Why Liverpool Will Beat AC Milan

Posted by Paul Tomkins on May 6, 2005, 12:02:08 PM

Yes, I know. Looking at the Milan teamsheet, that may seem like a brash statement. The names both impress and intimidate: Maldini, Shevchenko, Stam, Seedorf, Crespo, Tomasson, Nesta, Cafu, Kaka. It's a Fantasy Football line-up.

   However, it only needs a bit of (tongue-in-cheek) Shankly-esque psychology to tear it to pieces –– mirroring what the great Scot famously said ahead of a game against reigning champions, Manchester United, in the late 1960s.

   Maldini is a creaking old has-been (who Milan Baros once ran ragged in a pre-season friendly); Seedorf a lazy sod who's made a career from being in the right place at the right time; Cafu never could defend, and now he's even worse; Crespo couldn't score goals in England; Tomasson wasn't so much a failure at Newcastle as an abject failure; Kaka –– well, that means 'shit' in Italian; Gattuso is a yard-dog who ran from Scotland with his tail between his legs.

   Meanwhile, the 'keeper is Brazilian –– that says it all! No one keeps goal in Brazil by choice; just the useless fat kid who can't get a game on pitch due to all the sublime buck-toothed geniuses. Frankly, going to Brazil for a goalkeeper is like looking to the arctic circle for your quality wine.

   And they are tired. Milan are scheduled to play three times before the final, whereas Liverpool play twice. The Reds have a 10-day break before the game in Istanbul but Milan are at home to Palermo the Sunday before, and that looks like being a must-win game. One thing Benítez has proven is that, given time to prepare for games, he is the master –– the extra preparation time will allow him to fine-tune his ideas. Whereas it was always the English famed for starting the season like Lions and ending it like lambs (quote: Michel Platini), Liverpool have so many fresh legs –– partly from Rafa's rotation, partly from the injuries nearly all the key players suffered earlier in the season.

   I was looking at the PSV team which outplayed Milan in both games (had PSV had a finisher, they'd have won the tie by double figures), and it was a surprise to find so few of the names familiar. I don't really follow Dutch football, and while it was clear that PSV had some fine players, they weren't full of star names. Only Cocu and van Bommel were immediately recognisable. The Dutch team were the kind capable of presenting an upset in the final, and would have posed different problems than Milan. Had they taken their chances they would be in the final, and, worryingly, Liverpool would be clear favourites.

   PSV were a 'unit', a team, working from the plans of a very fine manager. Liverpool under Benítez –– certainly in Europe –– is also a team that exceeds the sum of its parts. There is far more 'recognised' talent in this Liverpool team than was in the Dutch side the other night, and Milan will be aware of that. Anyone looking at the Milan teamsheet and feeling the need to quake only need look at ours.

   Steven Gerrard has an almost mythical air about him on the continent. He embodies everything they respect and fear about English football: physical strength, the desire to win –– to never give up; only it's tied up in a player who's a bit special on the ball, too, and sprints like a gazelle. Xabi Alonso is as technically gifted as anyone in Italy. His ability is well-known in a country that values its passers. Didi Hamann's reputation endures –– along with Claude Makelele, he is the apotheosis of the 'defensive midfielder'. Even Igor Biscan was courted by Italian clubs five years ago.

   Italy, as a nation, will have watched the Chelsea matches on TV, just as they will have tuned in for the two games the Reds faced against Juventus. As a result, Jamie Carragher will be a man they wholeheartedly respect. Sami Hyypia had already earned that across the continent: just four years ago he was voted among the very best.

   John Arne Riise is one of those players who, even if he has a bad game, always looks good on the highlights package, as he fizzes in shot after shot. The Italians won't have forgotten how four or five years ago the top Serie A teams were linked to Harry Kewell at a price of £25m. They understand the saying 'form is temporary, class is permanent'. They will think the same about Jerzy Dudek, whose experience is currently paying dividends.

   They will be aware that in another three weeks, Kewell, like others, will be put through further conditioning work. They will know all about Djibril Cissé (coveted by Italian teams last summer), who, like Kewell, looked to have regained some sharpness on Tuesday, and Alonso's recovery will be further along the tracks. And of course, Milan Baros was the top scorer at Euro 2004 –– lest anyone forget. There is quality throughout this Liverpool side. Do not forget or overlook that. Milan won't.

   Then there is the new Red hero. Luis Garcia has been the undoubted star of the  competition's knock-out phase: five goals in six games. This is the 'business end' of the season, and when the pressure has been on, the little Spaniard has delivered in spades.


Hunger

AC Milan have the experience. But do they have the hunger? They are an ageing side, and as such, can they cope with an irresistible force?

   On Tuesday the Liverpool players received a welcome reminder about how much football means to this club's fans. The well-known coincidences with 1977 and 1981 only add weight to the belief suffusing the city and energising the team. Anyone who thinks such things don't count for anything needs to understand how superstitious footballers are; anything –– however trivial –– that makes you feel good before a game adds belief, adds power.

   Just look at the Joe Cole coincidence. Chelsea last did the double over Liverpool in 1955, the last time they won the league. That season they beat Liverpool 1-0 on both occasions, with the same player scoring the winner both times. Once Joe Cole's deflected shot won the game at Anfield on New Year's Day, I am sure Chelsea felt it was 'their year'. It was written in the stars (as well as a few blank cheques).

