A Blow, But Our Cup Remains Half-Full, Not Half-Empty

Posted by Paul Tomkins on February 28, 2005, 02:45:33 PM

The psychology of football is strange when it comes to high-pressure situations. Score first, and instead of feeling confident you can become nervous 末 as suddenly you have something to lose, especially if it's something you were not expected to win. It's like Joe Bloggs being happy and contented in his life, but then winning 」10m on the lottery 末 only to be told that he has to gamble it on an 'all or nothing' call on the flip of a coin 末 heads (attack), or tails (defend). Gamble on going all-out for a second, with the equal risk of conceding; or try to stick with you've got, inviting trouble by defending in numbers, but with the option of hitting on the counter attack. Either tactic can win you the game as easily as lose it.

   Often it's easier to play better 末 if not necessarily to win 末 by going a goal behind. You then have nothing to lose, and it's possible to attack in a gung-ho fashion in such circumstances. Under Gerard Houllier, I felt we played better at Anfield if we went one-down, even though we didn't have the craft to reverse the deficit. Under Benitez, when we've gone a goal behind, we've improved, but also had the wherewithal to break through stubborn defences.

   Against opposition inferior to Chelsea we would have pushed on for more goals, just as we have done throughout Benitez's reign (especially at home), such as against Leverkusen last week. But as the game plan before the kick-off yesterday would have been, as clear underdogs, to keep things tight and try to nick a goal later in the game, we made the fatal mistake (in an ironic sense) of reaching the conclusion to our tactics 43 seconds into the match. After that, there were over 89 minutes to go, and we were caught in the difficult position of not wanting to let our surprise lead slip. But for a freakish own goal, the plan would have worked, as Chelsea had run out of ideas, and for all their possession, only troubled Dudek on a couple of occasions in normal time.

   Chelsea won largely because we didn't keep the ball well enough, and luck was yet again on their side, just as it had been on New Year's Day. One of the main reasons for our poor retention of the ball was the absence of our best 'keeper' of the ball, Xabi Alonso, ever since Chelsea's Frank Lampard 'did' him at Anfield. Chelsea, for all their possession, rarely troubled us in normal time, mainly due to the absence of their cutting edge, Arjen Robben. Ultimately Chelsea coped better 末 in terms of ball retention 末 without their best new recruit, while we created the better chances shorn of ours.

   Jose Mourinho (who is rapidly losing the plot, it seems) believes in rehearsing set moves, and having watched Chelsea three times this week, one move is clear: Lampard gets the ball in midfield and hits a high and looping diagonal pass into the channel for either Duff or Drogba to run onto. I must have seen it twenty times, in almost identical fashion. And it works. It's not about Lampard's vision, but everyone taking up rehearsed positions on the pitch. Everyone knows where they need to be, and what they need to do. Simple, but effective.

   Our second best passer, Gerrard, had been 'got' by Lampard during 2004, as part of Chelsea's unsettling efforts to prise him away from Anfield. That situation hasn't gone away, and the build up to this final had been more about Steven Gerrard than Liverpool and Chelsea. Under such enormous scrutiny, and with the spotlight on almost him alone, Gerrard (perhaps understandably, perhaps partly of his own making) wilted under the pressure. As with Euro 2004, he wasn't his normal self. He thundered into some early tackles, but one collision in the second half left him severely inhibited. By then, he'd faded from view, give or take the odd contribution.

   In some ways Gerrard cost us the game. Not with his unfortunate and freakish own goal, nor his close-range miss that, it transpired, Ferriera actually poked for a corner (another myopic moment from Steve Bennett). Gerrard gets criticized for doing too much at times, and perhaps that lay behind him heading into his own net, when Sami and Carra were there to head clear 末 but better to try to do too much than to do too little? The backlash from some fans suggests how fickle they can be, and how short memories are. A handful of indifferent displays after two years of utter brilliance, and suddenly he's just some average player who we're better without, and who should be either dropped or stripped of the captaincy. Get real, people.

   Most of the key moments revolved around Gerrard, including Bennett's inexplicable refusal to award us a penalty when our captain was clearly hauled down in the box, with the score at 1-0. Given no Chelsea player was capable of scoring in the first 90 minutes, a victory would have been virtually assured had we converted the penalty it warranted. "Stone wall penalty" concurred Gary McAllister and ex-Chelsea captain and assistant manager, Ray Wilkins, and still a Chelsea fan. The ref was in a great position, as would Liverpool have been, had he not bottled the decision. What can you do when the referee makes a hideous error? Even if you are second best on the day, you have a right to expect fair and competent refereeing.

