Chelsea vanquished: Wine for my men, we drink till dawn

Posted by Paul Tomkins on May 4, 2005, 12:21:29 AM

Thank you, Josι Mourinho, from the bottom of my deep red heart, for the bitterest post-match interview ever –– you can never fully understand just how it made victory ten times as sweet, as Liverpool look set to join AC Milan in a battle of the European Heavyweights. (That's a weight in terms of silver, not gold.)

   Thank you, once more, Mr M, for your incitement of the Liverpool fans at Cardiff, as revenge, as we all know, is a dish best served cold –– or white hot, in the case of Anfield. You won that particularly battle, but the Reds won the one you wanted most.

   Thank you, Mr M, for your long-ball tactics where you played the last 20 minutes with a gigantic centre-half as a centre forward (nice), and humped the ball upfield with a regularity even Wimbledon circa 1986 would have been proud of, right onto the twin towers of Sami Hyypia (who said he needs replacing?) and Jamie Carragher –– who, without question, put in the best centre back display I have ever seen.

   (Note to reader: gone is any semblance of attempting to produced a balanced piece of writing –– for those wanting a cool, cold analysis, this is not the place. This piece is written with pure hysteria.)

   I may be getting carried away –– but for the life of me I cannot recall a better performance from a centre back, combining the expert reading of the game of Alan Hansen with the brute force and colossal bravery of Ron Yeats. I don't like to swear in my articles, for fear of offending those of a nervous disposition –– but I guess if your heart withstood the game itself you won't mind me saying that he was fucking awesome. (Not only swearing, but italicising ––  what will middle England think?)

   You, Carra –– and I am now addressing the players personally, having thrown my rule book out of the window –– have made yourself a legend this season, la'. Then again, it's taken me 25 minutes since the final whistle –– hyped up on adrenaline, caffeine and ecstasy (the natural version, although I do want to double-check the contents of this herbal tea)  –– to even remember my own name. It's Rafael, right? I have a horrible suspicion that if it is possible to change your name online, by tomorrow it will be.

   You have a very, very fine side, Mr M, and are worthy Premiership champions. No arguments there. You have a totally amazing keeper, a fantastic defence (how good is John Terry? Almost as good as Carra, I'd say), and a great midfield, but, somewhat surprisingly, at times there is more bypassing taking place than at Spaghetti Junction. Liverpool's football wasn't pretty tonight, we will grant you that, but make no apologies. We played our 'football' in the second half at Stamford Bridge. If teams want to lump it into the mixer, we have the boys to deal with that. Somehow I don't think Milan will be so rudimentary.

   Alas Mr M, your football just reminds me of Gιrard Houllier's, only with slightly better players. A Robben and a Duff, and Ged would have made Liverpool champions in 2002. Somehow Rafael Benνtez just seems that bit better as a tactician, and motivation and self-assurance could not win a battle of wits. There are clearly two special ones. With Porto you won the European Cup based almost exclusively on a sound defence, so you cannot complain. It's just funny that Liverpool out-Porto'd you.

   You have the better team, Mr M, and I will not contest that. For £213m you should have some quality, and that doesn't include the £11m for Frank Lampard. (How good is Lampard? Almost as good as Gerrard or Alonso, I'd say.) But tonight proved how closely the teams are matched. Over five games, there's been next-to-nothing to choose, with a single goal deciding each. Two of the three goals your team has scored past mine (as a fan, I mean –– I don't really think I am Rafael Benνtez) in the 90 minutes of those five games have been extremely flukey. When luck runs out, it's a cruel, cruel world.

   Anyway, Mr M. Enough about you. Otherwise your ego might get inflated . . .
   
   When I wrote an article a couple of months back, saying that Liverpool will win the Champions League, it wasn't meant to be taken literally. I certainly do not expect that any of the Liverpool players read my stuff, but if they just happened to, by virtue of some freakish 'surfing' accident, I'd like to say: I was just kidding. Honestly. It was a rallying cry, but it wasn't serious. I didn't mean it.

   But –– and it's a big but (and here I desperately want to make a Frank Lampard gag, but in fairness he has slimmed down a little) –– now the 18 of you (and the rest) are going to Istanbul (not Constantinople), you might as well win the damned thing. Enjoy it, by all means. Savour the occasion, soak up the atmosphere. As underdogs it will be your evening, with no hint of pressure or expecation. But give AC Milan (as seems to be the case) a right proper game. (Incidentally, if we were to end up playing PSV, there'd be a lot more pressure on the boys in Red, as PSV would then be underdogs –– despite being a very good side indeed.)

   It's hard to believe the Reds have made it –– it feels totally surreal. Both teams were missing key players, and had injury worries and fitness doubts. But Rafa –– poor, unfairly-slated Rafa –– has had to get used to that all season long. That the Reds have made the final when lacking four strikers for almost the entire campaign is nothing short of miraculous.

   That the Reds finally have something approaching a full team gives the world a chance to see what might have been. Reserves can only take you so far. In this instance, it appears the reserves were not as bad as we thought. Just not as consistent as they need to be –– yet.

