Why Liverpool Will Win The Champions League

Posted by Paul Tomkins on March 11, 2005, 11:17:28 AM

And then there were eight. Finally, and with some sense of disbelief, talk is starting to turn to Liverpool actually winning the Champions League 末 no one necessarily expecting it, but offering a case of why not?

   Why not indeed? I certainly don't think there's less talent at Liverpool than there was at Porto last season. I don't think the club has an inferior manager, either. A bit of long-overdue luck, and who knows?

   "The best teams don't always win the Champions League," Jamie Carragher said following with win against Bayer Leverkusen, with more than a degree of truth 末 and we are certainly not the best team in Europe right now. Not even close.

   However, it is equally true that to win it more than once, and in quick succession (four times in eight seasons, as an example 末 and a completely random one, of course), is definitive proof you're the best. You can get lucky once, perhaps 末 favourable draw, fortunate decisions, no injuries (and Alex Ferguson noted how fortunate United were on that score in 1999 末 not one major casualty).
   
   But the most accurate marker of greatness is consistency. Because even the flukiest team on earth cannot ride their luck indefinitely. Going back and doing it again, and again, and again, is what counts. 'One-offs' are great, but to become legendary takes more. Why do you think Ferguson couldn't retire a couple of years back, as previously planned? Because he knew that whatever people's opinions on who was the greatest, the record books show: Bob Paisley, European Cup Winner three times in nine years; Alex Ferguson, winner just once in twenty.

   At this stage of the team's development under Benitez, doing so just once after a 21-year wait would be truly astonishing. It seems almost surreal to be contemplating it. (And I'm still not sure I'm actually contemplating it, or just contemplating the act of contemplating it).

    When Liverpool reached the Quarter Finals in 2002, it was directly following the Treble, and with the side challenging Arsenal for that season's Premiership title. The club was riding the crest of a wave, and it came as no great surprise to get that far. The surprise was that it ended how it did.

    The mood of the fans leaving the Bay Arena two night's ago could not have been more in contrast with three years earlier. Again Bayer scored a late goal, but this time it was utterly meaningless. Rafa, fresh from getting the ales in, even had time to make a nod towards the defeat three years ago, by mirroring Houllier's removal of Didi Hamann 末 arguably the most famous removal of a player in the club's history (its recent history, at least). This time it was with the job done, to save the German from picking up a suspension.

   Many of the broadsheets opted for the angle that on Wednesday night Liverpool met an incredibly poor German side, shorn of several key players. (Interestingly, many ignored the fact that Liverpool had a far longer list of absentees, with far more quality in their ranks of wounded and ineligible). Bayer were a side who had already beaten Bayern Munich 4-1 at home in the Bundesliga, and scored three goals in demolishing each of Real Madrid, Roma and Dynamo Kiev on their way to topping the 'Group of Death'.

   Suddenly they were whipping boys, simply because we whipped them.
   
   Benitez has led his threadbare collection of fit players to a stage in the competition where, after next week's delayed game between Inter and Porto, only seven other teams will remain. While no one will retain any credibility by suggesting the Reds are now a better side than Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Barcelona and all the other top sides to have fallen before the Quarter Finals, the fact remains that they are all out, and the Reds are in the draw on Friday week. We may have had a slightly easier draw, but there was nothing lucky about the way the team performed over the two legs. Leverkusen's home record has been remarkable. There had to be a reason for that.

   To put the win against Leverkusen into perspective, an entire team of players 末 goalkeeper, defenders, midfielders and strikers 末 were missing and, given there were no suspensions, it was either through injury or ineligibility.

   Look at the list: Kirkland, Josemi, Pellegrino, Traore, Alonso, Kewell, Sinama-Pongolle, Mellor, Ciss and Morientes. (Okay, so it's a ten-man team). How many of those would have been in the 18-man squad 末 the starting XI and seven subs allowed in Europe 末 if they had been available to Rafa? Almost certainly all, with the possible exception of Mellor. Of the 18 Rafa did select, only half would have been certainties: Dudek, Carragher, Finnan, Hyypia, Riise, Gerrard, Hamann, Baros and Luis Garcia. So we were literally at half-strength.

   Given the impressive Biscan (again enjoying a match in Europe) and Warnock (his best game for the club) would not be guaranteed a place in a European 18 if everyone was fit and eligible 末 not to mention Smicer, Carson, Le Tallec, Mellor, and Nunez 末 it goes to show that there is still a lot of quality and depth to the Liverpool squad (even if the side could use a couple more 'outstanding' first team players, and some of the squad players are playing for their futures). It also highlights how Benitez has never had the chance to select from anything remotely approaching his full squad. He won't yet know what his best side is, as he's not had the chance to select it.

