first through the swing doors into the water trough outside was most impressive. Not a game went by when it didn’t feel like Liverpool had to win to keep the manager in a job, and they were usually up to the task. The Man Utd game was the obvious exception, and despite the excellent result the shadow team produced at the Emirates – led once again, frustratingly, by Crouch – it is the performances against the top teams that have been the difference between Liverpool and the very top of the table. It is habitually said that Liverpool can beat anyone on their day but they struggle against the likes of Wigan and Birmingham. While those teams have caused us some bother, minnows have sprung surprises on Man Utd too (Bolton and Middlesbrough spring to mind) but they have been able to turn up things a notch against Liverpool, Arsenal and, until last weekend, Chelsea. Four points out of eighteen represents the difference between Liverpool and the top three, the extraordinary inability to score against Man Utd threatening to consume everyone at the club in its fearsome intensity. Apart from that though, as the season has worn on we’ve shown the rest of the league – not least the Kirkbyites – a clean pair of heels. We’re at the point where Fulham could be eased aside, something we couldn’t do last season. We’re at the point where I can remove my fatwa on Rafa.
No doubt Rafa is going weak at the knees with excitement. It isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement though. Part of the problem, or the opportunity in Rafa’s case, is the absence of a credible replacement. The mutterings that have attended every hiccup from Avram Grant shows how you need a big beast to stalk the big club jungle, and the only character with sufficient stature knocking around at the moment is Jose Mourinho. And the last thing a club tearing itself apart over its ownership needs is the Special One offering his considered opinion on anything and everything. He hasn’t always maintained his cool on the face of the storm howling around him, but Rafa has been more dignified than anyone else involved and more dignified than anyone has a right to expect. Then there’s the wee matter of results. They have gotten better, typified by the contrast between those two Fulham games. Against a team fighting for its top flight survival, the Reds sailed serenely past them in a manner befitting their status. Even without Torres. The Champions League is still on at the time of writing, something that would have seemed fanciful a few months back had we been told that Inter and Arsenal were the first and second hurdles to be overcome. Should Big Ears have the other Big Ears for company next year, all will be forgiven. Even if that doesn’t happen, Rafa has earned another shot at redemption.