Last season, we had a series of mixed fortunes with two of our three hopes for a trophy shattered over a few weeks in strangely similar circumstances. First, we lost in the Premiership 1-0 away to Manchester United in January with a late goal from a set piece, headed in from the middle of the box. That was effectively the end of any title hopes, or even the chance to claim second place. If CissÃ©, among others, had not been guilty of missing some glorious chances, then the outcome might have been so different.
In February, Benfica knocked us out in the Champions League second round first leg, also with a late headed goal resulting from a set piece. If only we could have held on for a few more minutes, we would have had a better chance to recover for the second leg at home. Sometimes an entire season can turn on one or two small incidents.
Then we look at the FA Cup run from last season. What happened there was reminiscent of the previous season’s Champions League story. How can you explain the Luton match where we went ahead 1-0, went behind 3-1, and then came back to win 5-3? There must have been some strange magic at work there.
Looking at this season now, it appears as if we’ve been through it all before in the previous two seasons under Rafa. We started off slowly, with poor away form, went out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle, pushed our way through the early rounds of the League Cup using mostly reserves and youngsters, and performed above anyone’s expectations in the Champions League. Is this dÃ©jÃ vu? It was around this time last season when we were being heavily criticised for our poor performances and our lack of goals, especially from our strikers. To silence those critics we then went on to win 5-1 against Fulham, 7-0 against Birmingham 3-1 against Newcastle United, and 3-1 against Everton. Is that enough goals for you? We went on to win our remaining eleven games before closing the season with an FA Cup Final victory.
Just a few weeks back in this season, we found ourselves in similar circumstances – at least according to the critics. We’re not scoring enough goals, our strikers are ineffective, and we are not good enough away from home, and so on and so on. The best way to answer that was to do our talking on the pitch, with wins of 2-1 away to Barcelona, 4-0 against Sheffield United, as well as 4-1 against Arsenal a week last Saturday, 3-0 away to PSV in last week’s Champions League quarter-final first leg, and now followed up with a 2-1 win away from home at Reading. Suddenly, from being written off for the season, we are now in a good position to consolidate our position in the League and to go all the way to glory in Europe, just as we did from this point on in 2005.
Our biggest disappointments recently came with a pair of consecutive 1-0 losses at home, first to Manchester United in the Premier League, and a few days later to Barcelona in the Champions League. That’s eerily similar to last season’s disappointments against Manchester United in the Premier League and Benfica in the Champions League. As it happens, the loss to Barca was not a problem as we had already done enough to go through. The loss to Manchester United was much worse, as it was three points that we should have had, but instead going to our rivals and effectively handing them the title (that may not turn out to be so, but it felt like it at the time). In both matches, we dominated play and should have had the contest won from early on. Bellamy’s goal against Manchester United being disallowed for offside was just one incident that comes to mind, and how many times did we hit the woodwork against Barcelona in the first half? Any one of those moments could have been enough to give us a win instead of a loss. Sometimes an entire season can turn on one or two small incidents.
We’ve done exceptionally well in the Champions League this season, well above most expert predictions. We should easily handle PSV at Anfield this week, and we’ll soon see who we’ll be facing in the semi-finals (as I write this, I’d say Valencia ‘“ or is that just wishful thinking?). It won’t be easy for us to go all the way to victory in Athens, but it’s also definitely not beyond us either.
As for the Premier League, well that’s another story. I don’t know about anyone else, but all I’m hoping for now is a top four finish and let us concentrate on more important matters. We have six more League games to go, with all of them against clubs outside of the top third of the table. One of the more difficult of those could be our last match, at home to Charlton, if we are pushing to hold third place and they are fighting to avoid relegation. That’s eerily similar to last season’s final match when we were playing Portsmouth in what could have been the same scenario. Other than that, it should be an opportunity to rest a few tired legs and give some playing time to some of the squad players. That in itself could be an advantage both for the Champions League run this season, and as preparation for next season in the Premier League.
Every season has its ups and downs, and this one has certainly been no exception. There’s nothing that we can do to change what’s already happened; but, what we can do is to look back to the past and see how it may help us in looking forward to the future. Liverpool FC have never given in to temptation to try to go for instant glory. Rather, we look at becoming successful and maintaining that success over a period of many years. We’ve seen through these past three seasons that we have a manager in Rafa Benitez who is an undisputed master tactician. He has out-coached some of the world’s best clubs and their managers – first with Valencia and now with us. He has slowly but surely built a squad of players that have started to show what they are capable of when they play to his system.
That system is not so easy to follow but it’s devastatingly effective when it works, as we’ve seen recently. The number of players remaining from the Houllier era is gradually going down as new players that more closely match Rafa’s system have been brought in. It’s taken a while for some of them to develop and adapt to both Rafa’s system and the Premier League, but recent games have seen some real improvements from a few of those players; let’s hope that the improvement continues. Rafa has also brought in an abundance of young talented players who are learning his methods in the youth team and in the reserves. We should start to see some of those players coming through the ranks, possibly sooner rather than later.
This summer could well be the make-or-break for the immediate future of the club. The new owners are saying all the right things concerning how they see the club developing over the long term, especially with respect to supporting Rafa’s plans. Tom Hicks is the most vocal over the need to spend wisely, but they have also said that the money will be available for the ‘œright’ player(s) if Rafa believes that we will be a better side as a result. Construction of the new (much larger) stadium should be well under way soon, and we can be sure that Messrs. Hicks and Gillett will be looking for new revenue generating opportunities from all over the world in order to build the finances that allow us to compete for the best players. Everything appears to be falling into place, but we should never forget that sometimes an entire season can turn on just a few small incidents. Now, if we can just have a few more of those fluke moments go in our favour then we’ll be all set.
We have a proud history, with a long list of honours gained over the years. For as long as I can remember we have always been able to celebrate our past success while we looked forward to an even brighter future. I for one certainly won’t mind if it really is dÃ©jÃ vu all over again.