Leverkusen: a triumph tarnished with nagging doubt

Posted by Paul Tomkins on February 23, 2005, 11:24:18 AM

A joyous night sprang forth from the pessimism, as a team shorn of its best players lit up a bitter night. And then, right at the death, a kind of uncertain despair in the air. In football, it's often the 'soft' corners and free-kicks that lead to the greatest punishment. The same with soft goals 末 they are the ones that tend to come back to haunt. Given events in Leverkusen in 2002, there was something eerily familiar about a situation that looked so good suddenly capable of turning to disaster. At least this time our position is one of greater advantage.

   First things first: before the game any Red would have settled for 3-1, given the players absent (and no, not just Steven Gerrard) and Leverkusen's current good form. They had not topped a group containing Real Madrid, Roma and Dynamo Kiev courtesy of luck.

   But Leverkusen are not the side of 2002, lacking the top quality players who made a difference that night. They'll have discovered that we're a better footballing side that three years ago, and that there is still talent in red, even without Gerrard, Alonso, Morientes, Cisse et al.

   With Gerrard restored to a five-man midfield at the Bayer Arena, we are more than capable of containing and hitting on the break. Also, while 3-0 looked like 'game over', an early goal for the Germans in the return leg would have roused them; it's arguable we'd have gone there with some complacency, however hard Benitez tried to guard against it.

   Now we have to go there thinking it's 0-0, even though we have a two-goal advantage. A goal on the break, and we're through. But the players have had a warning, and it will help keep them on their toes in two weeks' time. The restoration of Gerrard to our midfield will be a further psychological blow to Leverkusen. While us Liverpool fans know we are far from a one-man team (proven yet again last night), Gerrard is still a player who puts fear into the opposition.

   His tackling will help bolster our midfield, but more crucially, pace will be crucial on the break to pin Leverkusen back. I'd always prefer to have him in the side, but we can cope without him. (Stats still back up the fact that we do fractionally better without his presence, but that doesn't take into account the difficulty of the games he played in and the ones he missed). For all Gerrard's importance, last night was a clear case of others stepping up to the plate, and a united team performance making the difference.

   I spent part of yesterday afternoon arguing that Igor Biscan, while hellishly inconsistent and almost certainly heading for an exit this summer, was actually a talented player who can do most things you want from a central midfielder 末 he just didn't show it enough. His dozy expression combined with the apparently sleep-ruffled hair are easy to use as metaphors for his soporific performances. But in tricky away games at Millwall (and that was tricky, make no mistake) and Deportivo La Coruna, he showed the full range of his skills and athleticism. The lad can play. We just don't see it often enough. Last night we saw his best-ever game at Anfield.

   Perhaps he feels intimidated when alongside Gerrard, as if he has to let his captain do everything. When Gerrard is missing, Igor has his best games. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

   Luis Garcia yet again proved that while having an eye for Row Z, he also retains an eye for goal. After a difficult winter, and some turbulent months in his personal life, he is back to creating and scoring goals. Time will tell how good he can yet be, but he still offers the side so much to the side when on form. Baros' running again caused an opposition defence all sorts of problems, but the Czech's finishing was unusually wayward. All strikers have those nights 末 let's hope it doesn't prove costly.

   And on the left wing, John Arne Riise's transformation from leather-lunged long-balllump-or-lash clogger to 'artiste' continues to astound. Benitez has taught 末 or encouraged 末 him to play with subtlety. It is a joy to behold. I felt he'd be found out under the new style of football; instead, we've discovered hidden depths.

   Any regular readers of my pieces will know how much hair I've pulled out over the last four or five years at Riise and Didi Hamann's direct free-kicks (approximately enough to be mistaken for a monk whenever I wear my brown fleece top). I must have witnessed the pair aimlessly bang 200 attempts into various walls. (Unless that was the aim, of course 末 in which case, I take back the suggestion of aimlessness).

   I have long been a proponent of the curled free-kick over the blaster. (Having said that, Gerrard has a knack of scoring from free-kicks rolled into his path, but under Benitez we've shifted the ball to alter the angles). Riise is like Roberto Carlos 末 one remarkable free-kick leading to a misleading reputation. Again, I'm not sure if it's Rafa's influence, but to see both Didi and JAR curl free-kicks over the wall and into the net in the same game is something I never expected to see even in my wildest dreams. (In fairness, my wildest dreams tend to involve naked women and Swarfega, but that's another story...).

   Dudek's mistake mirrored his injury-time howler at the Annie Road end against Pompey 末 sending the ball across the face of the goal directly to an attacker. He had also earlier parried a first-half shot he should have caught, and it seems he is troubled by doubts when the ball is struck towards goal. His catching on crosses remains largely impeccable, but anything hit towards goal has to be repelled with fists. When he tries to catch shots, he's a bundle of nerves. Having made two fantastic tip-aways, he let the evening's easiest piece of work be his undoing.

   If it seems harsh to berate the keeper after saving a certain goal from Freier's earlier shot 末 a save few keepers would have made 末 it is hard to deny his mistakes number too many. Last night was like a striker who, having scored a hat-trick, misses a simple chance to get his fourth. No one would ever grumble, and we've all seen top strikers make air-shots, or miscue, from six yards out. But a keeper's mistake always looks the worst in football. It damages the team psychologically. There is an air of steadiness now absent from the keeper who, in 2001/02, was as good as anyone I've ever seen.

   Dudek is a fine man, and a wonderful goalkeeper. But he is a goalkeeper who cannot escape his demons. Past mistakes haunt him: chimeras that taunt his psyche. Anyone who underestimates how much of the game is psychological is in danger of missing the point. In cases like this, it's not about talent, but the player's mental state. Goalkeeper remains a problem position, which is weird given how talented our three main keepers are.

   By contrast to Dudek, Chris Kirkland has conceded a couple of 'soft' goals, but mostly from being unsighted 末 he can work on getting himself into better positions, that's easily learned, and easily excused, given he's still a rookie in goalkeeping terms. He hasn't committed the kinds of howlers Dudek has. If Kirkland appeared slow getting down at times, then that could have been due to his back problem. I maintain that a fit Kirkland (and maybe that's a big 'if') is a big part of Liverpool's future, and Dudek is soon to be part of its past.

   Do you throw Carson in for the Carling Cup final? It's clear the lad is capable of doing a job at this level, as an outstanding teenage keeper, but you also risk putting too much pressure on one so young. If he plays on Sunday and commits a howler, he will forever be tarnished as the guy that made that error. He doesn't need that at such a tender age. However, if he does get his chance, he seems a strong lad mentally as well as physically, and would not be fazed 末 but that doesn't guarantee an absence of errors.

   My solution for next season would be to keep Kirkland as no.1 (when fit, Rafa seems to prefer him), with Carson ready to step into the breach if CK's injury problems flare up again. The two young Englishmen will improve with age and experience; Dudek, alas, appears to be on the downward spiral.

   It's a shame to end on a goalkeeping mistake, isn't it? It always takes the gloss off of a good night's work.

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

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