   If this wasn't a fair result, I would ask how Jerzy Dudek only had one meaningful save to make over the two legs –– do Chelsea really think that would make them worthy finalists? Peter Cech made four crucial stops, and should have been sent off for his assault on Milan Baros.

   Thank you again, Mr Linesman, for not allowing the referee to wave away Luis Garcia's goal –– given how far behind the line Gallas' foot was, you needed to be strong. You cannot buy everything in football, Chelsea. You, Mr Linesman, gave us justice –– the benefit of the doubt lacking in the shocking decisions for Chelsea against us in three of the four games this season, and the later ludicrous award of six minutes of injury time.

   And thank you, last but most, Eidur Gudjohnsen for missing the sitter in the 97th minute, after you cheated our most graceful, and joint-most important player out of the match.


Credit, where it's due

Why do we subject ourselves to this? I kicked every ball. I kicked the cat about fifteen times. And then I realised I don't even have a cat. (Am I obliged to pay my next-door-neighbour's vet bills, or can I sue the club?). It completes a personal cycle that has denied me getting to games as much as I used to, but my soul still bleeds Red.

   I started writing regular articles on Liverpool back in December 2000, and have since written several hundred. I gave up due to ill health and family commitments, not to mention a serious depression aided and abetted by the team's football post-2002. The time felt right to return in 2004, and although I've been accused of mindless optimism, I've had a good feeling from day one of this regime. Just as during my 'debut' season, the club has put itself back on the map.

   As regular readers will know, in the late autumn of 2004, after several suggestions and promptings, I decided to set out to document, in book form, a football club –– Liverpool, in case you are slow on the uptake –– in a state of flux, but 'preparing to succeed', to quote the manager who, unfortunately, wasn't quite up to the task of finishing off his good work from 2001. It was intended to be about the final years of Gιrard Houllier's tenure, and the task facing the new manager. (And still of course will be, to a degree.) It was supposed to be about how the club could work towards –– in a handful of years (preferably a Jeremy Beadle hand, where one finger doesn't count) –– returning to the biggest stage.

   However, never for one moment, in my dreams wildest or otherwise, did I expect to find myself facing a trip to Istanbul, courtesy of an incredibly supportive and generous friend, to savour the Champions League final. It has still not quite sunk in. Having been a season ticket holder for many years, and gone to games home, away and in Europe in the Treble season, I missed Dortmund due to (stupidly, stupidly) booking a honeymoon for that week. (I get accused of too much optimism, but that's proof of my abiding failure to trust the Reds to not let me down.)

   I dare not even imagine that the book will be the record of number five. I had no idea –– not even the slightest inkling –– that this team had it in them to get this far. Not back then, following the away defeat in Monaco. Not once the injuries took hold.

   I expected good things this season under Benνtez. Not great things –– at least, not yet. After all, it's just a transitional season, right? (Some transition!)

   Whatever physical state, I aim to be in Istanbul, even if it's in a wheelchair. (Never needed to resort to one yet, and bollocks will you easily crowbar me into one now, but it's the only way to be there, I'll be there.) We have, as yet, won nothing made of silver, but we have won through to the final. People will sit up and take note. Whatever happens, people will remember this final, and Liverpool's participation. Valencia, Leverkusen and Monaco, from recent seasons, haven't been forgotten. Upsetting the odds to just make it to the final is an achievement in itself, so early into this 'project'.

   I said in my last piece that I didn't want it to be a case of the Reds leading 1-0 with ten minutes to go. Oh 'me of little faith'. Or maybe I just feared Chelsea's ability to find a deflected shot, or the receipt of a dodgy decision? As it transpired, the final ten minutes was 16 minutes long, for no plausible reason. It was suspicious, but the referee couldn't score for Chelsea (although I did half-expect to see him rise at the back stick like a footballing salmon to head home that late free-kick).

   I should have known better, and I apologise profusely to you –– Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Djimi Traore and Steve Finnan. Three of you have improved almost beyond all recognition this season, and you, Sami (allegedly a little in decline), remain the most consistent centre-half the club has had since its halcyon days. You are now playing second-fiddle, to Carra, but you still so rarely let the side down.

   While it may not be forthcoming elsewhere, credit to you, Gιrard Houllier, for buying so many of these players. It is rightly Rafa's victory, and his genius that outfoxed yet another notable adversary, but you played your part. People doubted your legacy, but here it was: ten of your signings starting tonight. You didn't know how to get the best out of them, and your tactics didn't make the last few years of your reign particularly enjoyable (okay, it was hellish at times), but you weren't as bad a judge of a player as people suggested. With the exception of Luis Garcia, this was your team, only managed by a master tactician.

   Credit to Jerzy Dudek for having to put up with the London-based media speculating on the arrival of an expensive new goalkeeper –– surprise, surprise –– on the biggest day of your career. How obvious the attempts at press-based sabotage? You wore your Teflon gloves tonight, and your experience, and calmness, did the team proud. It was like 2002 all over again. Credit to John Arne Riise, for always being there, game after game, and for helping Djibril use up the last of his bleach.

