It’s less than 24 hours to the big kick-off as I write this, and my nerves are just starting to jangle. Everyone I talk to, either in person or by e-mail is going through the same range of emotions. ‘œI’m bricking it’ says one, and ‘œwe’ll all be needing new gear with another gold star soon’ says another much more cheerful one. As for me, I’m slowly increasing the frequency of alternating back and forth between confidence and fear – there’s almost an audible hum that’s rising in pitch as the big match approaches. What we all need to do, more than anything else, is get into a relaxed state of mind, look carefully at what we’re up against this time, and then we’ll be able to objectively see what our real chances are. Yeah, right ‘“ easier said than done.
Obviously there are going to be comparisons between this final and the 2005 match. That’s not realistic as we both have different squads now compared to two years ago. We no longer have Baros up front, or Traore at the back. Garcia is out injured, Hyypia more than likely won’t be selected, and the chances of Dudek playing in this one are extremely slim. Instead we have a raft of new players available who are in my opinion (and I know that I’m not alone in this) far superior to those mentioned. Just looking down a list at the replacements available for that 2005 starting XI, we see Reina, Agger, Pennant, Arbeloa, and Kuyt.
Beyond that, the options available to Rafa are quite interesting to say the least. We saw Riise start at left wing in 2005, but this time we could have any one of Gonzalez, Kewell, or Riise again. I really don’t think that he’ll put Kewell up front as he did last time, but if he does start then I see him on that left wing where he can create havoc with his speedy runs, and where he can supply crosses to Crouch and Kuyt in the middle. I’m already expecting Crouch to start and my first guess is that Kuyt will be there with him. Over on the right, I expect to see Pennant, rather than playing Gerrard there, which would again cause problems as he makes runs down the right flank balancing Kewell’s runs on the left. Then again, Rafa might surprise us and come up with something strange like Bellamy on the right side of midfield and Gerrard as a second striker.
The middle of the park gets most interesting depending on what Rafa sees as his best options for controlling the midfield. He might go with a conventional four man midfield with two wingers and two central players, where one goes forward and attacks while the other drops back to cover. That would almost be an automatic choice of Gerrard and Alonso, but that’s not the only combination to consider. If Momo is fit, then there’s a tough choice for two out of four from Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko, and Mascherano. There’s no way that Gerrard won’t start so that leaves just one. Or does it? Rafa might choose to play three or five across the middle, depending on how he sees the match playing out. We started with a more or less conventional four man midfield in 2005, but by necessity changed that to five in the second half with devastating results. There’s no way we could have kept that up without the risk of conceding more, and as the match progressed we saw Gerrard drop back rather than push forward to provide additional cover down the right. That was another necessity as the switch to a five man midfield had left us thin with only three at the back.
Finnan was taken off with an injury and was replaced by Hamann at the start of the second half. Obviously that change won’t be possible this time, but we may have Mascherano playing in that role later in the match, especially if he is used as a substitute. There are plenty of good reasons for calling him Javier Souness, and to me the comparison is a fair one. He has that muscle and control that’s required in a holding midfield player, combined with great vision and an intelligent reading of the game. He’s able to make the transition from defence to attack quickly, which is obviously useful if we are in a counter-attacking phase of the match.
The back line is another interesting one, with at least a few possible options to consider. I would be surprised to see anyone other than Carragher and Agger in the centre, but there’s a chance that we’ll see something other than Riise and Finnan as full backs. My guess is that he’ll use Finnan on the right as usual, but may go with Arbeloa on the left. That would be pretty much automatic if he does put Riise in as a left winger, but I don’t expect that to happen, especially with the way that Kewell is coming back from his long term layoff looking like a new signing. Surely we won’t see Kewell limping off again will we? One advantage that Riise has over Arbeloa is that ‘œbig match experience’ that can sometimes be needed to keep a side settled and confident.
I’m not going to say who I would like to see as the starting eleven, nor am I going to try to predict who Rafa will put out as his first choice. There are just too many variables, many of which we don’t know about, but we can trust in Rafa to put out the squad that gives us the best chance. It’s going to be interesting to see what he does at the start, as much as it’ll be interesting to see how he makes the changes. Remember that he has a bench of seven to choose three substitutes from, which gives him even more possibilities.
