What does this Champions League final really mean?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on May 18, 2005, 02:32:17 PM

So what does this match –– this monumental occasion, now just one week away –– mean?

    Not what it means to us as fans, as hell, it means everything.

    But what does it mean for the future of the club? Is this a one-off trip to the stars, or are we setting up another space station beyond the thermosphere? Will victory make Liverpool the best team in Europe, or simply the best team in European competition? In 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1984 it was clear that the Reds were the best; changes to the rules on qualification (apparently, as of next season, they let any old rubbish in) means it's now less clear.

    When Liverpool finished 5th in the league in 1981, no one dared say they weren't the best when they won the big one in Paris. But the Reds had dominated at home and in Europe for a number of years.

    The achievement of reaching this year's final seems to have been somewhat belittled. Because of the domestic struggles, the Reds are not getting the credit they deserve for being one of the two best teams in European competition this season. Forgive me for missing something, but isn't this a one-off match where the winner is crowned Champions of Europe? Other, supposedly 'better' teams have had their chance to get this far and flunked it. Meanwhile, David Moyes believes Everton are the best team in Liverpool. While the Blues have done well, clearly he'd been drinking too much of his celebratory champagne before making that statement.

    Everton have scandalously won more plaudits for their very good season, but one which ultimately leaves them empty handed. As Steven Gerrard so poignantly pointed out, you don't get medals for finishing 4th. Does being just one more win better than Liverpool in the league (with a minus goal difference!) outweigh Liverpool's eleven extra victories in cup competitions, including top-half Premiership teams like Spurs and Boro, and in Europe, the English and Italian champions (-elect)?

    Both teams were mediocre in the league. At least Liverpool were very good in the Carling Cup, and exceptional in the the continent's elite club competition. The Reds, by reaching two cup finals in one season (and that's six since the turn of 2001), have shown their class. Not many teams do that in a season. It's not an 'accidental' coincidence. If this team isn't yet perfect, there is clearly something special there.

    It was funny to hear ex-Evertonian Kevin Ratcliffe suggest Everton could reach the Champions League final next season –– on the basis that if Liverpool could, so could they. Finishing three points above Liverpool appears to have gone to the Toffees’ heads. Was he forgetting the extensive European experience Liverpool had picked up in the previous four years –– a Champions League quarter-final, another six-game group stage a year later, and the Uefa Cup victory of 2001 –– while Everton were busy in relegation battles? Talk about getting carried away!

    Arsene Wenger was another to disparage the Reds' achievement. Speaking three days after Liverpool made the final, he claimed the Champions League had become like a standard cup, which anyone could win. He said: “The priority has to be the Premiership. If the Champions League goes well it goes well, but the Premiership has to be the most important by miles. The Champions League is too much of a surprise cup now.” Although strangely, Highbury is yet to be taken unawares...

    It’s hard to imagine him saying that should Arsenal actually get somewhere in the competition. I think Arsenal are a superb team, but can they really be proud of just two quarter-final appearances in nine years? Liverpool actually have a higher ranking in Europe over the last five years, and if the Reds beat Milan, and earn the reward of the 5th Champions League place (apt, for the 5th European Cup), then Arsenal will go into the qualifiers on account of their lower Uefa coefficient. Liverpool must be very 'lucky' indeed, in that case.

    The European Cup has always had ‘surprise’ teams in the final. It has always involved a knock-out competition, in one form or another. But it was impossible to say that Liverpool hadn’t earned the right to be there in 2005. If the competition was devalued years earlier by opening it up to teams who finish 4th in their domestic leagues –– from which Liverpool clearly benefited –– Benítez’ team at least proved worthy finalists with their performances in the competition. Frankly, the Reds have been rather special.

    While there was a modicum of truth in Wenger’s assessment –– it is, after all, hard to argue that there is no better team in Europe than Liverpool –– his statement that the Premiership was more important by “miles” was laughable, and indicative of a man under pressure in the Premiership (from Chelsea) and needing to disguise his own radical shortcomings in the Champions League.

    Anyone who thinks Liverpool reaching the Champions League final is anything less than a momentous achievement , needs only to look at how many other English teams have made it this far in the last twenty years (since Liverpool's domination of Europe ended). We are all well aware that the number is one. It took Manchester United at their very best, in 1999, to achieve the feat. So Liverpool have already 'achieved' something. That it was achieved –– unlike United six years ago –– with an absolutely staggering injury list makes it even more remarkable.

    Chelsea lost three games in this season's knock-out rounds; Liverpool, so far, have lost none. That tells a significant story. Milan were outplayed by PSV on two separate occasions, and soundly beaten in the second game. No one has outplayed Liverpool in the last 16.

    Everton, meanwhile, can enjoy their brief moment in the sun, but they need to know that a rude awakening awaits –– if that wasn't already evident after their decimation at Highbury last week.

