Offside, 6 May
Liverpool: triumph of the mediocre.
‘The Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club’, shrieked John Motson when Wimbledon beat Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final. I was reminded of Motty’s memorable words when the final whistle blew at Anfield on Tuesday night. The manner of Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final victory was classic Wimbledon – a triumph of hard graft and pragmatic defending over superior quality.
The Koppites might delude themselves that the glory days are back at Anfield but the truth is that Liverpool are now just plucky underdogs who can create a cup upset but are pale shadows of the majestic, all-conquering Liverpool teams that bestrode Europe in the late 1970s and 80s. As the Premiership table illustrates, and the table doesn’t lie, Liverpool are not even the best team on Merseyside any more.
The praise heaped on coach Rafael Benitez for masterminding the defeat of the newly crowned Premiership champions was frankly ridiculous. ‘Rafael Benitez last night delivered another tactical masterstroke to lead Liverpool to the Champions League final in Istanbul and leave Chelsea’s treble dream in tatters’, gushed the Daily Mirror. Tactical masterstroke? I don’t think so. Nick an early goal and then defend for dear life for 87 minutes is hardly the strategy of a master tactician. ‘Parking the team bus in front of the goal’ is how Jose Mourinho might have described it. ‘The best team lost’, was how he did describe it. ‘After they scored only one team played, the other one just defended for the whole game’, Mourinho added ruefully.
What if Eidur Gudjonson’s injury time strike had gone in? Would we be scattering rose petals at Benitez’s feet now? Well okay, maybe catennaccio-lovers like me might be lauding him but everyone else would be heaping scorn on the Liverpool coach for his spoiling tactics. When England tried and failed to defend a one-goal lead against France in Euro 2004, Sven Goran-Eriksson was derided as a ‘managerial donkey’ who had employed ‘tactics alla Italiano’. The only difference between England’s desperate rearguard action against France last summer and Liverpool’s performance on Tuesday was that Emile Heskey was no longer around to clatter into Claude Makelele.
Let’s face it, Liverpool were extremely lucky to get to the final. Chelsea monopolised possession but, with Damian Duff injured and Arjen Robben clearly unfit, they lacked the width and creativity to carve open Liverpool’s 10-man defence. Even if they had created more chances, Didier Drogba and Mateja Kezman looked incapable of hitting a cow’s arse with the proverbial banjo. When Mourinho threw on Robert Huth as a makeshift striker and resorted to pumping long balls into the box it was clear the game was up. Route One football might still have unsettled Barcelona but Liverpool’s defence were never going to be troubled by Chelsea’s aerial bombardment.
Regular readers of this column might, at this juncture, be wondering why I’m not singing the praises of Rafael Benitez for his ‘Made in Italy’ tactics. It is true that last week I remarked that it was about time the British ‘learnt to appreciate the art of winning ugly’. And, to be fair, you couldn’t get much more ugly than watching Liverpool spend the best part of 90 minutes doing a passable imitation of George Graham’s ‘boring boring’ Arsenal. But while winning ugly is a perfectly justifiable strategy for teams of limited means, like the old Wimbledon Crazy Gang, it’s a bit sad when the tenth richest club in the world, according to the Deloitte rich list, resorts to a style of football more befitting a Coca Cola Championship outfit than a European aristocracy.
Moreover, there’s more to the noble art of defending than simply sticking 10 men behind the ball and hoping for the best as Liverpool did on Tuesday night. The most effective way to defend a lead and shut down a game is to keep possession of the ball and slow down the tempo, something which Liverpool were incapable of doing against Chelsea. Against more dangerous opponents they would have been punished, but they were fortunate to come up against a depleted Chelsea team that was clearly running on empty.
In the past a Liverpool v AC Milan final would have been a real clash of the titans. Today it looks more like a David v Goliath or Wimbledon v Liverpool mismatch. And because it’s a one-off game it’s quite possible that the underdogs can upset the odds. Should Liverpool win it would be a truly remarkable achievement. Remarkable not because Rafa Benitez has transformed Liverpool into champions – true champions win their domestic leagues – but because it shows that, with a bit of luck, even mediocre teams like Liverpool can win cups.
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