Champions League Exit: the Inquest

Expectations ‘“’“ damned things. Liverpool Football Club has come a long way in the last 18 months ‘“’“ to the point where a big setback feels like a catastrophe. Anyone thinking it is a disaster needs a wake-up call.

At the start of the season I felt the Reds would improve considerably in the league, getting around the 70-75 point mark (which the team is on course for), but realistically only make the quarter-finals of the Champions League, as everyone would be out to beat us; retaining a title is that much harder than winning it for the first time. Topping the group stage containing Chelsea and a Spanish side was a sign of the quality, but knock-out football will always spring surprises.

The draw against Benfica made the last eight look a distinct possibility, but this time around Liverpool were clear favourites, and burdened by the tag. And Benfica were surprisingly good ‘“’“ not brilliant, but Ronald Koeman is clearly a fine young coach, aided by the breaks at the right time and dangerous counter-attacking forwards. He was right to suggest luck was on his team’s side, although the Reds could have done more to make sure luck was not a factor.

Sometimes in cup competitions it’s better to draw the bigger teams, as the pressure falls on their shoulders. If the Reds lost to Barcelona, there’d be a lot less disappointment. But a team like Barcelona is well in advance of where we’re at, and if you catch them on a good day, as Chelsea discovered, there’s not a lot you can do. Chelsea are also fairly well ahead of us, and yet their megabucks can’t buy the one trophy they crave the most. Sometimes in Europe, it’s just one slip that sees you eliminated.

I’ve seen people moaning about what an awful defence of the title it was, but last season’s success, while well deserved, was a bonus out of the blue. If the team was at the peak of its powers last season, it would be a different matter; but it was a side that, under Gérard Houllier, had virtually fallen apart in recent seasons. Just take yourself back a couple of years, and see how far we’ve come.

Or take yourself back to the 1990s, when simply qualifying for Europe was often a struggle, let alone shining once there. Remember when the Uefa Cup felt like a big deal? I honestly never felt Liverpool would become Champions of Europe again, or even make another European Cup final. It seemed to belong to another era, and had become a bridge too far, after the Reds slipped into seasons of mediocrity. Let’s enjoy that success, but not take it as a valid marker of where we were at in 2004/05. We were a club at the start of a transition.

Rafa added Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso, but lost Michael Owen against his wishes. Losing Owen ‘“’“ the club’s one truly reliable goalscorer since the Fowler of the mid-to-late-90s, only made the rebuilding task more difficult, especially as the fee didn’t allow a lot of scope for a like-for-like replacement.

Last summer the rebuilding was hampered by the Steven Gerrard saga. If Gerrard left, there’d be a big hole to fill but a lot of money in the kitty; if he stayed, there’d be less money, and different holes still to fill. Thankfully Gerrard stayed, but it did confuse the summer situation. Ultimately, he’s the most important signing Rafa has made, but Gerrard’s pay-rise also ate into the budget.

Straight after winning the Champions Leauge, Rafa had to undertake extensive rebuilding work, with six or seven positions in need of addressing, either as first choice or as cover. This summer, it’ll be a question of two, possibly three at most.

We no longer need a reliable new goalkeeper, or young goalkeeping understudy. We no longer need a target man who can hold up the ball and bring others into play. We no longer need a pacy, energetic and hell-bent destroyer for the midfield to free up Gerrard to attack with so much more potency (providing Momo’s eye heals as expected). We no longer need to worry about our captain being on a short-term contract and tempted by other offers.

We no longer need a deputy for Carra, with Gabriel Paletta on his way. We no longer need cover, and a long-term heir to Hyypia’s place (how he was missed on Wednesday night), with the talented and composed Daniel Agger at the club. We no longer need to worry when Finnan is injured or in need of a rest, as Kromkamp proved against Charlton what an excellent ‘“’“ and stylistically similar ‘“’“ deputy he is, with the quality to make it a tough fight for the Irishman to keep his spot.

Perhaps most crucially, with regards to the long-term future of the club, we don’t need to procure a dozen promising players under the age of 21 to provide variety and to bolster the (disappointingly) few genuinely promising local youth graduates: it’s all been taken care of. Two 17-year-olds, Paul Anderson and Antonio Barragan, were on the bench against Benfica.

We don’t need to worry about a desperate struggle to qualify for the Champions League (barring a real collapse), or not being good(ison) enough to get past the preliminary games once there. We don’t need to worry about never keeping clean sheets. We don’t need to worry about an inability to control games, or a failure to create chances.

There is a lot more right than there is wrong; although of course there are things that need addressing. But how many managers solve every single problem within 18 months of arriving at a club that is radically underachieving? Finding a top-class, reliable goalscorer is not easy; but it’s easier than building the rest of the side.