    Arsenal were superb in the first half against Liverpool three days earlier, but in the second half the Reds showed the level of their quality and character. After 45 minutes there appeared to be an unbridgeable gulf in class, but in the second half Rafa's men showed how well the team can perform, and suddenly Arsenal were 'hoofing' clear. An equaliser never quite materialised, but it was always on the cards. On the balance of play a draw, or a narrow Arsenal victory would have been the fair result –– there was not a two-goal difference in terms of play. However, reports said Everton were lucky to lose 7-0 at Highbury.

    What Everton proved against Arsenal was that without 100% commitment and effort, they are nothing. Their second game in a week, they obviously took their foot off the gas having secured 4th place –– but Arsenal also had nothing to play for. Let's watch the Blues try to maintain their previous levels of performance every Saturday when facing a possible extra 20 games in their season. With all the extra games (if they are remotely successful) will come more injuries, too.

    I honestly believe Everton will do well to finish in the top half of the table next season. The trouble is they are now there to be shot at. Also, after the delirium of an unexpected high, the fall is harder, and further. If they can repeat this year's success, then they really are onto something, and I will hold my hands up and applaud them (while gritting my teeth). But George Burley was right to call to mind the season when his Ipswich side were relegated after finishing 5th and playing six games in the Uefa Cup.


Surreal

Does anyone else still find it all a little surreal –– the European Cup final? Weren't we supposed to build up to a moment like this over a number of years? I don't think it will sink in until I am inside the stadium, drinking in the atmosphere. It all feels like a dream, but a dream that has yet to really get started.

    I haven't even contemplated the Reds losing. Then again, I dare not think about the high should we win.

    Beating Milan, should the previously unthinkable become a reality, will both help and hinder Liverpool next season. It will mean more to live up to, as Champions of Europe; expectations will be raised. It will make the Reds even more of a scalp in the Premiership. But at the same time, it will breed confidence, ensure more money from re-qualifying, and while attracting players won't be tough whatever happens, it will make getting the very best that little bit easier.

    It all just seems so perfectly set up for the Reds. Milan are not only tired, but have an extra game to play this Friday. Should they fail to win, then Juventus will be champions –– how tired will they feel after that? After all, Liverpool had already made Juventus look rather average –– another psychological boost, to have outplayed Milan's 'betters'.

    Milan, while a great side, full of top players, have not been well of late. Their recent form has been terrible in all competitions. They are running on empty. The sensation of a season imploding around their ears is one from which it is hard to escape. While they've been playing and losing games or dropping points, Rafa has been plotting their downfall. If Milan have some extra quality, Liverpool have the elements in their favour.

    The last thing –– or the last person –– Milan's slow, ageing defence will want to see is Djibril Cissé, who is fresh and coming into form and fitness just at the right time. Maybe his broken leg can prove a blessing in disguise. He has settled into English football from the sidelines, watching and learning, and while I am a fan of Milan Baros, I feel Cissé has earned the right to start next week. His attitude and hunger ensure, to my mind, that he will. His all-round play against Villa was sensational –– he finally looked like he'd 'arrived'.

    (Having said that, Baros' questionable attitude of late might not make him a good sub –– starting Baros would be the only way to get the best out of him, as undeserved as it may seem; especially after he was dropped for his two previous cup finals, while Cissé will be "happy" just to be on the bench after the season he has had. But Cissé would still get my vote, and I think Milan will be living closer to Milan than Liverpool next season.)

    All the other serious injuries have cleared up. Alonso, Gerrard, Baros, Luis Garcia, Kewell and Hamann have all had spells from six weeks to four months on the sidelines over the winter months –– their own personal mid-season breaks. They've had just about enough time to get match fit. Finnan, Hyypia and Traore were afforded a rest on Sunday. With the exception of Kirkland and the two ineligible recruits, Benítez currently has his strongest squad to select from.

    Milan are still favourites. But they will be in for one hell of a game. In the venue where teams are welcomed to "Hell", let's hope it's a heavenly ending for the Reds, whatever its enduring 'meaning'. To alter a Bob Paisley quote, just go out and win the thing, lads, and after we'll discuss the significance of the achievement at our leisure.

© Paul Tomkins 2005


Note: Just one week left to order "Golden Past, Red Future" at discounted price.

Just to remind people thinking of ordering "Golden Past, Red Future" that the book goes to press shortly after the Champions League final (as soon as I'm back from Istanbul) and from which point the price reverts to £9.99 when buying from our website www.paultomkins.com. (It is currently £8.99 for pre-orders.) The book is currently being proofed by four diligent Reds, who at present are locked in a dungeon with only bread and water to distract them from their task.

    As previously mentioned, the book will be made available at other retail outlets, but the price is more likely to be £12.99, given we'd be selling it at a loss at £9.99 once they take their cut.

    Also, a sample chapter is now available on the book's site. It deals with this season's Premiership campaign, and what went wrong (not to mention the delicate issue of Everton), although certain sections of this chapter have been kept back for the book, including the look at the successful league games (there were one or two...). It's not necessarily the strongest chapter, given we want to reserve the best stuff for those who've bought the book, but obviously we don't feel any part of the project is 'weak'. (If it was, it would be chopped.) Hopefully I will get to write an online review of the final, but the main priority will be writing up my thoughts on it for the book.

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