All square at the Bridge, job half done for the Reds

Posted by Paul Tomkins on April 27, 2005, 11:14:22 PM

One of the biggest occasions in English football history 末 and here Liverpool were once more, slap bang at the epicentre. The Reds rolled back the years to put in a great performance, and to pull off a wonderful result 末 but it's a job not even half done. It sets up the second leg nicely, but the lack of an away goal will make next Tuesday tense. However, even a 2-0 defeat would not have been too much to overturn at Anfield, given the tempo Rafa's team would set. The main thing was to go into the second leg with the game still alive, and it is certainly that.

   In some strange way a 2-1 defeat would have been better: in terms of motivation, as not only do you have an away goal, but the team knows how it needs to play 末 attacking, if not gung-ho. As it stands, even though the result is better, it's not 100% clear what the best tactic will be. When Liverpool go at teams at Anfield it can be hard for anyone to live with them. If Rafa can get the team to play its natural game, the Reds will be clear favourites. The bonus with 0-0 is that Liverpool don't have to score a goal any more than Chelsea do (although progressing that way, after another 0-0, would only be through a penalty shoot-out). The clean sheet at Stamford Bridge will also leave the team buoyant.

   On the outcome of next week's return leg hinges arguably the highest stakes of any all-English clash 末 with arguably more riding on it than those who annually contest the FA Cup final; league-title play-offs (such as at Anfield in May 1989); or the race for 4th spot in the league, which is now annually billed as a 」20m game. (It is if you get to the semi-finals the following season; it can also be worth about 50 pence if you fail to negotiate the qualifying tie: be warned, Kenright and co.)

   While English teams have met before in the European Cup (such as the Reds, as holders 末 yes, UEFA, holders 末 losing to Nottingham Forest in the first round of 1978/79, and Arsenal facing Chelsea last season) this was the first time two English sides had met in the semi-final.

   The only bigger game would be two English clubs contesting the final. While games which decide league championships remain massive occasions, there is an extra spice to European occasions; domestic issues settled on a larger stage, so there is the doubling effect of 'two for the price of one'. However highly Liverpool Football Club values its 18 league titles, the four European Cups mean that bit more: that was always clear in the words of Bob Paisley 末 as 'old school' as you get 末 who understood its true significance.

   It can be assured that the atmosphere at Anfield will be electric, with spare tickets as scarce as verified Lord Lucan sightings. It offers no trophy, but it offers that rarest of things in recent times: the chance to contest the greatest club final in the world. The home form 末 in all competitions 末 suggests the Reds will create chances and score goals, and the varied nature the wins against Olympiakos, Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus suggest the team can lead from the front, or come from behind.

   Having said that, clearly it's worrying that Milan Baros is off-colour, and Ciss isn't fully match fit. (Having said that, he's looking sharper.) At least at home Baros won't be expected to plough a lone furrow up front 末 even if the team players 4-5-1 he will be joined a lot quicker by the midfield. Gerrard, Luis Garcia and Riise will be the most likely to find chances fall their way.

   In many ways tonight proved the perfect away performance. The pace was akin to the Premiership at times, albeit an ultra-skilful version. It goes to prove the team can do it; it was a million miles ahead of early season away showings in the big games, in all competitions. The players just need to be able to repeat the effort and intensity more regularly. That can come, with experience, and when it does, so too will radically improved league form.

   Liverpool must now have the best defence in the Champions League. Carson and Dudek have hardly been tested in the last three matches 末 Juventus twice, and Chelsea away. That tells its own story, although next season it needs to be that same story across the spectrum. Traore made two outstanding tackles in the first half, although maybe another left back might have been a little better positioned to start with; either way, he cleared the danger. Finnan continues to impress (even if he does tug a shirt once too often). Sami maintains his excellent form in European competition, and Carra was immense 末 the best 」20m the club ever saved by shifting him to the heart of the defence.
   
   What was most refreshing was that we defended stoutly but, unlike in recent seasons, it wasn't with ten men behind the ball, and there were very few hoofed clearances. Jose Mourinho spoke after the game about Liverpool needing to play a different way next week 末 inferring that Liverpool were defensive 末 but the Reds got into a number of dangerous positions and, after the first ten minutes of the second half, totally controlled the game. It is the way I was crying out for the Reds to defend under Houllier: by keeping the ball, where possible, rather than lumping it upfield at every opportunity.

   Mourinho's comment that 99.9% of Liverpool fans think their team is in the final was laughable, and it shows how desperate he is to shift the pressure from his tiring and (slightly) stuttering team, whom he insisted would win. He fooled no one with his cockiness after this game. A 1-0 win for Liverpool tonight, and perhaps we'd have felt like it was one foot in the final; as it stands, it is now like a one-off FA Cup tie with Liverpool drawn at home, but with the slight complicating factor that an away goal could prove costly.

   The only real disappointment tonight, apart from not nicking a goal, was losing Alonso to a booking 末 and an absolutely disgraceful one at that, given TV shows Gudjohnsen not only fouled Xabi first, but then dived.

   We will need to find the kind of display we produced at home to Juventus, when Xabi was only an unused sub. And, of course, he will be eligible for the final (counting no chickens). The worry now is if Carragher picks up a booking at Anfield, but that's something to worry about should it happen. I'd like to say I'd make a deal, if offered: Carra suspended, if it meant we could definitely be in the final. But no one deserves to be in Istanbul more than JC. It wouldn't be right to go there without him.