   Credit to Luis Garcia, whose goals in the knock-out stages have literally knocked-out Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus, and now Chelsea. Some said you were not fit to wear the red jersey. Where are they now? You may not be a tackler, but you are as sharp as a tack in and around the box –– 13 goals is a great return from open play, from the wing.

   You occasionally miss sitters, but unlike others, you are there to miss them. If the ball wasn't 100% over the line from your quick-thinking –– dinking over the stranded Chelsea defenders –– then so what? Would Chelsea have rather played the last 87 minutes without a 'keeper, and having to face a penalty? It's just a shame Tiago –– he of the obvious punch on New Year's Day –– wasn't the player on the line, but I am not complaining.

   Credit to Milan Baros –– you cannot buy a goal at the moment, and your form is worrying –– but your touch over Cech, from Gerrard's sublime chip, finally got the better of your international teammate, who had somehow denied you with an improbable save last week. With your friend, Petr, stranded and prone, the way was clear for Luis Garcia. Milan –– you never stop trying, and cause problems with your ultra-intelligent running (if only your all-round game was the same), dragging defenders out of the way for Luis Garica, in the main, to profit. Not everyone will notice the more selfless side of your work, but stick at it. (And please, even if you use your arse or your ear, stick one in the net soon.)

   Credit to Djibril Cissι, to whom the best chances of the night fell –– a half-decent header, a late deflected shot, and an attempted lob in the 94th minute –– but the expected rustiness was apparent. Make no mistake, my friend (and I speak here without knowing you personally), just for you to be out there remains the highlight of the season for me. While the other Reds were getting the plaudits on the pitch, you were working so incredibly hard in the gym –– which none of us could see, or applaud –– as any athlete who has suffered broken limbs knows. Except, there are broken limbs, and there are injuries that come within minutes of an amputation. Your dedication was truly outstanding, and you are reaping your rewards. The final awaits your winner.

   Credit to Steven Gerrard, for standing up for Scouse pride in the face of a difficult time from the London media. No man alive is immune to temptation, and we all know what it is like to have our head turned, but if you were ruing your decision to stay at Liverpool when Chelsea beat Bolton on Saturday, I am sure you will have –– and I quote Kevin Keegan here –– loved it, loved it, when the final whistle went tonight. Remember: only the best are there to be shot at.

   And credit Igor Biscan, a man many thought to have no future. Not just at Liverpool, but full-stop. You put a nervous first-half behind you, and were gigantic in the second half. (It will be some decision, for Rafa to choose between Didi Hamann and the big Croat, as Gerrard and Alonso are shoo-ins.)

   Gigantic - as, it goes without saying, were all the men in red. I thank you all: from Rafa all the way down to the tea lady and the kit-man, who, it seems, only ever get mentioned in sarcastic barbs. This is a club going to Turkey, not a few superstars.

   I have to admit that this was a difficult game to have to miss, especially as I recalled all the semi-finals I have attended in recent seasons (there has been a fair few, hasn't there?). Funnily enough, one that sticks out the most was not Barcelona from April 2001, but Crystal Palace a few months earlier. The atmosphere was incredible, with Anfield buoyed by the response to a 2-1 first-leg deficit, and from Clinton Morrison's comments in the press. I have foggy memories of the Barcelona semi-final, but against Palace the place was electric. Maybe as we were so quickly out of the blocks, going 3-0 up in 20 minutes.

   It was the same here –– flying start –– although it was just the one goal this time. But just as then, the villain of the piece –– this time Icelandic –– screwed horribly into the Kop (the Kop! oh how sweet!) with the net at his mercy.

   Note to all visiting players: underestimate the mythical power of those 12,000 people at your peril; especially with the spirit and soul of 100,000 others crowded behind that goal. Gudjohnsen even got a cut eye for his troubles at that end of the pitch. Diving on the spur of the moment is one thing, but planned and premeditated diving to deny another professional his place can only lead to one thing: cosmic justice. It's the only kind of justice that is above the influence of money.

   Enjoy your night, fellow Reds. Enjoy the next 21 nights. And then it's wine for Rafa's men, we ride at dawn.

© Paul Tomkins 2005

"Golden Past, Red Future" is available to pre-order from my website –– www.paultomkins.com –– at £8.99, £1 cheaper than we will be selling it for when it becomes available, which will now be early June –– I am happy to say!  It just requires the addition of a report on the final on the 25th of May, and then the presses will roll. (The book will be available at retail outlets later in the summer, but the price is more likely to be £11.99.)

Amongst many other things, the book will include:
   - A review of this season's Premiership, domestic cup and Champions League campaigns, focusing on key games, including the game in Istanbul;
   - A look at what went wrong in Gιrard Houllier's final seasons, and what led to the exit of Michael Owen, and the near-exit of Steven Gerrard;
   - An analysis of the Rafael Benνtez, looking at how he built his success at Valencia,  his methods, and his plans for Liverpool;
   - An in-depth look at the key players in the current squad, as well as the up-and-coming prospects;
   - A look at the projected future of the club, both on and off the field.






   

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