   The most important thing in football is psychology. The game is played with the body, but the body is controlled by the mind.

   While Milan will be feeling tired, Liverpool's players can only be bolstered by a sense of anticipation and excitement; the Reds are the ones riding the crest of the wave, while Milan are battling fatigue merely to achieve the levels expected of them. It is very tiring to keep winning, just to keep at the top. Liverpool are not at that stage yet. Winning at this stage would be bonus to everyone connected to the club.

   Teams often say that about cup runs. "It just felt like our year". Liverpool players need only think back about Monaco, and how Saviola's dubious goal went against them, but how it was overcome in the game against Olympiakos –– a match where the Reds needed three second half goals, and found them. The nature of that win was crucial.

   The tide turned that night, and with it the Reds' luck. The nature of the winner against Chelsea will only add to the sense of belief: things are now going their way, luck is on their side. The other crucial factor is the return from injury of so many players. I don't just mean that the are available again –– the timing suggests a building momentum, as if they are back for a reason: to play their part.

   I mentioned hunger earlier, but players like Cissé and Alonso are playing on something beyond that. In footballing terms, this season at least, they are 'dead men walking'. They shouldn't be here now, playing again. They worked hard to get to this point, but it was next season they were realistically aiming at. In Cissé's case, he was just hoping to be playing football again –– at any point, even if it was 2007.

   The game of football has grown so pressurised, so intense, that a paradox arises: the underdog is often the favourite. It is the underdog who feels the freedom to express himself. The favourite feels weighed down with a burden of expectation, and cannot enjoy the occasion. Sometimes it's harder the older players get –– Alan Hansen attested to that fact. He ended his career being violently sick before big games. When he was young, he had more insouciance. Milan are getting old.

   Of course, it depends on how Liverpool's players react to the situation –– Milan have been on this stage before, so they will only freeze from pressure, not from stage-fright. Having said that, most of this Reds' side has played in cup finals in recent seasons, and some –– Carragher, Gerrard, Dudek, Hamann, Hyypia –– have played in five. Hamann has even played in a World Cup final. Behind the scenes, Morientes and Pellegrino will be a big help, with six Champions League finals between them. Their calming influence, and words of advice, will be crucial. Morientes is like a lucky charm in this competition.

   Another source of encouragement is Liverpool's record in recent games against Italian teams: it remains mightily impressive. Roma were eliminated from European competition by Liverpool in 2001 and 2002, and Juventus were vanquished this spring. These were the best or joint-best Italian teams at the time.

   The main reason to believe in a Liverpool victory, however, is the manager. It took Rafa just ten months to end Valencia's 31-year wait for a league title. Could it take him just ten months to end Liverpool's 21-year wait for the European Cup? He has fielded teams to attack, teams to defend, and teams of reserves when they were all he had to call on, and each time his side has won through. He is a master at planning for the big event, a genius tactician, especially on the European stage. The force is behind him. As are the fans: another reason to expect the unexpected in Istanbul. I will be there, screaming my lungs out.

   Believe, boys and girls. Believe.

   We are not going to Turkey for the silver medal: we are going there for the silverware.

©Paul Tomkins 2005


Important notice regarding "Golden Past, Red Future" and the Champions League

I am delighted to say that I am going to Istanbul for the final. I can't wait, as it means travelling to the game with the two mates I sat next to at Anfield for years, as well as numerous other Reds I know –– not to mention the chance to meet a fair few more, no doubt (I hope to shake a few hands while out there). It means that not only can I conclude the book on the Champions League final, but I can write about the whole occasion first-hand. Hopefully I will have to drag myself away from the celebrations to add the final touches to the book!

   "Golden Past, Red Future" remains available to pre-order from www.paultomkins.com, at £8.99, £1 cheaper than when it becomes available, which as a result of the (wonderful) late end to the season, will now be mid-June. Apologies on the delay to anyone who has already ordered, but obviously the book cannot be concluded until the season is finished. Hopefully the reason is clear to understand.

   Pre-ordering helps us, as we are self-publishing via a specialist publisher, and need to stump up a fair whack in advance, but feel free to wait until it's published if you prefer. However, should Liverpool win the Champions League demand could obviously go through the roof, judging by the response following Tuesday's win. So "book" now to avoid disappointment and secure your 1st edition print.

   (Should there be "too many" pre-orders, then providing the orders arrive in time we can increase the quantity of the print run. Otherwise it will be a case of a re-print, which will mean a slight delay for the 2nd edition).

   As a further note, the book will be available at retail outlets later in the summer, such as book shops and Amazon, but the price, still unconfirmed, is more likely to be £11.99 or £12.99 –– otherwise it's simply not worth it, as by the time they take their percentage, it would mean selling at a loss. We weren't going to go down this route, for that reason, but some people have expressed a preference of buying it this way.

Amongst many other things, "Golden Past, Red Future" book will include:

   - A review of this season's Premiership, domestic cup and, of course, Champions League campaigns, focusing on key games, including the game in Istanbul;

   - A look at what went wrong in Gérard Houllier's final seasons, and what led to the exit of Michael Owen, and the near-exit of Steven Gerrard, as well as the beneficial changes Houllier made while at Anfield,;

   - An analysis of the Rafael Benítez, 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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