   Yet again we cannot receive the award of the obvious, the blatant, the nailed-on. It says it all when woeful Crystal Palace, who must get in the box once every game, have scored ten penalties this season from the boot of Andy Johnson (the man whose penalty miss helped us win the League Cup in 2001). We've come nowhere close to being awarded that many spotkicks. At least ten clear ones have now been waved away from our protests.

   The positives were there in our display, if ultimately we were second best in terms of possession. We created more clear-cut chances in this final than in any domestic final in recent years, and scored twice. This was against a Chelsea team who had conceded just eight league goals all season 末 roughly one every three games. Gerard Houllier often spoke of shots at goal as a sign of superiority, but it's the quality of the chances that counts. At the Millennium stadium on Sunday, we didn't have as many shots on goal as Chelsea, but we had the best chances, certainly in normal time. Gerrard was nanoseconds too late to convert Nunez's cross 末 any touch and it was a certain goal. Such are the margins between success and failure.

   We scored within a minute of the start, following a fantastic piece of play by Morientes 末 volleyed in brilliantly by Riise, and the best move of the match resulted in Didi Hamann's second-half shot being tipped around the post by Peter Cech. Baros was clear on goal but his touch was too heavy, and Biscan headed narrowly over when under pressure, and his downward header had Cech scrambling in the last minute of extra time. Luis Garcia's replica volley of the Riise goal was heading into the top corner when miraculously blocked by a defender.

   Luck wasn't with us. Maybe we used it all up against Arsenal four years ago. By the start of the second half we'd lost two players 末 Traore and Kewell 末 to injury. Then Gerrard succumbed to a knock to his shin, while Dudek's was gashed wide open by Duff's studs, and was left in considerable pain.

   Dudek was superb in everything he did (the third goal was not his fault in the slightest, despite what some have suggested), but as I said last week, he's a magnificent talent. That doesn't change the fact that he remains too inconsistent. In the last two games he's made some miraculous saves, but you cannot afford a keeper who drops the easy shots, as he did against Leverkusen. The occasional rick is par for the course; but there has to be a cut-off point, where it becomes too frequent.
   There was no shame in defeat, in what ended up an exciting game. The effort was there, but composure and quality on the ball was lacking at times. We saw the best games in a Liverpool shirt by the awesome Steve Finnan (showing why I recently included him amongst our best players, in terms of potential), and the much-maligned Antonio Nunez, who appears to have spent his suspension on a special training programme (having missed pre-season and the autumn months), as he skinned William Gallas for pace on a couple of occasions (something you don't often see), as well as creating the chance of the match, and scoring a header while being fouled by John Terry. Trust me, he has natural ability. As I've maintained, he just needs time to settle and adjust.

   Luis Garcia put a terrific amount of energy into the match, and while his passing got sloppy as he tired, he used the ball smartly for most of the match. Didi Hamann did all he could and defied his age by scampering all over the pitch.

   Here's a way to look at why, for all our history and class (which Chelsea cannot buy), we were underdogs yesterday: Chelsea's parsimonious defence, at 」50m, cost 」10m more than our entire starting XI. Similarly, their midfield also cost 」10m more than our entire team. And their lone striker cost nearly two-thirds of the sum of our side. Since their last trophy under Vialli a handful of years ago, they have spent 」278m. Read that again: 」278m.

   Chelsea were missing a couple of players, but we had as expensive a 5-a-side side team in the treatment room 末 Alonso, Cisse, Kirkland, Sinama-Pongolle and Josemi 末 as the eleven we could field. Similarly, last summer Liverpool sold or released on loan players whose transfer fees totalled a similar amount to our starting XI. Football is not all about money, but money talks, and money tells. In Chelsea's case, it screams obscenities.

   Perhaps a more fitting achievement for Benitez would be to progress farther in this season's Champions League. Chelsea will discover that Barcelona will have a lot more room at Stamford Bridge to attack them (Mourinho having used the same tactics as Benitez yesterday, when they took an early lead at the Nou Camp last week), and that Eto'o 末 whose phenomenal pace matches Ciss's 末 will hurt them on the break, something we couldn't look to with Morientes. (Partnering him with Baros may have pushed Chelsea back; alternatively, it could have enabled Chelsea even more space in midfield).

   While in the circumstances I'd never have bet on Liverpool winning the Carling Cup, I do feel we'll get a result in Germany, and that Chelsea will draw or lose at home to Barcelona. That would see some Red smiles, I'd wager. Being ranked as one of the best eight teams in Europe would be a massive boost for everyone at Anfield, as would clawing back Everton's current lead in the league. I'd also bet every penny I have that whatever happens this season, we'll finish far higher than Everton next year. That's when we'll see full proof of just how good Benitez really is.

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

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