   So while we're clearly still lacking the kind of consistency top clubs need, the performance in Germany showcased the quality the team can produce. Consistency will take time, not to mention the manager being able to pick his best players 末 or at least able to hit upon a fairly settled side. But it's great to know that our highs can be so high 末 as some teams just can't play the kind of football we displayed against Leverkusen. And it was no accident, either 末 while we've been poor too often for anyone's liking, there have also been plenty of scintillating displays. The highs have been stellar.

   Fighting on three fronts with only half a squad has taken its toll on our league performances. But it will stand the club in good stead, as fringe players have emerged from the shadows. Where Benitez hasn't had the luxury of learning what his best team is, he has had the chance to find out how good his reserves are.

   Much has been made of the financial rewards of qualifying for next season's Champions League, but in exceeding expectations this season the club will have earned more than it planned for 末 so missing out wouldn't be quite as disastrous in those terms. (Better to have one successful season than two poor-to-average ones 末 after all, finishing 3rd and 4th can still mean Uefa Cup football if you lose the two-leg qualifying tie in August. You'll make pittance).

   Having said that, qualification remains a massive priority as a) the current players want to be there, b) it helps attract new players, and c) the club wants to be challenging for the top trophies. But even if qualification proves a bridge too far for a squad shorn of half of its senior pros, reaching the last eight helps repair some of the damage to the club's reputation over recent seasons, and helps put money in the coffers 末 never a pleasant thing to concentrate on, but even the old school of fans know that it's better to have money than to lack it.


Pressure

   The role of underdogs could be one that suits us. Last year's Champions League is a case in point. There was Porto, and there was Monaco. (And two months later, there was Greece at Euro 2004). But the example I am thinking of relates to London.

   A strange thing happened when Arsenal met Chelsea. The west London club had bought their way to their best domestic season for 50 years, but Arsenal were having a remarkable year, and everyone felt that, for all their domestic domination, the impressive team Wenger had assembled had to win the European Cup for any of it to mean anything significant. Victory 末 moral victory 末 belonged to Arsenal before the game kicked off, as everyone knew they were the better team. Justice needed to be done.

   It wasn't that people felt that they would beat Chelsea 末 although the bookmakers' odds were incredible 末 but that they deserved it, on the grounds of being (as they were then seen) the Greatest Side in the World, Ever. Also, that team will have had a sense of 'it's now or never' 末 they must have known themselves that they could never play as well again. The hype, and the need to prove they were as good as they then appeared to be, swallowed them whole in the second leg.

   Arsenal became too desperate for that success, inasmuch as they took all the pressure onboard and allowed it to suffocate them. It is like this: you are going for a job interview, for a once-in-a-lifetime position you simply must get 末 in fact, your professional reputation rests on it. Fail, and questions will be asked, no matter that everyone knows you are the best candidate for the job. Nervous as you sit and shuffle in the waiting room (in the case of a football match, the tunnel), with palms sweating, heart palpitating, and the colour draining from your face, you look across and see your rival for the job with a big smile on his or her face 末 the picture of insouciance as they start to whistle a happy tune. He or she doesn't need the job, and is not expected to get it. And as a result, they will be able to give the best account of themselves. You know then that you're in trouble.

   It happened to Liverpool in 1988. In that case it was the FA Cup final, to complete the double for the second time in three seasons. So stunning had been the team's season up to that point 末 the football breathtaking, with the attacking play taken to a new level by the arrival of Barnes, Beardsley, Houghton and Aldridge 末 that it would be the only fitting conclusion.

   Liverpool became such overwhelming favourites 末 unbeatable, people suggested 末 that Wimbledon, who were then a top-six side, were suddenly regarded by all and sundry as the non-league team they had been in the 1970s. Wimbledon won a large part of that match in the tunnel, before the game. You can call it mind games (the current vogue term), but it's just a simple psyching-out of your opponents. They showed they were 'up for it', and not overawed. And in doing so, they heaped more pressure on the superior team.

