Barca showdown a classic in the making

There was something quite predictable about Friday’s draw for the Champions League ‘˜Super 16’ in Switzerland. Aside from the tediously prolonged build-up, the infuriating capture of a vile Peter Kenyon smirk, and the simplest of pairings for Manchester United ‘“ all of which are customary, there was an air of suspicion that the footballing Gods would pit the competitions two previous winners against one another. To the collective delight of the world’s media this inclination came to fruition. Accompanied by widespread excitement and the traditional mass of headline, this fixture represents the toughest possible for Rafael Benitez Liverpool, while multiplying the odds against a sixth crown.

Of course there are no easy draws at this stage of the tournament. Well ‘¦ there are, but they are usually reserved for Alex Ferguson and his merry-march of wanabees. Though after sharing a groan of dissatisfaction, Kopites must now surely look towards February’s clash with a sense of expectancy and motivation. The side’s recent form has been encouraging. Victories over Wigan, Fulham and belatedly Charlton have inspired confidence. Improvement is detectable. Steven Gerrard seems to have shaken-off his World Cup hangover, Jamie Carragher is back to his impregnable self, Craig Bellamy is sizzling, while Jermaine Pennant, he most maligned, is gradually portraying signs of why Benitez made such an expensive gamble.

The pessimists amongst us will claim that Wigan and Fulham are average outfits that any team with serious aspirations of a top four finish should beat comfortably. Indeed, even optimists cannot shy away from the embarrassingly inept Charlton, a team that basically succumbed to defeat quicker than an Abi Titmuss acting career. However, the age-old ‘“ ‘˜you can only beat what’s put in front of you’ means the reds’ climb to third place should not be frowned at. Besides, the style of football has been classy and dare we say at times, Champion-like. Gerrard’s license to roam evokes an attacking force as dangerous as a glance at Simon Cowell’s teeth. The Skipper has really excelled in the wake of Momo Sissoko’s injury, that sudden surge of pace invaluable, something no player on the planet can replicate. An exaggerated comparison between Whiston’s finest and Ronaldinho will no-doubt dominate the agenda come New Year. It will be interesting to see just who fairs best come the first-leg, both talismen in their own right and of undoubted importance to determining which way the tie sways.

Admittedly a small consolation, but history shines kindly on the Merseysider’s. Back in 1976, Barca were undone by a Bob Paisley side that included the likes of Kevin Keegan, Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson. Success in Spain paved-way for a UEFA Cup triumph that year, but also planted the seed for a momentous reign of all of Europe the following season.

Moreover, who will ever forget Gary McAllister’s clenched fist and bulging eye-balls after converting the crucial spot-kick, Kop End, that buried the Catalonian’s en route to another UEFA title in 2001.

Unfortunately this contest has not been totally one-sided. Those who hark back to Gary Mac’s proudest hour will also recollect a 3-1 trouncing on the same ground barely 9 months later. One particular goal still torments to this day. A seemingly never-ending grasp of possession, growing insidiously with each pass, of the ilk of Argentina’s wonder goal in Germany, was concluded by an irritating Marc Overmars who grinned callously before declaring ‘“ ‘˜how easy was that?’

Too easy, and the same time and space cannot be afforded on this occasion. This brings us nicely to the role of the supporters during the return at Anfield in March. Kevin Sampson’s ‘˜Reclaim the Kop’ initiative is charged with the ambition of restoring the glory-days of the sport’s greatest stand. European nights are invariably special. Seldom does a Champions League game pass within L4 quarters without a magic electricity racing through all present. A consensual will to rally those in red can be both emotional and terrifying, depending upon which stance one takes. If a similar input can be translated from events such as St Etienne ‘˜77 and Chelsea ’05 to damp and dreary encounters versus Middlesbrough and Birmingham, a Dubai Consortium’s task might be made slightly less complex. For it is the Liverpool fans, the general heartbeat of the club, that aided a glory-laden past, and will surely play a huge role in undermining Blaugrana attempts at a whitewash mirroring an Ashes series.

If the supposed takeover transpires, and the prospective owners pump fresh blood and enthusiasm through Liverpool’s ranks, this kind of a meeting will surely manifest annually, as England’s most successful sporting ‘˜brand’ rekindle former heights. Whatever your position and opinion on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the foundations, traditions and core of LFC must remain intact ‘“ 2007’s ties against Barcelona will be a good time to display why, both on and off the field.

Aaron Cutler

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