When Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool came back from one down to beat Olympiakos 3-1, setting them on route to an even more incredible comeback in Istanbul, it was a victory which arguably installed a character and winning mentality that would come to define Liverpool under the Spaniard’s reign.
They say success breeds success, and in modern football, where winners are rewarded with great riches while everyone else is left to fight for their fiscal survival, the adage is truer than ever. But it isn’t simply the prize money or prestige adorned by trophies that help a club capitalise on success.
Through winning, especially when faced with a mountain to climb, lessons are learned. Come back from one down to beat Olympiakos 3-1, and when faced with a mammoth task in the final, players can look back and tell themselves it is possible and they are capable. After all, they’ve done it before.
But what if Dudek had not saved Shevchenko’s bundled effort in the dying minutes? Would it have said anything less about the character of the motley crew of players Benitez inherited from Houllier? Or of the Spaniard’s managerial and motivational ability? Football is a game of fine lines, where an inch can mean the difference between legendary status and the sack, and while the difference between receiving a trophy or not is absolute, the experience gained, and lessons learned on the way are not gained or lost on scorelines alone.
While 3-1 represented success for Benitez against Olympiakos, it wasn’t enough to send Rodgers’ side through against Zenit, yet the effort, belief and character shown by the players as they tried to claw the Russians back was reminiscent of that Champions League winning side eight years ago.
Rodgers’ team is young, and he has said himself that the group lacks experience and character. A few more displays like this, and he may reassess that judgement, but one thing is already clear: the players want desperately to win for this manager, and the ability to inspire should never be underestimated.
But it isn’t enough to embrace glorious defeat. A great team doesn’t put itself in positions where it requires gargantuan efforts to rescue games, and it wasn’t until Benitez replaced most of the CL winning side of 2005 with players of his own that the team became a consistent force who could control games from the start.
Rodgers’ task is the same. He has the basis of a side not only blessed quality, but with a spirit and determination all great sides must possess. Much of both that quality and character exists as latent potential for now, surfacing inconsistently, but destined to be realised under the right guidance.
After last night, Rodgers will believe he has a group of players with the heart to fight when the chips are down. His task now is to bring in others whose class and experience means such heroics are seldom needed.