   Return to the 2003/04 Champions League Quarter Final. Chelsea were allowed to treat the occasion as though they were a non-league side there for a nice day out. Yes, they'd paid 」200m to get there, but somehow 末 and I still don't fully understand quite how they were allowed to get away with it (although part of it was down to the incredible hoodoo Arsenal had over them) 末 they could ignore that immense expenditure, and pretend they'd exceeded all their hopes and ambitions already. What were in fact two fairly evenly-matched sides, while acknowledging Arsenal's slight superiority, suddenly became David vs Goliath. Once the stakes get so implausibly high for one side, while remaining relatively low for the other, there's trouble for the favourite. They are on a hiding to nothing.

   Pressure and expectation affect everything in football. Having won the tie, Chelsea were then favourites to beat Monaco, and as such, were soundly beaten. Pressure can cripple and petrify. I'd suggest that football is down to talent, unity, mentality and fitness. Mentality can often be the most crucial.

   The very best players can often deal with pressure, rise above it. But it only takes a few to succumb, and there's trouble. And it's not something that necessarily gets better with age and experience. In his final years as a Liverpool player, Alan Hansen had become not only the team captain but, with Dalglish and Souness no longer in the side, its senior pro. Suddenly there was an extra burden of responsibility, and he felt violently sick before each match, to the point where he hated playing. This was a legend who had played in four European Cup finals, but suddenly a league game at Plough Lane, or The Dell, was making his stomach do cartwheels. That is pressure 末 and the kind of pressure a player's mind brings to bear on itself. Not just external pressure, but internal pressure. We've seen it with Steven Gerrard in recent weeks.
   
   If we were to face Chelsea in the next round, I would be almost certain of victory 末 as strange as that might seem. Because no one would give us a cat in hell's chance. Just as last season Chelsea had lost to Arsenal twice in the league, and also in a domestic cup, we've been beaten three times by Mourinho's men already.

   But they will the ones who will be desperate to get through. They will have the expressionless face of a Russian billionaire staring down at them, and maybe the players will read too much into his neutral demeanour and his posse of stony-faced henchmen, and start worrying about those suspicious, capacious vats of cement, and some new supporting columns planned for the Hammersmith flyover.

   Sometimes it's easier to 'try hard' when you feel uninhibited, and don't care too much. Sometimes the pressure of having to try too hard results in the feeling of running though the aforementioned concrete, when it's half-set 末 and you look like you're not trying at all. Numb with fear of failure, the game passes you by.

   There was a lot of pressure on Liverpool in the recent Carling Cup final in Cardiff, as it was seen as the club's best chance of silverware, and something to rescue a season that was in danger of being railroaded by Everton. Chelsea had bigger fish to fry, and could point to a comfortable lead at the top of the table 末 why should they be worried about winning the Carling Cup when the bookies had already stopped taking bets on them being English champions? Surely that 'worthless' trophy was the preserve of modern Liverpool? They were still under pressure, to get that first trophy, but on that occasion so were Liverpool. A Champions League encounter would be different. It would be about Chelsea justifying that massive expenditure. For once, for the Liverpool players it would be about enjoying the occasion, and seeing how far the ride takes them.


Sideshow   

   An interesting sideshow has been the fact that Liverpool could win the Champions League and, if the club finishes fifth in the league, fail to qualify as holders. Unbelievable, but true.

   It would require FA intervention to request Liverpool's inclusion over Everton. It would be a brave (or criminally insane) organization that omitted a team who were Champions of Europe (and therefore, in winning a fifth title, entering a very select group of the continent's elite) in order to include Everton, who will have achieved nothing remotely 'Champion'-like.

   But of course, such dreams remain highly improbable 末 and there is still more likelihood of pipping our stuttering neighbours once the pressure starts to heat up, and once we've played both our game in hand 末 Blackburn at Anfield 末 and the home leg of this season's Merseryside derby. Once those two home games are played, there will still be as many home games left as those away (four of each). We've been in this position before and succeeded. They will start to feel the pressure as soon as they start to believe they have it in the bag, and it's theirs for the losing. Up until now they've had nothing to lose. But once they start dreaming of next season 末 and they will 末 they may well come unstuck, if they haven't already started to. But I would gladly settle for fifth place if it meant an unforgettable night in Istanbul in May.

   Why will Liverpool win the Champions League? Why not...

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

The website for Golden Past, Red Future 末 www.paultomkins.com 末 has been updated this week, with release date and purchasing details listed, as well as the price and how much it will cost to receive a copy anywhere in the world. There is also an image of the finalized cover. Also, a small section of the above article will appear in the book, as part of the review of the club's Champions League campaign.

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