The striking problem is definitely mental. It’s about anxiety, and a lack of confidence. It has spread throughout the team, to the point where, this season at least, you could add Andrei Shevchenko and sense he’d go the same way. The four strikers on the books have nearly 600 career goals between them. They know how to score goals.

All strikers have confidence crises, but the problem is that all of our strikers are suffering them simultaneously, and it’s become something insidiously feeding from one to the other. If one striker suddenly started scoring regularly, it would lift the burden on the others, and all four might start scoring, although in fairness to Cissé he barely plays up front.

Fowler, with three disallowed Kop-end goals, arguably needs a little more luck. For all the criticism heading his way, I’d actually like to see Morientes missing some chances, as too often he fails to anticipate the opportunity. Maybe his mind is working too hard, as can happen, and he’s trying to think of all the different positions he could take up, rather than just working on instinct and getting the best area. At least Fowler looks like being in the right place at the right time, yet again scoring a disallowed goal at the Kop end, this time for a corner curling out of play, which looked harsh to say the least.

I know it’s frustrating, but it’s one of those problems that will not easily correct itself. The summer will see at least one new striker at the club, so there’s not a lot we can do in the meantime. All of the players will benefit from the summer break, when the hoodoo will no longer be an issue, and return fresh and hungrier ahead of next season.

In my piece for the official site I mentioned that the Reds would need some luck, and that’s especially true of the strikers. I mentioned Luis Saha’s winner at Wigan: But the Reds will also need the slice of luck that’s been missing in some recent games. Just look at Manchester United’s last minute winner at Wigan . . . Saha’s shot deflects off a defender, hits the post, comes back and cannons off another defender and goes in.

Against Benfica, Crouch hit an identical shot that bounced off a defender and hit a post, but the remarkable luck Saha experienced was absent at Anfield.

Important Summer

It’s easy to say now, but you can’t help wonder how much better this side would be ‘“’“ how close to complete ‘“’“ with Michael Owen and Simao. However, those players without Crouch, Sissoko and Reina, who have helped us win so many games in radical league improvement, would leave us back at square one. To be better than we are now, we needed all the players.

In a grand irony, Simao’s goal cost Liverpool several million pounds; with the aid of hindsight, Rick Parry might have bowed to Benfica’s 11th-hour price hike. (Of course, had Simao been at Liverpool, Benfica would probably have already been out, and Liverpool’s results would have been duly altered by cause and effect.)

Unfortunately, Owen and Simao would have cost the Reds £30m, and it highlights why Chelsea are such a force: such an outlay would be nothing to them, summer upon summer. The Reds have to earn that money, not simply find themselves given it. Rafa spent in the region of £30m on seventeen players this season, in revamping the whole squad. Many of those have come to the fore already, others will do so later.

It’s actually now, with the new players bedded-in and the improvement in many areas clear to see (especially the spine of the team), that those final additions need to be made. It means being a little bit more patient and waiting a few months, and that’s never easy, but this summer is the time to buy those two players the team patently needs.

It would have been a gamble to overspend last summer, and the club cannot risk doing a Leeds, and putting all its funds into one summer’s business, only to regret it for years to come. You speculate to accumulate, but you don’t not speculate with what you don’t have.

Had Owen’s hamstrings pinged (or his foot suffered a fracture, as at Newcastle) and Simao not settled, with the aid of hindsight we’d be calling it a bad investment.

Regardless, Liverpool’s finances will again come under scrutiny. What’s clear is that Rafa will need a healthy amount of money to spend ‘“’“ unless he can procure someone like Darren Bent for £2m, as Charlton did. Bent would now cost £10m; a year ago it was a fifth of that amount.

‘El Jefe’ worked a miracle in Istanbul, but even despite massive strides this season, this is still a work-in-progress. Next season, however, is when things should be reaching fruition. If last season was a total work-in-progress, then this year is a partial work-in-progress. The third season of a manager’s reign is when his stamp is on the team to the point where he can definitively call it his own, and expect it to function in the way he believes a team should.

The team will be altered come next August. Mark Gonzalez will provide the kind of blistering pace Cissé offers out wide, but with a wide-man’s understanding of the game and how to use that speed effectively in those areas. There will finally be the arrival of a right-sided midfielder. And almost certainly a new striker will be bought. These will add the pace that is currently too absent in the attacking third.

So to conclude, I think we should focus on what has been improved this season ‘“’“ and as listed, it’s many things ‘“’“ and then trust that the final issues are addressed in the summer. If they are not ‘“’“ well, that’s a discussion for then, not now.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

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