   Alongside Alonso in the middle of the park was a colossus: a powerful all-round talent making tackles, knocking passes and running past people for fun. Only, it was Igor Biscan, not Steven Gerrard. Once again Igor proved that his form is more than a lucky streak 末 he really is a class act 末 and again Gerrard was little more than a passenger.

   In the spotlight, Gerrard was under massive pressure, but didn't get a hold of the game in any way. He simply has to produce the goods in the second leg. (You could argue that it is set up for him.) His role was more difficult tonight, ahead of the play, but he still has a lot to prove 末 if only in games against Chelsea.

   While Chelsea missed a couple of good chances, it was Liverpool who forced the only saves of the match. Baros' header was looping in after a perfect connection from Gerrard's cross. Any lesser keeper, and it was a goal. Riise missed a good chance, cutting inside well onto his right foot, but hitting the shot straight at Cech, when an earlier strike with his left foot 末 which he never normally turns down 末 might have been the better bet. At times the Reds didn't get players forward to support in time, but there was plenty of attacking intent when the chance arose, when a few passes could be popped around to allow players to get into the area. It wasn't just long balls into space.

   In fact Chelsea, as a regular pre-rehearsed routine, hit lots of 'blind' long balls into the channels 末 they do it every game, with the striker knowing the 'set play'. Their other main tactic is long balls up to Drogba's head, and when they win the 'second ball' they play some quick, clever passing. What makes them strong is that they can mix and match their approach. The height and pace of Drogba gives them the Houllier-style options, from when Heskey was on top of his game, but Chelsea have more pace and threat advancing from midfield, especially in wide areas, where Joe Cole has also blossomed. One problem in the second leg will be the return of Damien Duff; another will be Robben one week closer to his sharpest. He could be the difference between the teams, on the break.

   It seems most of England (barring sections of Liverpool and Manchester) will want us to win next week. It is slightly surreal to think that the team stands just one winnable (and admittedly losable) game away from a remarkable achievement. There didn't seem even the remotest possibility of it at the start of the season: a 50-50 chance to make the final. Were it to come, the win would be all the sweeter, given it would be against a great Chelsea team, but not a great Chelsea Football Club.

   Of course, Chelsea have been able to use the 'no one likes us, we don't care' defiance, and twist it to their favour. Siege mentalities worked well enough for Alex Ferguson in the 1990s; he patented persistent paranoia.

   Most champions have been bankrolled to a degree 末 the title is almost never won by paupers, after all. But it is the sheer scale of investment that is distasteful 末 obscene, even 末 and that the investor came from overseas, with no prior interest in English football, and with what have been described as 'questionable' ethics.

   Even the nature of Kenyon's tapping-up 末 which goes on everywhere 末 has been brash and obscene. Their money makes them feel above the rules, and fines are meaningless. When Liverpool were linked to a similar overseas investment approach, last summer, the fans were up in arms; just as they were when Lee Bowyer was pursued by G駻ard Houllier. Success at any cost is not something Liverpool fans are comfortable with.

   While Chelsea will be admired for what they do on the pitch, they will never be fully respected. There is a hollowness to what they have achieved, that comes from doing it the easy, and not the hard way. While Liverpool used to buy one or two top quality players every season, Chelsea have spent 」211m in less than two years on the cream of European talent 末 almost 20 players. Not every manager can spend that kind of fortune astutely, and then manage the expensive components; but no other manager has the chance.

   Chelsea's supporters (in the media) claim that the presence of John Terry and Frank Lampard 末 voted the team's two outstanding players 末 obviate accusations of success being 'bought', as they are local lads. Of course, Lampard cost them 」11m, but even ignoring that, where were the team two or three years ago, with those two at the heart of it? And what had those two previously won?

   It is not building a squad brick by brick, as Bentez has to 末 it is buying prefabricated walls that slot together (if you buy from the best outlets, they will fit), or maybe even buying the whole ready-built show home. No one can blame Chelsea for doing so; after all, it's (all of a sudden) their money, to spend how they wish. But by the same token, no one has to like them, or give them any more than passing praise. To defeat them next Tuesday, given what now surrounds their club, is almost too sweet to dare contemplate.

   It's only half-time, but there won't be too many people late to their seat for the start of this particular second half. It all seems perfectly set-up for Gerrard to score an equaliser, and for Djibril Ciss to come off the bench to score the winning goal. Failing that, I'd settle for a Chelsea own goal, deflected off of Frank Lampard, or from Tiago punching the ball into his own net.

   Well, I do still believe in fairy-tales. Especially ones where the good guys win.

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

"Golden Past, Red Future" is available to pre-order at 」8.99, 」1 cheaper than it will be when it becomes available (late May/early June, dependent on progressing to the Champions League final). There are still a few individually numbered copies available from the initial print run.

Amongst many other things, the book will include:
   - A review of this season's Premiership, cup and Champions League campaigns, focusing on key games;
   - A look at what went wrong in G駻ard 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 Bentez, 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.
Simply go to www.paultomkins.com for details on how to order.[/i]

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