Another comparison with 2005 has to be whether we’ll be labelled as ‘œLucky Liverpool’ this time. In December 2004 we were minutes away from elimination from the group stage when Stevie G blasted us into the second round. Some were calling us lucky even then, saying that we didn’t deserve to go through with the record that we had, and that we would not last in the knockout phase. Then we were drawn against Bayer Leverkusen, who were considered the least difficult opponent of them all. It’s funny that the loss to them of a few years previous was all but forgotten, but we prevailed (quite easily as it turned out) and went through to the quarter-final stage where we were drawn against Italian champions Juventus. We beat them over the two legs and went on to meet English champions Chelsea in the semi-final. We were called Lucky Liverpool again to have progressed that far, but there was no way we could beat the mighty Chelsea after losing two Premier League matches and the League Cup final to them. But we did beat them, and we were written off as lucky once again. But surely we couldn’t match up against AC Milan without being very very lucky. How else would you describe the performance in that final? You could say we were lucky, or you could say that we showed strength of character, or you could say that over the match we were just better even though we made a lot of early mistakes. You could even say that it was our destiny after we just managed to make it through in December. But, whatever anyone said, we were labelled as ‘œLucky’ especially with Dudek’s miraculous double save from Shevchenko and his saves in the penalty shoot out.
Are we lucky this time or are we good enough and deserving to be there? We strolled through the first round easily coming out on top with four wins, a draw and a loss. That loss was in the last match away to Galatasary where we were able to put out a weakened squad as we had already clinched first place. The second round draw put us up against 2006 Champions Barcleona, and we were off to the Nou Camp for the first leg. We won that match 2-1, coming from behind after an early goal. That was the first time that an English club had won there since 1976, and that was also Liverpool who then went on their way to a second UEFA Cup. If anything, it was Barcelona this time who would have to be labelled lucky in the second leg. We could have had the match finished in the first half if it wasn’t for the width of the woodwork on two or three occasions.
The next round against PSV Eindhoven was expected to be an easy one, if easy is a word you can use at this stage of the competition. This is the team that knocked off Arsenal (last year’s runner up) in the second round, while we were putting Barcelona out. But, we made it look easy with a 3-0 demolition in the first leg at the Philips Stadion. That lead let us stroll through the second leg at home with a 1-0 win. Now, as if fate was intervening, we were up against Chelsea for a rematch.
If we were lucky to beat Chelsea two years ago, what would it be this time? When you think about it, surely it would have to be Chelsea to be luck to beat us in the Champions League. They have come up against us four times over the last two seasons, and not only failed to beat us but failed to even score. For all the talk of negative tactics from the not-so-special-one, it should be remembered that it’s a sign of weakness not to be able to break down the defences and score. This time they did score in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, but any fair minded observer would say that we were not at our best on the day. Surely the second leg at Anfield would be different, and of course it was. We got the equalising goal early which is exactly what we needed. After that, there were not so many heart attack moments as in previous meetings, and we should have had the game over and done in extra time if it wasn’t for a linesman favouring Chelsea this time. When it came time for penalties, were we lucky or we just plain better than them? You could say that it was both, but when they can only score one out of three while we score all four, then what would you conclude? That puts us in the final, which (could it be fate intervening yet again?) turns out to be AC Milan.
The question now comes down to which two teams show up on the night. If it’s the AC Milan that gave up a two goal lead against Manchester United then we’ll be able to carve them up easily. If it’s the free flowing side that then beat the mancs 3-0 a week later then we may have some trouble. Actually, what I saw of the second leg was not so much Milan ouplaying the mancs, but more like the mancs just not giving them much of a game. True enough they had injury problems and had players out of position, but that was no excuse for giving up two easy goals in the first half. We can be sure that we won’t do that!
The truth is that we don’t fear anybody, but most clubs will say that they would prefer to play anyone other than us if they had the choice. We just play our game to our strengths and let the opposition worry about us. What Milan must be afraid of is knowing how hard it is to beat us. We’ve only given up three goals in the six games of the knock-out phase of the competition, with two of those against Barcelona back in February/March. By comparison, Milan have given up five goals in their last four games. They know first hand how we can come from behind to win a match, not just once but on several big important occasions. If they have done their homework then they’ll know that we were two goals down against West Ham in last year’s FA Cup final, as well as surely seeing how we came back against Barcelona and Chelsea. They must also know that we haven’t yet given up a lead other than the last throwaway match at Galatasaray, while they have conceded goals and given up the lead as recently as the last round. That must put some considerable fear into them, no matter how confident they may appear.
I’ll be a nervous wreck as kick off approaches, but at the same time I’m as confident as ever. If you’re not confident that we’ll win, then why bother showing up? Come on you mighty Reds.